Enter the Gungeon and the importance of the videogame forward roll

By Neil Merrett

Enter the Gungeon, released on Nintendo Switch in 2017, developed by Dodge Roll

Whether you call it a roly-poly, a forward role or a diving dodge, this evasive manoeuvre is now as much of a staple of modern videogaming as shooting and jumping  – perhaps there is no better example of this than in Enter the Gungeon

As the recent Netflix videogame-focused documentary High Score shows, seemingly innocuous design and gameplay innovations have tended to have seismic impacts on the industry that can last for decades.

If home gaming is broadly understood to have started with the simple, yet effective up-down controls of the early Tennis-like videogame Pong, the industry has sought ever since to implement more complex and engrossing mechanics.

This has ranged from introducing more realistic human characters, as opposed to dots or tanks, to trying to recreate the sensation of jumping, shooting to give the player an expanded level of control.

The early years of gaming were perfectly encapsulated by the concept of a joystick, a peripheral that consisted of a control stick to simulate the player’s movement and a single ‘fire’ button used to perform an action such as a jump or using a weapon.

The shift over the intervening decades towards more complex controllers saw the introduction of a range of buttons and control inputs to simulate all manner of actions – from manipulating the in-game camera to reloading, switching weapons or hurling platitudes and childish taunts at rival players.

These more complex controllers with up to at least a dozen or so buttons and multiple thumb sticks  have, of course, became vital to support a range of more action-orientated games and the increased number of choices and actions a player is required to make.

In the year 2020, a button command to dodge or evade – usually in the form of a forward or sideward role – is as common a control option as jump and attack buttons. It is arguably a short hand for the player using guile and skill to outwit their opponents. If you can’t beat them – roll out the way,

Where as previous games dating back to ‘Space Invaders’ charged the player with using basic movement to avoid or shield from enemy fire, the importance of evasion and forward rolls gives the player an added sense of control by dodging an attack at the last minute.

Real world martial arts such as Krav Maga do include learning the forward role as an important a part of its syllabus, as much as blocking, punching and kneeing someone in the groin, whether as either an evasive procedure or to recover from a drunken stagger into the floor.

Yet the reality of the common man being able to dodge a bullet by hurling their arse over their head is obviously an important power fantasy in games.  

During Nintendo’s hugely influential and formative embrace of 3D games in the mid-to-late 90s, the Legend of Zelda used sideward rolls and backflips to bring a vibrancy and cinematic sense of pace to its sword and shield combat. So successful was the game’s dodges and roles that they remains a staple of the series’ combat up to the present day.

The mechanics of rolls and dives have become ubiquitous at least for action games. This does notably exclude first person shooters and VR titles that might risk causing motion sickness in players from recreating such a technique. However, modern developers have sought to try and innovate the concept of rolling and shooting in their games.

Enter ‘Enter the Gungeon’

Enter the Gungeon, a twin stick shooter first released to multiple platforms in 2016 is a prime example of trying to build a game around the mechanic of shooting and dodging.

In the game, the player can effectively roll through bullets if they perfectly time the peak of their dive. However, hitting a projectile or enemy as they hit the ground results in the player taking damage without an immediate means of returning fire.

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However, like any decent videogame mechanic, pull the dodge off, and it does look insanely cool – at least until you walk directly into someone else’s shot while busy admiring your sense of skill and spatial awareness.

But for a game about scrimping and striving across literal dungeons for increasingly creative firearms, bullets and modifiers to blow away enemies, perfectly timed rolls are of equal importance to the game’s shooting and aiming.

You can explore any number of gun and item combinations to let the player somehow push through the volley of bullets and chaos, but a good dodge remains in your arsenal as a vital means of staving off a bullet to the brain.

Not every game gets the balance between attack and evasion so satisfyingly right, yet a good roll is the very least to be expected from a 3D action adventure game, twin stick shooter or even a 2D platformer to give the player that little extra sense of control and empowerment.

Afterall, why would any powerful game character just stand there and get shot at?

Forget run and gun games, these days titles such as Enter the Gungeon ask us to embrace the concept of run, shoot, roll and roll again for good measure.

A brief history of videogame dodges

The following is a list of not always stellar videogames that nonetheless made effective use of the evasive role. Oddly two of these titles are based on different interpretations of a videogame effigy of Bruce Willis – not the first time we have covered the phenomenon and appeal of a digital Bruce at Squareblind.

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) published by Nintendo

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The first time Nintendo had shifted its phenomenally successful Legend of Zelda series to a 3D environment saw the company mastering the combination of story-led role playing and immersive exploration of a sprawling world that the player could battle across on a scale not previously imagined on consoles.

The move to 3D not only redefined world building, but also provided an innovative approach to hack and slash combat with an oft-imitated lock on system that could allow the player to roll and dodge around an opponent to plan the perfect counter attack. A seminal innovation of its time.

The Fifth Element (1998) developed by Kalisto Entertainment

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A mostly now forgotten Playstation shooter built around the gameplay of the developer’s earlier adventure game ‘Nightmare Creatures’. An early 3D action adventure game, the Fifth Element turned the French sci-fi blockbuster starring Bruce Willis into a somewhat cumbersome platform game with shooter elements.

The main characters’ clunky movements often required slow and cumbersome turning and slowed down tis action to perform carefully lined up jumps. This cumbersome control mechanic was partially offset by an excellent dive and roll mechanic where the player could launch themselves through incoming enemy fire and despatch a couple of shots off into the bad guy in return.

The last shot desperate mechanic added a small bit of cinematic quality to an otherwise cumbersome tank-like experience.

Die Hard – from Die Hard Trilogy (1996) developed by Fox Interactive

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In 1996, the then ground-breaking technical capabilities of the first Playstation meant that a teenager could indulge in their fantasies of being a grizzled middle-aged New York Detective fighting to keep himself and his marriage alive against an endless number of effete German bankrobbers. 

The player could endlessly leap around corners to surprise a group of terrorists, dispatch a few shots and then side roll out of the path of their bullets while the in-game soundtrack would fire off a passable approximation of Willis shooting ‘yippe-kay-aye’.

Enter the Matrix (2003) developed by Shiny Entertainment

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A Matrix game developed by Atari and the very directors of a movie with perhaps the most iconic set of dives, forward rolls, flips and slow motion stumbles in cinema history.  After being beaten to being the first to create the in-game sensation of Bullet-time by the Max Payne series, enter the Matrix sought with mixed results to try and perfect the system. The game allowed the player to use a limited focus bar to slow reality and time itself. during these moments, the player could then run up walls while executing a series of dives and roll where bullets are unable to scratch the player.

Dead Cells (2017) developed by Motion Twin

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Dead Cells is a ‘Roguelike’, ‘Metroidvania’ game that could effectively be described with a host of other popular modern videogame buzzwords. It has garnered critical acclaim and strong sales by taking a seemingly straightforward 2D platformer and allowing the player to progress and customise the game play into a range of different styles based on their own preferences. It can be played as a crunchy and satisfying melee fighter game or a more tactical shooter depending on the player’s chosen load-out.

The game’s forward role can allow a player to speedily avoid attacks or slipped past an enemy to unleash a devastating counter on their weak side. It also can be combined with certain weapons to create very special attacks of buffs.

As well as providing a strategic combat option, the game’s forward roll can allow the player to gain additional momentum to make jumps or propel the player through environmental traps that might otherwise finish them off.

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