Gunlord has you do exactly what it promises on the cover: "Jump. Shoot. Explore". From the moment you start the game, main character Gordian Gaiden (yep) can fire a stream of bullets that would make Metal Slug’s heavy machinegun jealous. There’s no way (or reason, really) to upgrade any weapon you have, but the various powerups that pop out of the (occasionally invisible until the first bullet hits them) powerup boxes will change your shot type.
The three normal types are a spread shot, a higher-powered but more focused flame shot, and then a bizarre mix of the two that will fire spreading shots that rebound off walls if you tap the fire button and fire a focused forward stream.
Gordian also has two special shot types that can only be used for a short time after. The first is a really handy rocket launcher that splits into multiple rebounding projectiles on impact. The second is an incredibly fast beam that has the unfortunate side effect of locks your generally multidirectional aiming to just left and right. Considering that enemies will approach you from all sides, this can be incredibly annoying.
Fortunately, this directional handicap can be remedied by using Gordian’s Snakebeam. The beam locks Gordian in place as you aim it, but it can also tear through walls and ceilings. Due to its default controller mapping (R, on the Dreamcast controller), I didn’t use the this at all at first, and was having an awful time, getting killed by enemies that were out of my reach or firing bombs from above me. While the Snakebeam isn’t terribly powerful and is limited by a recharging energy bar, it’s absolutely vital for getting rid of enemies who otherwise feel like they’d be getting in cheap hits.
If this sounds familiar at all, you’ve probably played Super Turrican. Gunlord mimics those mechanics right down to Gordian using screen-clearing blasts of energy (well, assuming you have the ammo for it) and transforming into a ball and dropping quickly-exploding bombs.
The exploration aspects of the game, which I found pretty extraneous at first, can get pretty creative. While the majority of exploration is rewarded with the gems that litter the level, or one of the rarer bigger gems, the real reason that I found exploration worthwhile were the 1-ups and health scattered throughout the levels. In the first level alone, I had to use invisible powerup boxes (which couldn’t be stood on until shot) to climb a column to catch an ascending one up and draw out an enemy attack and use him as a platform to reach a higher, hidden part of the level. While generally it seems safer to stick to a set path (particularly if it’s marked with "exit" and "go" arrows), when you understand a level well enough to explore it a bit, there’s some interesting stuff to be found.
While this all sounds good on paper, there are a number of little things that made my experience with Gunlord frustrating. First and foremost, I don’t feel as though the game takes enough advantage of its art direction. The game’s manual and the game’s intro and cutscenes have a lot of character and color, but when you get into the game proper, most of the enemies you fight just look like blobs of one-color metal. Gray (or maybe "gunmetal?") enemies will blend into the backgrounds, taking off one of your three units of health if you step into them. This lack of color even extends into the powerups, with the three main shot types all dark colors in gray frames.
When I first played the game, I didn’t even realize that the powerups were different colors. I thought it was just luck of the draw what shot type you got. Bosses, however, are usually a welcome departure from this problem.
While the levels are built around exploration, even running through a level as quickly as possible feels overlong. The first level took me almost 20 minutes to beat the first time I played, and while subsequent plays have whittled that down to about 8, it just feels like too much for a game that uses "credits." Combine this with the somewhat uninspired art, and it makes what should be a celebration of everything that makes run-and-gun games fun feel like a drag.
Food for Thought:
1. I absolutely love the cheesy writing in the game’s intro. "You can’t escape, you have no gun" is some of my favorite logic I’ve ever seen in a game.
2. While the game has a default layout for the Dreamcast arcade stick, I personally preferred the game on a controller after I made a couple of tweaks.
3. While the enemy sprite work wasn’t my cup of tea, certain elements of Gunlord look beautiful. The mountains in the back of the shmup-style stage 2 and the cherry blossoms in stage three are particular standouts.