Some phrases instantly make my ears prick up and flex my already overworked “Add to basket” clicking finger, and one of those is definitely “Nineties 3D run-n-gun by Konami” – what more is there you need to know about a game you can describe like that other than “How long do I have to wait before it drops through my letterbox”? The game in question is of course the copy of Gungage shown above, one of those Playstation titles so weird that only Europeans were deemed odd enough to be able to handle its quirky Japanese charms (maybe). The back of the box promises FLASH SHOOTING in both English and Japanese which is bound to be exciting, whatever the heck that is.
It turns out Gungage is a prime slice of authentic 32-bit action – a bit wonky and weird but with a lot of sincere effort and heart in there too. Which may sound like a polite way of saying “At least you tried”… and maybe it is. But this is also a year before Alien Resurrection rocked up with its “crazy” control scheme (left stick to move forward/back and strafe, right stick to look/turn – as if that would ever catch on!) and on the whole the entire third-person action genre was in its troublesome teething phase at a time when analogue controllers were still very much an optional extra.
But in many ways that’s part of the appeal, no? Those finely-honed classics born in the fires of the great Sega/Sony/Nintendo console wars – NiGHTS, Metal Gear Solid, Ocarina of Time and so on – transcend the culture and systems they spawned from, introducing us to new possibilities and becoming their own little bubble of history-defining moments at the same time. That’s all well and good when you want to live on in the hearts and minds of gamers for decades to come, but in a way those envelope-pushing titles aren’t really indicative of what gaming was really like back then, are they?
Which is where Gungage comes in: This game is unabashedly “Playstation”; it’s bright and bold and not quite sure what the heck it’s doing, but it’s going to give whatever that is a bloody good go anyway. It’s also quite blocky (especially for a game from 1999) in that special “Ah, I remember the Net Yaroze too!” kind of way; lots of very square rooms, a camera that will clip through the wall with little provocation, and a draw distance that doesn’t extend as far away into the fog as you’d hope it would.
Fortunately there’s a lot of care and detail in there too: One of my favourites is the way the lock-on targeting system works here – it’ll automatically “snap” onto the nearest enemy in your field of vision (even if they aren’t strictly within your on-screen reticle) and it does a good job of staying on target so long as you do a reasonable job of keeping that enemy on screen, allowing you to react quickly even in less than ideal situations (such as a sudden attack from around a blind corner) and letting you spend more time concentrating on deftly side-stepping all of the clear and well-telegraphed bullets, lasers, and rockets thrown at you than scooting a little dot around the screen or wildly spraying bullets into the air in the vain hope of hitting something. That’s all super-great just as it is but the really special part, the bit that made me squeak with joy, is that for all the boxes and destructible walls/doors Gungage has not one of them is a lock-on target, which means you’ll never find yourself in a situation where you’re killing a wooden crate like it questioned the integrity of your mother’s knicker elastic while a horde of enemies are rushing to eat your face. It sounds like such an obvious thing, yet so many bigger and better games are incapable of managing this simple-yet-beautiful feat – like Resident Evil: Code Veronica. Do you know how much easier Wesker’s knife-only battle mode run would be if you didn’t have to take into consideration the time he wastes turning around to point his knife at explosive barrels he can never explodify while a horde of zombies ambles towards his virus-enhanced self? … Look, it’s a lot, OK? And it still makes me itch.
If that was my favourite practical bit, then my favourite non-practical bits have to be all of the extra visual touches that make the game feel just that little bit more special. Such as every single one of the four playable characters and their frankly ridiculous names (Steyr Harquebus? Wakle Skade? Really?!) have their own unique UI and item pickup models – nobody needed to bother to do that, but they did and we’re all better off for it. There are even some functional differences too, like Steyr’s radar showing nearby items and enemies or Kard’s sight having a small indicator around the outside so you can easily tell which of his four weapon types you’ve currently got equipped.
The game also graces us with faked lens flare out the wazoo, pretend advertising posters for model kits of enemy armoured suits right next to the brilliant “GOOD DRINK” vending machine, a giant wasp midboss that only appears after you’ve shot the flowerbed it was hiding in, a glorious orange-to-purple gradient on endless sand dunes at sunset and beautifully chunky now-retro PC models in one place on one level with their own matching painted-to-the-desk floppy disc texture too. Pure bliss. These things represent everything wholesome and pure about 32-bit era games to me, I just can’t help but adore that “We’re not supposed to be able to do this but we’re going to do it anyway” attitude to technical limitations – it’s like watching someone build L’ange du mal out of lollypop sticks and mostly succeeding.
Other pleasures include a very exciting battle on top of a moving train, fighting an impressive giant robo-thing in an arena that’s part Stonehenge, part Nazca Lines, and that one level that goes just a little bit Castlevania-like with the ruins and the fishmen and the church-y bit. It’ll take a few goes before you know which of these levels you’ll be facing next as each character has their own stage order to go through as well as individual starting points and changes to more general things such as the time of day too. It’s fair to say that even with these alterations the levels are still more similar than they are different, but as I was expecting nothing more from the alternatives than the same thing again but with a different player model it was a real joy to learn that KCET really made the effort to squeeze as much out of the game’s framework as was possible and tried hard to keep things fresh.
The game’s certainly not perfect (and especially hard to justify buying at current second hand prices): It’s one of those odd action titles that isn’t very long but still feels a bit flabby, something that isn’t helped by not being able to suspend the game and pick it up later from the last stage you reached. This makes it an all or nothing sort of game; which is fine for a tight arcade experience but this isn’t consistently focussed enough to reach those kind of highs. Leaving half of the cast hidden away behind some pretty obtuse unlock requirements isn’t a great idea either because you don’t really appreciate just how different the action feels for each character – and how much fun you can have experimenting with their differing styles – until you work out how to get your hands on them for yourself. But on the whole those are minor nitpicks in a game that mostly just wants you to have fun while you blow up giant monsters with colourful lasers, and in my opinion you can’t really ask much more of a game than that.