We live in the age of digital media. No longer are we required to keep physical collections of music, movies, and games on shelves, taking up space. Now, it’s very much possible to keep one’s entire collection of media on a hard drive the size of a pack of cards, if not smaller.
However, there’s those of us that aren’t willing to let go of physical media quite yet. Myself, for example; call me a hipster if you will, but I like having a collection that I can display on a bookcase. I like buying collectors editions of my favorite games so I can have little knick-knacks to display around my apartment. In fact, without these physical collections, my place would be depressingly empty.
The number of us that still enjoy physical media is not insignificant, so much so that “dead industries” such as vinyl pressing have revived, and other businesses have cropped up specifically to provide physical releases of digital only media.
The game we’re looking at today is one such example of jumping from digital-exclusive to physical. Originally released in 2019, Rolling Gunner is soon to receive a physical released from Physicality Games…which gives us an excellent excuse to take a look at a game we missed on its original release.
Developed by Project Rolling Gunner and published by Mebius (with a physical release planned this year by Mastiff and Physicality Games), Rolling Gunner was released on June 20th, 2019, for Nintendo Switch.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
Rolling Gunner is a game with pedigree behind it; the director is Koizumi Daisuke, a former employee of famed shoot-em-up and bullet hell house CAVE. The game appears to be a standard bullet hell at first glance: a fancy ship dodging through curtains of colorful bullets shot by other fancy ships and robots over the course of six stages. However, it’s the game’s namesake gimmick that makes things much more…chaotic.
Flying alongside your ship at all times is the “rolling gunner,” a secondary cannon that can rotate around your ship to help take out enemies coming from all sides. This cannon automatically aims in the direction opposite to the way you’re moving, and you have access to two fire buttons: one that lets your rolling gunner continue moving, and another that locks it into place.
With this function, alongside the typical need to dodge and weave your way through bullets, you also need to plan where the best place to set up your rolling gunner is for each enemy wave. Since you can attack every side of the screen, enemies will take advantage of it, often flying in from multiple directions at once.
As my skills with bullet hells are a bit rusty, this was quite a lot to take in at first. This setup means having to be aware of the entire screen at all times, rather than just the direction you’re flying in. I wasn’t able to get comfortable on my couch and relax my way through this one – I had to pull up a chair, get up close, and give Rolling Gunner my full attention.
And, yes, this game can get difficult. I opted for the game’s “Original” difficulty upon loading it up (because why would I choose “casual,” I’m good at shoot-em-ups, right?) and managed to get through the first two stages using maybe one continue. There was certainly a challenge, but nothing insurmountable with a bit of experience in the genre.
Then level three came and I used three or four continues in the first half of the stage.
Luckily, Rolling Gunner balances out some of its more…excessive…difficulty through other means. This is an arcace-style game through and through; the entire focus here is on getting a high score. However, if you just want to see the end of the game, there’s nothing stopping you, as Rolling Gunner offers up unlimited continues, putting your ship right back where you got a game over. Sure, you lose the points you’ve accumulated up to that moment, but you will be able to see the end of the game eventually.
This is something I much appreciate, since it allows an incoming player to experience and practice the entire game, rather than gating off levels because they’ve died too many times. There’s no worries with finally completing, say, stage four after hours of practice, only to immediately fail and get booted to the beginning on stage five since you’ve never seen any of it before. Every time you load up Rolling Gunner, you get the opportunity to play through the entire game.
Thanks to this, I found myself getting better and better as I repeatedly ran the game. Sucking it up and dropping myself down to Casual for a run helped as well, giving me a preview of what kind of enemy layouts and patterns to expect while worrying less about insane bullet patterns.
After three or four runs, I did begin to notice some repetition in enemy patterns and placements. Many patterns in the final two stages felt extremely similar to patterns from the early game. On one hand, it feels a bit lazy. On the other, it can be seen as a test of pattern recognition: you’ve seen this before, you know how to handle it.
Once you’ve practiced enough and are ready to start shooting for high scores, that’s when Rolling Gunner‘s other major systems start coming into play. Throughout stages, your ship slowly charges a special attack in the corner of the screen. Once full, you can hit the button that normally launches a screen-clearing bomb to activate what is essentially a mini-bomb, turning every bullet on the screen into score-increasing emblems and powering up your guns.
With your over-power activated, enemies begin spitting out more of these emblems as you shoot them…but you have to be nearby them to collect them, which means tighter weaving through bullets. Getting hit with a bullet shuts off over-power, but the longer you survive, the further you charge a second meter…using this one turns every on-screen bullet into even bigger emblems, charges your guns to the max, and makes enemies spit out even bigger emblems to super-charge your high score.
Using this system to its full advantage is just plain fun, watching enemies spit out insane amounts of emblems and seeing the high score skyrocket. Unfortunately, I was really only able to do so in the first stage…every stage afterward, I was using this “limit break” as a way to clear the screen of bullets just to survive.
As fun as the moment-to-moment gameplay was, the actual graphical presentation didn’t feel like anything special. Sprites are your generic shoot-em-up ships, tanks, and robots, and you’ll hardly see the backgrounds at all, what with them being regularly covered with sheets of bullets.
One thing to note: there is noticeable slowdown during particularly dense patterns of bullets. This is actually programmed into the game by design – only the bullets slow down, giving some precious timing leeway in dodging through patterns.
The soundtrack wasn’t a particular stand-out either. Again, it mostly felt like generic “video game shoot-em-up” music, and I hardly had time to notice it anyways, as I was focused on trying not to die.
One More Time
Overall, while Rolling Gunner looks like a rather generic bullet hell shoot-em-up at first glance (and, with its presentation, continues to appear as so throughout the game’s runtime), the actual gameplay is solid, addictive, and surprisingly open to newcomers wanting to try their hand at a hardcore genre.
Yes, the game will kick your ass until you’ve had enough, and then kick it some more, but just the simple fact that you can power through the game on unlimited continues means those ass-kickings also provide moments to learn and increase your skill. Every run is a chance to do better, without being locked out of seeing the whole game due to simply being stuck on a certain part.
For those with genre experience, the rolling gunner function and the fact that enemies come from literally all sides takes some getting used to, but it’s the kind of chaos that’s a nice change of pace.
Don’t let its somewhat drab exterior fool you, Rolling Gunner is worth a look for genre professionals and up-and-comers alike. Its the kind of game that, despite only being six stages long, I can see myself returning to for a long time coming.
Review copy provided by Mastiff Games for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.