Shotgun Legend is a straight up, no shame tribute to the NES and the heyday of the action/adventure classic, The Legend of Zelda. The game has a ridiculous plot regarding tire rims, portals and aliens, but the end result is a carefully baked NES-era game put out onto Steam. You may think “oh, this is pixel graphics on top of a fully modern game” or something to that effect, but I need to stop you dead in your tracks. Shotgun Legend handles and looks like I should have bought it on a grey rectangle for way too much at Funco Land. You can only move in four directions, the action is clunky and your hitbox is much bigger and smaller than you think it is at the same time. If you’re hoping for a “retro indie” that actually plays like a dream, pack up and move on.
One thing people forget about is how goddamn hard the Legend of Zelda and many NES games were because of how well they’ve aged with nostalgia. Additionally, the luxury of looking back and identifying games that were crazy hard due to poor programming (Silver Surfer, Snoopy’s Silly Sports Spectacular) have overshadowed truly difficult games (Kabuki Fighter, Contra) because we also have played them time after time. If you can remember what the original Zelda entailed, it meant being dropped into a HUGE map for the time with three hearts, no coins and no clear direction on where to go. That is the NES experience Shotgun Legend manages to capture.
Given that you have a shotgun as soon as you spawn, the first cavern you encounter gives you no weapons upgrade, but the ability to create a second player who can help you along with the keyboard while player one continues with the controller. I HIGHLY recommend having a friend with you, especially for a first play, because there is no forgiveness in Shotgun Legend. While there is a nice bonus of re-appearing at the start of whichever doorway you’ve recently exited (dungeon, cave, abandoned castle), you will still experience a ton of death trying to find your way around. Certain areas are only blocked off by item related impasses, such as enemies who don’t feel bullets or a familiar looking dock that might need, say, a raft. Upgrades appear either after defeating certain enemies (some might call them bosses) or buying them outright from merchants. At the current time, eight active items and eight passive items do make for a nice build to your character being more playable and powerful, not to mention the heart containers that show up after boss fights and the occasional purchase.
The gunplay, if you can call it that, fits in well with the idea and personality of the game. You can’t fire from one side of the room to the other and hope for the best, but the shot spread is actually pretty decent and you can get about six tiles max if you’re lucky. Shotgun Legend lets you decide your play style, whether you want to get up close and personal for a hopefully one shot take down, or just kind of plink away at the enemy while trying to keep your distance. There isn’t any secret that enemies won’t just lie there while you shoot at them, so I suggest being fast on the trigger and getting in close so that all the shots find one target.
I personally found the difficulty of Shotgun Legend to be pitch perfect to match the emulated environment. I didn’t die immediately, but I got lost enough that I wasn’t surprised when I got done in by a walking tree. I wandered into an abandoned town and met a town hall full of armored skeletons. Beetles fly much faster than I imagined they could. The dungeon wasn’t well lit until it was suddenly full of fireballs. The number of times I died is immeasurable, and I always reloaded, certain that I understood how to survive this time. The game rewards you for not only trying again, but also starting from the beginning. I didn’t know how valuable the compass would be at the start, and, when I decided to start over again, I felt so much better after grinding ten coins and picking that up IMMEDIATELY. The game wants you to succeed, just not easily.
Shotgun Legend is far from perfect, however. One thing that really kind of rubs me the wrong way is the sound panel. For whatever reason, that seems to be the sore thumb in this fist of an NES game. Everything else – the color scheme, the way enemies move, the progression of the game and the controls – fits perfectly with a mid to late 80s persona. But the music doesn’t sound retro, it just sounds really simple and bland. And the most important sound effect in the whole game – the shotgun blast – is way too crisp and on the money. Instead of something that might be more chippy and clicky (the warning sound when your health is low is perfect) it almost feels like a ROM editor dropped in a .wav of a shotgun blast they found online. It’s still old school feel, but it’s a different school, and I don’t know if that’s what the creator intended.
Additionally, it might be too daunting for people who didn’t grow up with the 8-bit generation, or who haven’t bothered to try out the games of yesteryear. Dark Souls is always brought up as a game that punishes players and rewards the veterans, and Shotgun Legend has a bit of that going for it as well. Your first time playing will probably be repetitive and frustrating as you figure out where to go, what you’re allowed to touch and backtrack time and again. I wandered way the hell out on a whim, dodged around a lot of slimes and beetles and ended up at the entrance of a dungeon that I couldn’t do more than look at because it was sealed away until I got the right item. A lot of games nowadays do too much hand holding, but Shotgun Legend may have gone too hard in the other direction by hurling players into a pool without so much as a set of trunks.
One final note is that Shotgun Legend is still very much an Early Access game. The developer has been pretty active and aware of issues since the game’s launch at the beginning of the month, and I appreciate seeing the number of hot fixes that have dropped in just a couple of weeks time. I believe this to be a passion project, both for enjoyment and artistic creativity, and so I trust that we can see more and more of Shotgun Legend as things develop further.
Shotgun Legend may not be for everyone. It’s retro to the point of being an artifact, and it handles like one at times. But there’s charm to it, and incentive. It actually plays well, and it’s engaging and challenging. I wanted to keep going. I wanted to learn more and find more, and it drove me in a way that made it worthwhile. If you used to have a grey box of your own back in the day, or just want to try a tribute to the granddaddy of adventure games, then be sure to grab Shotgun Legend.