Small Arms was developed by Gastronaut Studios and released  by Microsoft Game Studios on November 22, 2006. It’s available on the XBLA Marketplace for 400MSP.

When the XBLA service was first introduced to me I felt like there wasn’t enough substance to keep me interested. Geometry Wars was there day one which was fantastic, but other than that most of the games really didn’t look too original or polished. Then I heard about Small Arms. It was released exactly a year after the release of the Xbox 360 and I was very excited to get my hands on it. Despite drawing from experiences like Super Smash Brothers on the various Nintendo consoles, the Small Arms formula feels unique and interesting which, when accompanied by the odd looking cyborg critters you get to play as, gave the game a strong sense of originality which the platform needed at the time.

Small Arms is a four player 2D brawler where players run around a 2D map using the right stick to operate a wide variety of weapons that spawn randomly to take out opposing critters. The incredibly short version is “like Super Smash Bros. with guns and less characters”, but that really doesn’t the game justice. Despite being a 2D game, essentially a party game, and only ten bucks the game still manages to incorporate a lot of ideas from first person shooters like going with lighter weapons and speed instead of heavier weapons and killing power. Two things are key in Small Arms: the weapons and maneuverability. Getting in and out of combat when and where you want with the weapon you need to do so, and it’s a ton of fun.

Here’s what we liked:

Weapon Variety: There’s tons of different weapons in Small Arms each with the infamous alt-fire. Drawing parallels to FPS games, Unreal Tournament has always been an interesting game because each weapon can be fired in two ways. Small Arms takes advantage of that same idea adding more uses to each weapon so being stuck with one weapon doesn’t turn into a matter of life and death.

Party Time: Four player shared-screen, a nice variety of strange playable characters and accessible dual-stick gameplay make for an awesome party experience. While putting in more time with the game will of course lead to better play, in a group of friends the fun speaks louder than the Kill/Death ratio.

FPS or Brawler: Small Arms plays like a first shooter injected into a brawler and the formula works quite well. Some guns like the sniper rifle and then crossbow are very shooter-oriented and are about distance, but weapons like the sword, flamethrower or shock gun are very close quarters and inevitably result to fists, claws and paws flying. The mix of gameplay styles means there’s tons of ways to attack each situation based on which weapon you have and which weapons your enemies have.

Here’s what we didn’t like:

Unbalanced Weapons: Despite the variety, some weapons are clearly more powerful than others in most situations. The shock gun’s alternate fire can absolutely decimate anyone at close range and the sniper can be incredibly tough to hunt down due to the ability to lay land mines. While the weapons are definitely fun to use, some are simply a cut above the rest.

Character Stats: All the characters are pretty cool, each with some sort of crazy aspect either story-wise or physically speaking, but they also come with their own stats (which you can’t view). In theory it’s cool to have each character be different, however since the only other aspect of the character is their weapon and weapon pickups are all over the map, certain characters are by-in-large better. It seems the game would fare better with the characters being all the same, or perhaps with modifiable stats for single player or custom battles.

O the Possibilities: There’s so much more that this game could do including more characters or cool variants to spice up gameplay like mutators in Unreal Tournament or custom games in Halo etc. The game’s plenty fun but with extended exposure the lack of randomness other than weapon spawning will lead to learning formulas and gameplay drying up. Recommended dosage of an hour or so per session to keep the game fun and different.

Ultimately, Small Arms by now is definitely showing its age in more ways than one, but there aren’t any games like it after all these years of XBLA and if it’s the style of gameplay you enjoy, it’ll be awesome to keep around. The crazy action of a four player couch thrown down is on par with any other brawler on the XBLA if taken in small doses. If you can avoid players taking advantage of the unbalanced weapons or characters then this game will be a ton of fun.

Score: Try It!