A Fistful of Gun feels like an arcade game someone discovered buried in a long lost crypt in Egypt (question: who's the Indiana Jones of video game archiving?) and nobly declared "this belongs on Steam for everyone to pay $13 or whatever to play!" It honestly wouldn't look out of place with a standing cabinet, sandwiched between Sunset Riders and Gun.Smoke. You and your friend get in, line your quarters on the glass, and proceed to blast your way through the wild west.
'Like an arcade game' is something we hear a lot these days. At this moment I can fire up Steam and play Luftrausers, Binding of Isaac, Downwell, Rogue Legacy, or Fistful of Gun. Games like Galak-Z, Super Crate Box, and Spelunky are a purchase away. People are eagerly awaiting the full release of games like Nuclear Throne. All of these games are something that we would describe as 'arcadelike', though that really just translates into fast-paced, quick death, and most progress not being saved when you restart.
Where these games are all about taking the concept of an arcade game and trying to expand it out into the modern day, both as a way to stretch the experience for the player and make things more fun to stream, Fistful doesn't evolve. It emulates the experience. It's so evocative of the arcade games I mentioned above that it feels like one of those ports of them you'd get on a home console. It's technically the same game – the game that you'd always loved in the arcades – but something is missing. Zantarjust isn't the same if you aren't pumping in quarters in a strip mall while your mom gets her hair done.
In fact, it's so much a game that feels like it should have a quarter continue system that the fact it's based on a finite lives is baffling. This game is difficult, and set up in a perfect death-based structure that would make old arcade developers weep with appreciation. It's really easy to lose half your lives on a screen without even batting an eye, and once they're all gone that's it. Back to the main menu, start over.
And it feels kind of baffling, honestly, to be discussing it like this is some kind of weird thing, like this game's a time capsule when this exact genre and type of game is all the rage these days, but there's something about Fistful of Gun that makes it feel different than these, like it's stuck in the past. The best term I've heard for what this game's lacking is "productive randomness" - there isn't any here. Almost no randomness, very little to make you more productive between runs. You start as a character, and while there may be small improvements you make to them, in the end, you really don't change or do much in the way of collecting power-ups. You just go and keep using the same weapon your character started with.
And this last part is actually the really cool part about the game – the characters. Every character has a different weapon, and with that comes a different control style. A few examples: a character with a double-barrel shotgun, where each barrel is shot and reloaded separately; a two-gunned young shooter where the button you have to hit changes, and each successful shot improves the power of your guns; an Indian American with a bow and arrow because what else would he have; a quick-drawing cowboy who you have to slap the control stick in the direction you're needing the shots to go. As a result of this there's some characters who are just better (who would ever use the dynamite guy?!), which helps build the challenge. But the game's hard enough without me bothering with a character whose weapon limits make it even more difficult.
The story and arcade mode are basically the same, only in arcade mode, there's bosses and a meter ticking down every time you go from screen to screen showing how close you are to one of the bosses. Even after hours, I've only beaten the first, the perhaps questionable KKKrusher, a giant racist train that tries to smash you to death. And it's hard to keep going afterwards because I just get bored. While the layout of the game is random, the screens aren't so much, so it's usually the same events and same enemies, just in a different order. Once you enter a screen, you can't leave it unless you defeat everything, and as such if it's too hard you don't have the option of backing out; you just have to deal with what the game's given you, or keep dying until it's over.
And again like it's hard to look at this as a downside on this game when I'll also applaud Binding of Isaac for similar things. But since you don't find ways to improve yourself in this game, since the pace is so much more rigid and based on you doing specific things to move on instead of just being able to proceed at your pace, since you also don't have any sort of meta-level unlockables, this game just feels flat in comparison to those other games, a too-difficult throwback that feels like it suffers in comparison to both its modern and classic touchstones. While the different control types for the characters is super cool and all, the game only has fleeting moments of enjoyment before crushing you in defeat, leaving you with nothing to show for it.