Gunpowder on the Teeth: Arcade

A game by Gunpowder Team for PC and Switch, originally released in 2019.
Gunpowder on the Teeth: Arcade is a run-and-gun action platformer that takes its inspirations from the Metal Slug series, Broforce, and super-tough precision platformers like Super Meat Boy. You take on the role of a group of soldiers who must fight against enemy forces, blasting baddies with machine gun fire, using explosives to deal with large targets, and performing feats of platforming derring-do until you reach the landing zone for a safe extraction… or an unceremonious death if you accidentally jump into the spinning helicopter blades.

The game is presented entirely in greyscale with chunky sprites but a high overall resolution. Artwork is presented in a chibi style with minuscule soldiers – and appropriately high-pitched voices for the chibi bad guys – facing off against military machinery that looks like it rolled straight out of Metal Slug or Dominion Tank Police. In contrast, cutscenes are presented in a more realistic style, featuring fully voiced characters (but no subtitles).

When the game begins, the player has access to a single soldier, labeled as “shooter”, but there are silhouettes representing five additional soldier types, and these are unlocked as the player progresses through the game. This screen also indicates the total number of dog tags discovered by the player (out of a total of 34), suggesting that characters may be unlocked by reaching certain thresholds, although this is not expressly stated in-game.

In any case, the player does not select a soldier, but rather begins the level with a random soldier chosen from the ones that have been unlocked, similar to the system employed in Broforce (which the game directly references with a “This is not Broforce” sign that pops up as an Easter egg). When one soldier is killed, the player restarts the level or returns to the mid-level checkpoint with a randomly-selected soldier. For players who wish to further challenge themselves, mid-level checkpoints may be disabled on the level select screen.

The game map is divided into five regions, offering a total of 15 missions. At first, only eastern Asia is unlocked, and levels must be completed in order before moving on to southern Asia, Europe, Africa, and South America. If the player leaves the game and returns, he may select one of the regions, which returns him to the first level in that region. A separate option is available that allows him to select a specific level (rather than automatically continuing the game where the player left off). Unfortunately, if the player forgets to select a level, he must wait through a lengthy helicopter flight scene before he can exit back to the menu to try again.

The player has a 3x variable jump and the ability to walk to the left or right, and to sprint while holding a button. Sprinting is needed quite often to cross gaps, and players must regularly make less-than-maximum vertical leaps to avoid low overhangs. It’s also possible to wall slide and wall jump, but this can only be performed once in midair, so there is no way to mount platforms by repeatedly wall jumping or triangle jumping. This also means that it’s very difficult to recover from a mistake, and the timing for proper jumps and wall jumps is often very narrow, with most failures resulting in death.

Each soldier has an assault rifle as his main weapon, and the weapon fires continuously at a medium range and has infinite ammo. The weapon can only be fired while standing still or walking; it cannot be used while running or jumping. In addition, the assault rifle must be manually reloaded, which can only be done while standing still, and this takes a few seconds. Furthermore, interrupting the reload process also eliminates any remaining bullets. As such, players must be mindful to pause and reload periodically lest they empty a magazine during a firefight and find themselves defenseless.

Each soldier also has a secondary explosive weapon, including grenades that are tossed in an arc and explode a few seconds later, mortar rounds that fly in an arc but explode immediately on contact, missiles that may be fired in a straight line, and support vehicles that unleash heavy damage. These weapons give off meaty explosions and deal significant splash damage, and in a nice touch, nearby trees react to the explosive effect. Greenery is also impacted by blowing wind and the downdraft from your helicopter when landing at the start of a mission, adding a bit of energy to the proceedings.

Lastly, each soldier has access to bombs that may only be placed on specific stationary targets, and these explode spectacularly once the player reaches a safe distance. In addition, most levels are timed (although it’s rare to actually run out of time in a level), and failing to reach the helicopter before time runs out results in a barrage of missiles striking all around you, virtually ensuring your speedy demise.

The player begins each level with a stock of four explosive weapons, which may only be refilled by collecting supply drops that are parachuted onto the field in designated areas, and these also restore the player’s ample health meter. That said, you are far more likely to be killed by environmental hazards than enemies, with battlefields containing bottomless pits, razor wire, and landmines to thwart your progress.

As mentioned, the developers list Super Meat Boy among their influences for the creation of this game, even going so far as to place a Super Meat Boy illustration on the opening loading screen with a message stating “Do you have the skills of playing Super Meat Boy???” A lot of modern indie developers cite this game as an influence, often when creating precision platformers of their own, so it’s interesting that the developer has chosen to draw comparisons between their game and Super Meat Boy, especially given all the ways in which these two games are dissimilar.

There are several key tenants that must be recognized when creating a precision platformer, and Super Meat Boy excels precisely because the developers clearly understood those tenants, leading to a game with a high degree of difficulty, but still considered fair given that the player has all of the tools he needs to succeed in its challenging environments. Key tenants of precision platformer design include a high level of control over the player character, and environments that are easy to parse in order to give the player an immediate sense of threats that must be overcome or avoided.

Good design in such a game means that players are not unduly punished for their mistakes. This is done by giving the player a moveset that allows him to recover from misjudgments, quick respawns when the player is inevitably killed, level sizes or checkpoint systems that keep repeated gameplay to a minimum, and the presence of optional challenges for truly skilled players who have mastered the mechanics. A “tough but fair” design means providing a challenge that does not waste the player’s time.

Gunpowder on the Teeth: Arcade defies these tenants in a number of ways. Perhaps the best example of this comes in the form of razor wire.

Razor wire is a common hazard in most levels, and it appears on the ground, across walls and ceilings, and even alongside otherwise empty shafts. Given the game’s greyscale presentation, this hazard is not abundantly apparent to the player, thus taking away his ability to mentally parse the environment and quickly evaluate threats. Combined with this lack of visibility is a hitbox that is not always clear, making it difficult to tell how close you can get and still be safe, and thus more difficult to avoid. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, razor wire is designed specifically to waste your time.

If you touch razor wire, or fall into it, you are not immediately killed. Instead, you can continue to move around, but your movement is slowed by the pull of the razor wire. This would be find if it were possible to escape this trap, but it is not. Once you’re in there, any amount of struggling does nothing to aid your cause, and once you’ve pressed forward long enough, your body explodes into bloody bits. In summary, it’s hard to tell where the razor wire is, it’s hard to avoid it, and once you’re in its grasp, you are required to struggle for a few futile seconds before you are ultimately killed, which is in direct opposition to, say, a spinning saw blade whose area of impact is easily understood and which kills on contact.

Other examples of poorly communicated hazards include landmines, some of which are obscured by nearby vegetation and/or the fact that the game has a limited color palette that keeps them from standing out. As such, landmines are often overcome by getting killed by them and then committing their location to memory during future attempts, only to be killed by another landmine on the next screen, forcing you to repeat your actions.

In one level, you have to bypass numerous landmines and patches of razor wire in order to reach a tank boss at the end. But once you do enough damage, the boss pulls back and the tank commander pops up and orders an air strike, sending down a barrage of missiles that cannot be dodged. Instead, the player must run back through the entire length of the level, jumping over barely-visible landmines and razor wire until the missiles stop… and then walk back across the entire level again to face the boss, only to be pushed back by missiles a second time.

Many of the platforming challenges feature bottomless pits, but there are also times where the player must make a blind jump, with no way to determine what dangers await him until he is already falling. The lack of significant midair direction control and a single-use double jump mean there is little chance of recovering from a missed guess about where a safe platform might be hiding.

Areas that feature crumbling structures require the player to complete precise jumps with very little margin for error, but it’s not always clear where the safe path is until you’ve died a couple of times. You can run across crumbling blocks, which disappear after a second, but touching these blocks from the sides or bottom causes them to disappear instantly, as does falling down onto them from above. It’s also possible to screw yourself by accidentally destroying a block that you need to walk on, rendering the level unbeatable and requiring that you commit suicide to respawn and try again.

There are even some levels where the player is dropped off by his helicopter directly into a mound of razor wire or into a bottomless pit. This results in immediate failure on a first attempt, unduly punishing the player for his lack of foreknowledge, and these dangers can be overcome by pressing LEFT or RIGHT while falling. The problem is, getting killed also respawns the player back at the helicopter, sending him to his immediate death once more if he doesn’t remember to alter his direction in time.

Since each level only has a mid-level checkpoint (some levels have no checkpoint), failure of any kind results in a lot of repeated gameplay, with memorization being the key to level completion in many areas. It’s certainly possible for skilled players to successfully navigate tough levels, but it’s nearly impossible to complete levels on a first attempt.

Every time the player transitions to a new area, he is rewarded with a short vehicle combat sequence where he blasts enemies with a tank, helicopter, or other heavy vehicle. These experiences are cathartic, as they allow for wonton destruction without worry over environmental hazards. The player can blast bad guys, run over razor wire, and even roll over enemy soldiers, but eventually the vehicle takes too much damage and is destroyed, after which the player enters the next level.

Many levels contain collectible dog tags in hidden or out-of-the-way areas, allowing you to unlock new solders. There are also hidden radio transmitters that sometimes grant codes to the player, but it’s not immediately apparent what these codes might unlock… although the description on the game’s store page does hint at possible secrets.

Gunpowder on the Teeth: Arcade was developed by Gunpowder Team, a studio based in Russia. Music for the game was composed by Grin Danilou. The game was developed using GameMaker Studio.