Whenever the retrogaming conversation turns to top-down shooters from the 8-bit era, there is only one game that, in my opinion, needs to be mentioned: Gun-Nac. To be honest, I’m not quite sure how many people are aware of the game nowadays, but during the time in which it was released, I was the only kid I knew that had it, and I always felt like I had some special treasure no other kid had. This is because, in my estimation, there never was a better top-down shooter!
In trying to look at the game objectively, leaving my rose-colored glasses aside for the sake of fairness, I still can’t think of any game from that era that beats Gun-Nac. It has everything going for it, from its catchy music, genre-shaming power-ups, and unmatched level design. Gun-Nac is a game that even to this day is surprisingly relevant. There’s simply no flaw to be found anywhere, and for a game of that time, that’s a major accomplishment in its own right.
Usually I don’t put so much credence into a game’s music, at least not in regards to NES games. But there are times when a retrogame’s music is so indelible that it cannot be separated from the rest of the gaming experience, such as with the Megaman and Super Mario series, or games with ambient music like Metroid. For me, Gun-Nac is one of those games where the music actually adds to the experience. Simply put, it’s worth listening to on its own for nostalgia’s sake. Each level has a unique theme, and throughout the game it serves to drive your excitement throughout the level. To end my gushing, I’ll just say that Gun-Nac’s music is one of its most enjoyable elements.
What really set’s Gun-Nac apart from its contemporaries is it’s level design. While other top-down shooters may have had maps that were larger, perhaps none had such unique and varied visuals. Each level was completely unique, and was more richly textured and engaging than the last. Each level had its own perfectly designed enemies to suit the level, and you really got a sense that you were traveling somewhere different each time you completed one and went to the next. There was some seriously creative artistic design going on here, and it’s just another aspect of the game where the effort put in paid off big time. I think the perfect contrast to Gun-Nac is Captain Skyhawk, where every level was the same but for a different coat of paint, and all the enemies were identical. Captain Skyhawk had its good points, but Gun-Nac shows what a really creative team was able to do with an 8-bit game.
Of course the most important aspect of any game is the gameplay. Gun-Nac really succeeds here as well. While it doesn’t fundamentally differ from any other top-down shooter, it certainly doesn’t do anything wrong. It’s smooth, simple, and intuitive. One thing I find especially thankful for is the lack of “cheapness” in regards to the enemies. There are never any surprises that exist only to create cheap difficulty. You quickly learn how to deal with each enemy, but you must practice the levels to gain the skills necessary to make your way to the end. The bosses, both mid-level and at the end of each level, are some one of the highlights of the game. Each is perfectly themed for their level, and with enough challenge to keep you on your toes. All in all, Gun-Nac is just a pleasure to play. You never feel cheated, but you are always aware of your imminent death!
The difficulty scales quite well as the game progresses, and by the last level you really do need to employ all your skills and concentration to succeed. It’s a game where you are rewarded by a sense of accomplishment for beating each level, which is how it should be. At times the later levels make you feel like “wow, I just survived”, but never at the cost of abandoning skill. You really do need to think and move quickly and smartly to survive. It’s the sort of game where the completion of each level causes you to drop the controller, sit back, take a deep breath, and revel in your survival.
Most top-down shooters are forgettable. They may have been fun back in the day, but today they’re just “collection bulk”, and have little to no long-term replay value. Gun-Nac is not one of those games, not by a long shot. From its fluid gameplay, to its off-the-wall enemies, to its absolute addictiveness, it’s the best example of a long-dead genre, and basically the only game you need to play to understand that type of game. It’s like telling someone the only shoot’em-up they really need to play is Contra. Gun-Nac more than holds up today, and really makes me remember the best of what the NES, and the 8-bit era in general, had to offer!