Gall Force: Eternal Story, HAL’s Famicom Disk System vertical shmup, is technically based on the 1986 movie of the same name, although the similarities between the two are minimal. There are many benefits to this loose approach to the source material: Nobody interested in playing a Disk System shmup has to feel left out because they’ve not seen the movie, and those who have seen the movie don’t have to worry about their favourite gal[l] behaving out of character or treated badly because once their portraits have flashed by in the easily missed intro the cast are never seen and barely mentioned again.
You start out with only one crew member at your disposal, making it your job to rescue the others from the clutches of the evil Paranoids before tackling the boss-rush stage that ends it all. This is done by flying over a (very long) looping planet’s surface made up of distinct (and increasingly dangerous) areas separated from each other by short space catapult and “all-out attack” sections. The idea is you survive a planet section until the catapult, use one of those to head off into space, fly through the space stage and defeat the boss at the end of it, then automatically return to the planet at the beginning of the next section (skipping the “all-out attack” zone) so you can repeat the process until you’ve collected everyone. The number of catapults you’re offered at the end of a planet segment starts at three and eventually works its way up to six, each one taking you to a specific space stage tied to a predetermined character. These catapults don’t disappear or get destroyed when you clear them, giving you the opportunity to replay levels you’ve already completed if that’s something you’d like to do (for no reward beyond a higher score). The UI helps to stop Gall Force becoming a theoretically endless shmup that leaves you blindly guessing which stages you’ve already cleared, as each crew member fills a specific spot in the status bar running along the bottom of the screen (for example, blue-haired Patty is the second one along, which matches up with the two-star catapult you need to pick to rescue her). Thanks to this small but vital feature, keeping track of the levels you’ve already cleared is easy, even if you decide to collect the crew out of order.
This whole crew rescue business could’ve easily felt like meandering filler if not for one incredible idea: Everybody you rescue gives you permanent access to either a new shot type or a unique ability, each one switched between at will with a quick prod of the Select button. Patty fires spread shots to the sides, Elza fires backwards, Pony can summon little Blon-Ds to fire across the screen for a short while, and so on. The only exception to this is Catty, who has passive effect on the Star Leaf – boosting the ship’s defence and improving Rabby’s blaster fire. Some shot types are more specialist than others, but there’s always one enemy pattern that makes you think “Ah, I know who I’m supposed to use here!”
You’ll probably want to change the active crew member from time to time anyway, as the Star Leaf undergoes animated transformations when switching between shot types. It’s absolutely spectacular to watch, various parts extending or opening up depending on who you’re using. The only downside is this feast for the eyes requires a relatively large ship sprite that often only gets even bigger as it changes shape, making dodging bullets so much harder than it has any reason to be. Thankfully this is one 80’s shump that doesn’t adhere to the usual one-hit-kill rule, the Star Leaf’s survival decided instead by a generous invisible health bar. You soon get a feel for the sort of damage you can take, standard bullets something you can generally shrug off so long as you’re not trying to eat them up like you’re playing Ikaruga, with larger missiles in contrast far more likely to take a whole side off in one go. Oh yes that’s right – the Star Leaf takes visible damage. Run into enough enemy fire and one side will disintegrate, then the other, and the next shot after that’s probably going to be the one that’ll finally kill you off. Remarkably each appendage will also begin to splutter and spark after you’ve taken a few hits, your visual clue that they’re likely to explode in an exaggerated manner if you can’t avoid taking any further damage. Losing part of the Star Leaf also affects shot types that rely on the extending side sections – if one side blows up then there’s naturally nothing there to shoot from, leaving you with a lopsided attack pattern. Lose both and some characters can’t be selected at all. It’s seriously impressive stuff.
Gall Force’s butter-smooth scrolling also deserves some praise, as does its the rarity of its sprite flicker – something that really only pops up if the Star Leaf ends up horizontally aligned with an incoming wave of enemies. The scenery is always keen to react to your presence and often looks truly battered after a blast of laser fire, which in turn makes it feel like your ship’s got some real power behind it even though your shots are physically quite small.
There are however a few problems that should’ve been avoided, even on an 8-bit console back in the mid-1980’s. Some damage seems to be nigh-impossible to avoid, bullets appearing with next to no warning at a speed a just-respawned ship can’t reliably match. Power-ups are painfully infrequent and hidden in nondescript pieces of scenery, meaning it’s pretty much down to sheer luck whether you find them or not. And not being able to hold A down to fire in a game that requires lots of fast shooting means a fair chunk of the difficulty stems not from any personal skill but the mightiness of your chosen shot finger, especially as all the bosses have far too much health considering the woeful simplicity of their attack patterns.
So it’s fun, but flawed – same as a million other shmups released around that time. The Gall Force difference is that it makes a sincere effort to do something different within what was already a well established genre, and those ideas still stand out from the crowd today. This shouldn’t be anyone’s first choice of Nintendo shmup, especially as it’s running on the same console as multiple Konami classics, Zanac, and the almost impossibly amazing (and expensive – make sure you buy it on the 3DS eShop while you still can) Recca. But it does try – and very nearly succeeds – to break the mould.