Console: Neo Geo MVS, Dreamcast
Release Date: Jun 21, 2012 (region-free)
Genre: Platform shooter
It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between Gunlord and the Turrican series. Turrican is an old platform/shooter series that started on Commodore 64 and all those weird gaming computers of the 80s. You know, real oddballs like the ZX Spectrum.
In Gunlord, you play as Gordian, a dude in mechanical armor not unlike the main character from Turrican. From Gordian’s immediately overwhelming firepower and the game’s great music, right down to Gordian’s ability to curl up into a ball and make like Samus Aran, Gunlord has Turrican written all over it. The concluding credits even offer thanks to Factor 5, the development studio responsible for Turrican.
The jumping guy on the right is Gordian. The other two guys are not Gordian.
Fun fact: Factor 5 started in Germany, the same country that NG:DEV.TEAM calls home.
I’ve always shied away from Turrican titles because of their sense of level design. The only word I can put to the feeling is “arbitrary.” You go from point A to point B, and you’ll kill enemies along the way, but it all happens without developing any ideas. It’s as if the levels meander back and forth just because. Rising action and denouements be damned.
And this feeling pervades Gunlord, as well. In some cases, it hurts the experience.
NG:DEV.TEAM has a history in bullet hell space shooters, so I was surprised to find Gunlord’s sole space shooter stage take on a decidedly unorganized design. Ships scroll onto the screen with no particular tactic in mind, and bullets waft towards you in no real effort to hit you. It’s also the only stage to deviate from the normal run-n-gun gameplay, so its appearance as the second stage strikes an odd note.
You control the gray ship in the game’s shortest stage.
But when it came to the randomly winding platform stages, Gunlord found a way to make it work.
At first, the collectibles drew me in. If you find all of the big pink gems in a stage, you’ll earn a spare continue: something very useful when you’re learning the game. My first successful run through Gunlord took me an hour and a half, and the game offers no save points.
That there on the left is a big pink gem. If you couldn’t tell.
There are typically 10 to 20 big gems in a normal platforming stage, and you’ll run into the vast majority of them just by poking your head around corners. A few in each stage are deviously hidden, though, and the gem counter at the bottom left begs you to catch ‘em all.
Gunlord will even taunt you with gem placement, showing you a big gem on the other side of a wall with no direct passage there. Seeking out these hidden passages takes a little legwork and a decent eye, something I found gratifying. Soon enough, collecting big gems served as a gateway drug for picking up each of the little gems in each stage, which can number in the hundreds. I was collecting for the sake of collecting.
Taking time to uncover baubles allowed me to take in the beautiful (as well as the bleak) vistas found in some of the stages. The electronic music suits the graphics well, striking a grim sci-fi note. While none of the tunes are particularly memorable, it’s enough to keep your attention, and it’s done with an impeccable style. I don’t think I’ll ever forget stage 7’s backdrop, though.
Stage 7. The colors and art direction of the background remind me of the ending sequence in Metal Slug 3.
If the collectibles and aesthetics don’t slow you down, the combat will. Although enemies lack any sense of tactics or defense, there’s simply so many of them that you’re bound to bump into then if you charge on forward.
On the other hand, if you stop, look where you’re going, and pick off enemies one by one, the game is a cakewalk. Each one of your three main guns starts out with an absurdly large range and strength. Although the flamethrower is especially useful, it’s hard to go wrong with the spread shot or bounce shot, and you’ll find uses for them if you experiment.
I call it a flamethrower, but that’s not what it is. This gun has the smallest range out of all three, yet it’s still larger than Gordian himself. This gun mows down enemies like a lawn mower through hot butter.
And ultimately, that’s Gunlord’s saving grace. Gordian’s oversized weapon set is where Gunlord’s approach of forgetting organization really shines.
On top of your three standard guns, there are three other methods of firepower available to you no matter what you have equipped. (And, on top of that, you can kill some cronies by jumping on them.) At first, it’s easy to dismiss everything as riffraff and stick to the standard gun of your choice, as I did until I cleared the final boss. As you mess around with your spare equipment, though, you’ll find odd uses for things here and there. Some of your equipment can eat bullets, and rolling into a ball grants you invincibility of some kind—I can’t say I know the rules exactly, since sometimes I don’t take damage in ball form and sometimes I do. You can also lay bombs in ball form, an attack that seems largely superfluous.
But there’s a use for everything. Take, for example, the boss of stage four. After riding an elevator up a shaft past a decent smattering of foes, you find a flying boss. The thing is, he hovers just low enough that the tip of your ball-laid bombs can hit him. Maybe it’s because the bombs do a ton of damage, or maybe it’s because this strategy allows you to attack him constantly without letting up, but this simple tactic takes him out in no time. Yet this is the only time in the game where I find it appropriate to use the ball bombs.
This is what it looks like to cheese the stage 4 boss in ball form. Gordian is at the bottom of the screen, laying bombs aplenty, while the boss helplessly takes heaps of damage.
For the most part, boss monsters are simple to outwit, excepting the final one. I wouldn’t say they’re totally appropriate given how easily you can clear most of the stages, but if you can get through a stage or two of Metal Slug, you’re good to go for most of these guys.
Anyway, there’s simply so much to do and try in each stage that the game seems brimming with possibilities. Wouldn’t the bounce shot perfectly suit stage 4’s cramped corridors, and what would happen if I tried the laser whip to eat the projectiles spewed by the stage 5 boss? The stages themselves already beg experimentation, as you’ll need to try quite a few things to uncover each and every pink gem. What you end up with is a game that takes an hour and a half to clear, but niggles at you until you’ve tried everything.
The problem is, once you’ve tried everything, that’s it. Stages themselves have no adherence to rhythm or flow, making the actual mechanics of playing Gunlord unappealing. I don’t play it because I like how it feels, I play it to try something new.
- Lots of exploration.
- Lots of weapons to play around with.
- Stage design, though unorganized, takes on a good variety. For instance, the fifth stage is but a short jaunt down to a huge boss.
- Combat is largely on the casual side.
- Appealing comic book sci-fi aesthetics.
- Stage design is unorganized.
- Enemies are uninteresting. They mostly kill you by crowding around you, which I find tends to be more frustrating than anything.
- Gunlord can be played quickly, but it feels awkward and takes practice. This is primarily a slow game.
I don’t know that this game has any truly interesting ideas, but maybe that’s my bias speaking. There’s a ton of polish in the aesthetics, the game is on the easy side, and there’s a buttload of experimentation to do, so let’s go with 75%.
Value Verdict: Special edition purchased new in 2012 for 42 euros (roughly $54.42 USD). Normal edition available for 32 euros (roughly $41.46 USD).
To be perfectly honest, I think this would be at home on XBLA or PSN for a $15 price tag. That said, it’s a quality game, and you’ll hardly feel cheated with either package. Even with my lukewarm feelings on the game, I’m comfortable spending $54 on it.