There was a golden age of run-and-gun games in the '80s and '90s. Franchises like Contra, Metal Slug, Turrican and Gunstar Heroes fought to outdo one another with bombastic visuals and frantic gameplay, often pushing the capabilities of systems like the Super NES and Mega Drive to their very limits. But then the genre all but disappeared.
The game industry’s shift towards 3D in the mid-'90s left 2D run-and-gun games behind for the most part, as developers moved over to producing fancy first-person shooters. The genre has been on life support ever since. It’s telling that Steam’s many game categories include ‘Hack & Slash’ and ‘Metroidvania’, but there’s no entry for ‘Run-and-Gun’ in sight.
Thankfully, however, there’s been something of an indie revival of run-and-gun games over the past few years, spearheaded by the phenomenally successful Cuphead. The tiny Brazilian studio 2ndBoss is part of this new wave of indie run and gunners, and their aim is to closely reproduce the beautiful pixel art of '80s and '90s shooters while improving the mechanics and gameplay to suit modern tastes.
Based in Santa Catarina in Brazil, 2ndBoss is made up of artist Abdel Oliveira and coder Fernando Rodrigues. “We worked together for a few years as ERP [enterprise resource planning] devs,” explains Abdel, “and Fernando tried to convince me for a long time to change the focus to the games area. In 2017 we launched Missile Escape (Android) and there were good returns. So we thought, ‘OK, that's it! Let's stop working with grumpy bosses. Let's make games!’”
It was a big challenge working with just four colours and trying to keep everything visually understandable: I mean, there's a lot of shooting everywhere, so we had a bit of work to adjust that
In 2019, they released Biolab Wars, an alien-invasion-themed run-and-gun game inspired by 8-bit shooters and '80s movies. They followed it up in 2020 with Savage Halloween, another run-and-gunner, this time about monsters from the afterlife who become trapped on Earth. Milli & Greg in 2021 signalled a change of direction as the pair took on the hardcore platforming genre – but now 2ndBoss has returned to run and gun with Wild Dogs, a prequel to Biolab Wars.
The two most immediately distinctive things about the game are that: a) it stars a loveable Labrador, and b) it looks like a Game Boy title that time forgot. The green monochrome visuals were originally adopted because the team wanted to make a very small game with just one level and one boss, telling the story of Teddy the dog from Biolab Wars and how he ended up getting stuck inside a suit of armour. The stripped-down graphics would be perfect for a stripped-down tale.
“But we had fun from the beginning,” says Abdel, “and we thought it would be interesting to make a bigger game with this aspect. It was a big challenge working with just four colours and trying to keep everything visually understandable: I mean, there's a lot of shooting everywhere, so we had a bit of work to adjust that.” The developers have also added the option to change the colour scheme in-game at any time, so if you struggle parsing the Game Boy green visuals, you can switch to a variety of other colour combinations.
Whenever we start a project, we think something like, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to play a Contra with a pet, giant robots and a little shmup?’
Wild Dogs is set over five levels and takes place in New York City a few days before the events of Biolab Wars. You play as Major Frank P. Williams, “a guy of few words and lots of ammo”, notes Abdel, and the gruff major is accompanied at all times by Teddy the Labrador. Indeed, you get to take control of Teddy at a few points in the game, and he even leaps into a mech suit for a while. (Oh, and before you ask: yes, you can pet the dog.) “The world is exploding with a massive alien onslaught,” explains Abdel, “and only these two guys can do something about it.” It’s the classic tale of a man and his dog versus the world – and it only makes me wish that Arnie and Stallone were accompanied by cuddly hounds more often on their 1980s action adventures.
Abdel says the game is heavily inspired by Konami’s Contra series – and indeed, he’s been replaying the franchise over the past few months as a kind of revision of sorts. A quick glance at the trailers for the game reveals all sorts of Contra staples, like the flamethrower, spread gun and even a section on motorbikes that’s highly reminiscent of a certain level in Contra III. But 2ndBoss has sought to embellish and improve on the Contra formula wherever possible, even mixing genres by adding a vertical shoot ‘em up level. “Whenever we start a project, we think something like, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to play a Contra with a pet, giant robots and a little shmup?’” Abdel says. They’ve also added a health bar to make it a little more forgiving than Konami’s old Contra titles, where one hit would immediately wipe you out.
Ultimately, nostalgia for the classic games of the '80s and '90s is a big part of Wild Dogs’ appeal. “We're old guys,” says Abdel. “We grew up playing all the classics like Ninja Gaiden, Battletoads, Contra, Sonic, Mario... well, I think you can see some of that in our games. But for me, the SNES time was the best, while Fernando was the Genesis kid, so there's a little rift between us. We usually solve this in Street Fighter II,” he chuckles. For him, the run-and-gun genre has a simplicity and immediate satisfaction that’s missing from a lot of modern titles. “I think the appeal is that you can put your AAA [games] aside a little bit, and blow things up without compromise,” he concludes. Arnie would approve.
Wild Dogs can be pre-ordered on Steam now.