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Review: Gunlord X (Switch)

X marks the spot

SUMMARY

GOOD

Gunlord X may not be innovative in any way, shape or form, nor is it an effective study in level design. But it is fun enough that none of that really matters.  A great port of an excellent shooter.

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So here we are: another Wednesday eShop update, another retro shooter for Nintendo Switch owners to get their teeth into.

You may well find yourself struggling to get excited about such things these days, even when they have a SEGA connection. But, to be fair to developers, NG:DEV, their quest to bring Gunlord to a Nintendo console has been a long time in the offing.

Much like Fast Striker, Gunlord started life on the Neo Geo and Dreamcast back in 2013.  NG:DEV attempted to fund PC, 3DS and Wii U ports via an Indiegogo campaign the following year, but scuttled it prematurely due to a lack of interest. Six years laters they’ve finally brought the game to the Switch under the moniker Gunlord X, seemingly without having to resort to crowd funding this time around.

Shoutout To My X

Things get off to a rather tongue-in-cheek start, as Gunlord’s intro sequence is an amusing series of animated slides accompanied by super hammy ‘all your base are belong to us’-style captions. It’s hard to believe that these are anything but intentionally crude; a knowing hark back to the poor translation jobs and slapdash presentation of old. Whatever the case, they provide a bit of comic relief to a title that may have otherwise come off as a bit sterile.

As with many games of its ilk, Gunlord owes much to Nintendo’s Metroid series. That said, to lump it in with the Metroidvania crowd would be very disingenuous, as character upgrades, experience points, access keys and frequent backtracking are all notable by their absence. It really is all about the blasting your way forward.

A handy signpost in action.

More’s the pity, as level design is actually one of the areas where Gunlord falls short somewhat.  Stages don’t really feel like they’ve been planned out particularly well, or even at all for that matter. Indeed, the lack of overall flow is underscored by the fact that NG:DEV have felt it necessary to constantly signpost your way to the exit throughout the game’s (admittedly well proportioned) levels.

Having said all of that, the Gunlord himself does sport a very Samus Aran-esque ability to curl up into a ball, both for a speed boost and in order to fit himself into tighter spaces and access hidden areas, plus drop bombs and damage enemies.  It’s a satisfying feature that seems like it could be readily abusable for speed runs, but maybe that was the idea all along.

I Am The Lord of the Gun, Said He

Shooting feels great, but there are relatively few weapon types and little feeling of progression since the majority of weapon pickups are available from the start.  There is, of course, a screen clearing bomb attack, for when things get tough. You can also jump on some enemies’ heads to defeat them, which is a somewhat odd gameplay mechanic to employ in a semi-serious side scrolling shooter, but doesn’t really interfere negatively with the gunplay. It’s worth noting that this release does include a number of optional quality of life enhancements, such as the ability to control movement and shooting independently with each joystick and a handy autosave feature.

On the subject of difficulty, Gunlord’s aforementioned large stages and abundance of enemies put up just the right about of resistance, offering a decent challenge.  Given our observations as regards level design, it may be that the game’s pleasing difficulty curve is more down to luck than judgement on NG:DEV’s part, but you can’t argue with the results.

A typical Gunlord boss.

Bosses and enemies are typically the kind of biomechnical monstrosities you may find in classic many SEGA shooters, although there are a few outliers such as a dragon that drops bombs for some reason. Likewise, the world of Gunlord is an eclectic mixing pot of sci-fi and fantasy themes where spaceships and castles seemingly occupy the same time period, in what often feels like Lord of The Rings meets H.R. Giger. While kind of odd on reflection, we don’t really think NG:DEV gave any of this too much thought and neither should you. It’s a perfectly adequate backdrop for some classic gun n’ run action, as long as you concentrate on shooting stuff rather than attempting to apply logic to it.

Gunlord holds up reasonably well in terms of visuals. As we’ve noted with a number of other 2D retro reissues, the softer image of the Switch’s 720p screen relieves some of the graininess observed in docked mode on a 4K TV. Purists will often opt to play oldies such as this in an original 4:3 aspect ratio, which is certainly an option here, but what surprised us was just how good 16:9 upscale is. In short, the image isn’t stretched horribly out of shape, as can often be the case with such things, and is probably our preferred way to play.

Sound wise there’s little to write home about here, with suitably chirpy retro sound effects the order of the day. Gunlord’s musical accompaniments are typically in the form of twinkling arpeggios and echoing sci-fi throbs and warbles, which serve as an appropriate aural backdrop, nothing more. As an aside, the voice effect that plays when you collect a power up – a distorted sound byte in a strong German accent – is really pleasing to the ear, for some reason. Los Deutschland, right?

Summary

Gunlord X is a great platformer-come-shooter. While it’s not going to win any awards for groundbreaking design, nor is it pushing the genre forward in any way, the game in hugely enjoyable on its own terms. A number of gameplay enhancements over the original Dreamcast GD-ROM/Neo Geo board make Gunlord X arguably the best way to enjoy one of NG:DEV’s most revered titles.

PROS:

+ Excellent shooting

+ Gameplay enhancements over the original release

+ Effective upscaling options

CONS:

– Lack of flow

– Little sense of progression

– Hardly revolutionary

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Dan

Hailing from grim, rain-lashed Northern England, Dan enjoys shmups, strategy games and classic Sonic almost as much as using short vowels and complaining about the weather.

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