Shooting -- one of the most common practices in video games. Even since the beginning, players always held guns and used them to further their own goals within a variety of games for the last 20 years. The side-scrolling shooters of the past have faced the challenge of age with each coming year that we take part in some sort of renaissance involving game’s retro roots, but what about a modern day shooter released with the flair of that old-school sensibility?
NG.DEV Team, the folks behind shooter cult favorites like Last Hope and Fast Strikers, jump to that very task with their latest release, Gunlord. It’s a hard argument against the appeal of plugging in an old Dreamcast or Neo Geo console with the excitement of playing brand new software for these cherished relics, but is the novelty really worth the price of admission? In short, it’s worth every penny, given that your expectations are in the right place.
Exposition that’s reminiscent of nearly every early coin-op 90’s arcade, this title showcases the Gunlord through minimal screen wipe animations and all. Self-aware of the experience it delivers, the game uses these strengths to its benefit. Gunlord exists in one of the weirdest categories you can place it in: It’s a game that’s completely geared towards ostensibly feeding your nostalgia through a string, brimming with tropes and elements that gradually uncoil into a ropes-worth of content. Surprisingly though, this indie shooter doesn’t feel obnoxious with the era of gaming that it relishes in, there wasn’t a single moment where I felt like I was being pandered to, just playing a titles that was release 20 years too late.
Every inch of the sprawling stages encountered contain articulate touches to their composition, and the sprites engulf them. The direction of art finds a seamless balance of transition between the details of each sprite and graphics, reaching a nearly pixel-perfect design to the pop-out polygonal effects best described as “faux-3D.” The aesthetics seamlessly translate fine across formats, and using the Dreamcast’s S-Video output captures the highest point of fidelity, even on a high definition plasma screen.
The soundtrack of Gunlord is possibly some of the best work produced for a video game release in 2012, with synthesized licks inducing refined notes as they produce an effervescent tune that indulges the ears by the second. The chip-tunes are enforced with orchestrated rhythm lines, bringing all the tracks together that modernize the sound to a finite detail without stuttering the intended sound for the nostalgia themes the software caters to.
Though Gunlord is great to look at and better to hear, the gameplay lacks the same quality -- but that’s not suggest that it’s bad either.
The run and gun elements ringing back to contemporaries like Super Turrican and Contra are palpable within second of control, but the framework of your abilities is completely designed around these mechanics. The complete lack of elucidation towards the dynamics hearken back to an age where operating a game was learned through a tactile approach that would teach you its nuances within moments if it was intuitive enough to accomplish this; Gunlord is that game, even though it falls a bit short.
The varied and simple arsenal of weapons contains plenty to choose from, and caters to any particular preference of fire. However, it may be a bit weaker than the alternative means of fire for some players. The consistent load-out abilities include proton beam that slow drains away but can be constantly fired and aimed though an eight-direction line of fire. The other ability is a not-so-subtle morph ball maneuver that pays tribute to a particular space bounty hunter that automatically propels you forward and leaves you with steering the direction of where you’ll roll while being given the ability to lay bombs in a manner you expect given the familiarity of the convention.
While traversing through certain points of the stage, all of these abilities, when utilized in some conjunction, determine your success to retaliate against enemy mobs working to impede your progress. Switching through your load-out abilities and what power you currently have equipped is integral, especially within later levels, but the some bits expect far too much from a player, no matter the skill. The moments become more frequent as the game carries on, and will result in a smattered mess of respawns that will frustrate anyone, especially when the best strategy that’s needed to survive is recognized but the odds and means of carrying it out is a bit perverse. Regardless of the deliberate difficulty that the game attributes to in the vein of retro video games, the execution of certain stage elements and one boss fight in particular will almost leave you feeling disadvantaged instead of pressed for skill.
Despite some ill-conceived design decisions, the overall handling and control of Gunlord is smooth, with responsive aim when aliasing diagonal shots and sharp jumping. More often than not, the deliberate nuances of the stage design, with its hazards and placement, grant an intense satisfaction when you carry out abilities to advance them. The composition of the stage framework also works to some degrees of similar success when exploring to obtain the collectable gems and additional lives that propel your score, but again, can stack against you in a manner that leaves you feeling disadvantaged. Gunlord relishes in this design; at points, you’ll be given clear vantage points of the goodies lying and waiting for you to nab behind a wall that leaves the faintest of clues of how to get past it, until it turns out there was an invisible tunnel that you morph-ball roll through.
Regardless of the short stage count, Gunlord still manages to eat a couple of hours of playtime with the sheer size of some its stages and mini-bosses that inhabit them in addition to the end-level boss. The replay value is surprisingly high as it the game rewards completion percentage of collectable and time spent doing so alongside your score. NG.Dev Team programs every single copy purchased with the name given at time of order so that you can rank amongst independently monitored leaderboards on the studio’s website, which spares no expense at delivering the satisfaction of leaderboard climbing really well, despite the online limitations of a Neo Geo or Dreamcast.
Overall, Gunlord is a self-proclaimed love letter to arcade generation of action shooter games that saturated the 90s and functions almost like a lost relic from that era. For those of you who never had the luxury of extensively enjoying arcade titles the game pays tribute to, it’s a competent shooter working to deliver a frenetic sense of action that will litter the screen with noises and flashes to your delight. The game’s flawed from multiple views, but still a fairly solid titles that modernizes old design conventions of gaming’s past and sorts them into a timeless transition that appeals to everyone within a significantly larger market and public for video games today.