I wonder how much longer we, as a species, can endure the "It's like ____ but with zombies" trope. It worked for Sniper Elite spicing up the hum drum of World War 2 by giving us zombie Hitler, and most recently developer Crazy Monkey studios is injecting Prohibition Era America with a rash of undeath in Guns, Gore, and Cannoli. This time, the formula reads "it's like Mafia!, but with zombies," complete with Italian stereotypes and gags on organized crime that even the most easygoing gangster would have a hard time overlooking.
Guns, Gore, and Cannoli is a 2D shooter platformer in the style of Metal Slug with four player local co-op. The narrative centers around Vinnie Cannoli, a hitman for the mob tasked with going to Thugtown to rescue a certain man of note from a rival family. However, Thugtown is going through a rough patch in 1920's Prohibition America, with everyone in town turning into zombies after consuming poison liquor during a Saint Patty's day throwdown. The story is told between well animated, hand-drawn cutscenes where Vinnie runs on screen and gabs about zombies or "whacking" chumps, usually misquoting the subtitles in the most hilarious fashion ever. First Player controls Vinnie, while players 2-4 play Generic Mob Dudes and are oddly absent from the cutscenes.
Gameplay wise, you and your buddies are set in a zombie-infested city to walk to the right and blast zombies, mobsters, and even the military. Various weapons (shotgun, tommy gun, flame thrower, lighting gun) are spread out across the levels, with ammo and health both littered throughout each stage, and hidden in certain places for completionists. Crazy Monkey doesn't truly reinvent the 2d platformer shooter with any of their mechanics (or weapons, really), but it is varied enough to keep introducing new elements through plenty of the stages.
The most glowing praise I can give Guns, Gore, and Cannoli is to the beautifully hand-drawn scenery. The animations are slightly clunky, but the game looks fantastic. There's a lot of cool detail hidden in every scene as you traverse the corpse-strewn streets of Thugtown which really helps color a slightly wacky, bizarre story and unhinged feel of the game. Having Vinnie (and his cadre of nameless thugs) make the oddball goof at a pile of rapidly decomposing bodies helps construct a narrative that he is, indeed, a complete psychopath whose only concerns are getting paid and packing his cheeks with enough cannoli to put him in a sugar coma for the forseeable future. He does get a little mouthy, however, so be prepared for enough one liners to bring down an entire sitcom.
The multitudes of enemy types add plenty of flavor to the game as well. There's your regular run of the mill, walk-and-groan zombies, legless crawling zombies, zombies with helmets that occasionally fire guns, a really annoying oldschool leather head football playing zombie, and tons more. The rival mobsters are likewise varied, with plenty of new baddies being tossed at you all the time to keep things fresh. It's fun to sit back and watch the zombies battle with the human enemies, usually coming out on top and making things a bit easier for you as the baddies tear each other to pieces. The bossfights (of which there are only a few) are pretty quality as well, often times difficult without being too frustrating.
Let's talk about difficulty.
While you and some pals might trounce the first few levels of Guns, Gore, and Cannoli with little challenge, the latter stages introduce plenty of platforming elements. The 2D shooter is no stranger to having your characters bounce around Mario style on platforms, but where GGC falls short is in the floaty controls. The jumping isn't especially responsive and characters in mid air control like they are made entirely of theoretical mass. The jumping is serviceable in fights and maybe to hop onto a ledge or something, but its in the instances where you and your team are required to skillfully bound from one platform to another is where "serviceable" starts to turn into "pure, unadulterated rage." To make matters worse, baddies can knock you back or slow you down, meaning you could, in theory, be making the illest jump of all time, but because you were hit in the last two seconds, Vinnie gets cold feet about jumping to another platform and only makes it half way. This stuff isn't hard because it's difficult, it's hard because it's poorly done. I need a missed jump to feel like my fault, not that I'm just being hampered by abysmal controls. It's incredibly unfortunate that the levels tend to go for more platforming elements when the game clearly was not designed with jumping mechanics at the forefront.
One thing that sets GGC apart from its obvious influence Metal Slug is in the aiming. As in, there isn't any. You don't aim. You just shoot left to right.
I'm going to let that one sink in for a second.
Yes, Vinnie and Co don't utilize such advents in human motor skills such as "pointing a gun at a target and shooting it," and instead focus solely on blasting fools in a straight line. This is a shooter without aiming, which makes it completely infuriating when you are attacking baddies slightly above you and unable to hit them. Sure, you can jump and shoot, or duck for crouching targets, but what kind of hitman can't blast someone who is a mere three inches above him? With zombies and mobsters rushing at every angle, I found myself attempting to use the right stick to direct Vinnie's shot, only to have him empty a clip into a harmless wall.
If any of you game designers are reading this right now and are thinking about including a sewer sequence in a video game, you need to stop. No sewer sequence has ever been good in any video game ever, and Guns, Gore, and Cannoli is no exception. The sewer level in this game contains some of the most frustrating enemies of the entire thing, PLENTY of that horrific platforming, and more than a little bit of backtracking after opening up a pathway. All of gamings cardinal sins coalesced in a single environment making that one level, hands down, a miserable experience.
There is a lot to like in Guns, Gore, and Cannoli, from the bizarrely sadistic characters to the really impressive variety in enemy design. The entire game is hampered by unfortunate controls and some bewildering design choices that keep it from really being a great experience. If you want a shooter you can play with friends, this is that, and it does so in a semi-respectable fashion without reinventing a single element. The detractors hit me pretty hard, though, and I'm just not confident this game is an excellent addition to the 2D shooter genre. I'd rather grab a friend and crank through a few levels of any of the Metal Slug games.
For me, Guns, Gore, and Cannoli falls apart in two ways: sluggish controls and misguided design choices. Commitment to making a 2D shooter/platformer should imply focus on developing a tight control scheme. When done correctly, the player should feel as though they have full agency over their actions, be they successful or not. The difficulty, then, should stem from a requirement to master said controls, which the player should already subconsciously desire. GGC’s near-instant difficulty ramp about halfway through the game insinuates their wish for such mastery from the player, but Crazy Monkey Studios failed to fine-tune their physics to a point allowing that to happen. Compounding this is their shift in level design. Prior to a certain arc in the story, the game mostly consists of a standard left-to-right-and-occasionally-up environment flow, making the requirement for precision fairly lax and masking the control limitations. Past that point, GGC introduces platforming mechanics that require precise judgement and reflexes from the player, which simply can’t happen. As Taylor said, much of the difficulty in later levels comes not from clever design, but from a frustrating lack of agency.
That said, I’m more than willing to praise Guns, Gore, and Cannoli for the things it does right. Despite a dry, generic premise, the story ventures into some fun, unique areas and introduces a few interesting non-archetypal characters. Paired with the sound design (which falls flat on just a few occasions) and the lovingly crafted visuals, GGC is a welcome entry into the 2D shooter/platformer genre, just not for its mechanics. If you’re willing to absorb more than a couple frustrating deaths into your gaming memory, it’s a good bit of co-op fun that’ll leave you oddly craving some sugary delicacies.