Elemental Gearbolt: Arcade shooting in an RPG world

[A quick but important note before we get stuck in: Everything written below refers only to the original Japanese version of the game, free from Working Design’s later US alterations]

I’ve long avoided Alfa System’s Elemental Gearbolt and almost all shooters like it: why spend my precious time with light gun games featuring 2D sprite enemies when the same era—the same format, even—gave us the magical delights of Time Crisis at home? They always feel a bit, well, flat (Sega’s Alien 3: The Gun excepted). Games like that are just digital recreations of the physical shooting galleries from ye olde days, where a menacing cowboy would mechanically pop up from behind a painted cactus and you’d have to shoot at them with a distressingly realistic rifle to ping their tin body back down, aren’t they?

Oh dear.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more wrong.

It was within literal seconds of starting up Elemental Gearbolt that I realised I probably shouldn’t hold onto sweeping generalisations of an entire sub-genre based on fuzzy memories of playing Operation Wolf as a kid. In the first stage alone you clear obstacles by leaping high into the air and crane your virtual neck to take out enemies lurking in elevated vantage spots. The second stage sees you pushing through a dense forest as enemies leap towards you, this thick vegetation eventually giving way to fantastical structures and shimmering water. Every single moment is filled with awe-inspiring wonder. This game is a place where giant dragons and a distinctive type of biomechanical science meet, where well animated and deeply beautiful 2D shapes exist as a natural and highly active part of a stunning 3D world.

But even this thrilling feast for the senses can only carry a game so far, and just as quickly as it woos your eyeballs it also becomes clear to your fingers that Elemental Gearbolt hasn’t got the same level of technical refinement of Sega or Namco’s brightest examples of the genre. Enemy placement isn’t quite as finely tuned, it’s not always perfectly clear before it’s too late whether something’s a threat or merely shootable set decoration, and at times you’ll get hit by something that really did come in too fast for you to react naturally to it.

But is that really a fair comparison? Most games aren’t going to be as good as the defining examples of their genre—if they were, that’d mean the things we thought were extraordinary were in fact, actually quite common and ordinary—and for every mechanical problem, Elemental Gearbolt offers a very pretty distraction to make up for it.

No, that’s not quite right either. Elemental Gearbolt isn’t compensating for its apparent lack of finesse with shallow spectacle, because it’s not trying to be like Virtua Cop, Time Crisis, or anything else in the first place. This is a console-only light gun game with a strong fantasy style and relatively long FMV cutscenes between each dramatically titled chapter. The orchestral soundtrack is more concerned with creating an emotional atmosphere than getting you all fired up and ready for a fight. There’s nothing to make up for, because the game’s not trying to compete with those arcade classics in the first place.

If anything it’s unknowingly paving the way, due to its keen interest in telling a story and taking players through a particular experience, for the likes of Capcom’s excellent Umbrella/Darkside Chronicles games; you may still spend a lot of time shooting things in the face, but the game only expresses a passing concern with recreating that arcade-born focus on high scores.

Realising this helps all sorts of things fall into place: in a genre that normally is itching to put up a fight, Elemental Gearbolt defaults to the easiest difficulty setting because the main desire here is to convey a particular experience, rather than test your mettle. You’ll get hit by things almost out of sight and way off to the side because you’re storming heavily guarded enemy territory, and that act should feel like a desperate scramble through far too many opponents. One end of stage boss’ health bar is comically lengthy because you’re taking on a flying fortress with nothing other than an arm cannon—of course that’s going to take a long time to get through.

That unusual arm cannon is capable of firing three different shot types: The slow but powerful fire type, the spread out lightning, the piercing water. With just a little light experimentation it’s easy to see when it’s best to use each of them, and the wide array of opponents you face naturally encourages you to swap back and forth between the trio with an initially dizzying frequency. It’s the sort of feature you learn to navigate with your gut, because if you take the time to thoughtfully consider your options the danger will either have already passed by or taken a sizable bite out of your beautiful jewelled life bar.

And you definitely don’t want that to happen, because this game only gives you the life you’re already using to survive the entire stage: you either clear it in one go, or you don’t.  Life-restoring potions can be found at a few key points in every level, but judging by the way the camera swoops about the screen you get the distinct impression Elemental Gearbolt doesn’t really care if it gave you the time to actually grab them.

The silver lining here is if you do miss them all, crumbling to a lightning-fast projectile amongst a whole swarm of the damned things, you can dust yourself off and try again—and you’ll more than likely be a little stronger the next time around too, as whenever you die a good chunk of your current score is automatically converted into RPG-like experience points, levelling you up once the amount passes set thresholds. Like so much else in this game it’s not what you’d expect from a game best experienced with a G-Con 45 in your hand, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work within Elemental Gearbolt, specifically. Thanks to this feature the game’s occasional bouts of unfairness become more manageable just through sheer repetitive determination; your health bar a little longer, your shots a little more damaging. Keep it up and you’ll finally reach the stage’s end, at which point you get to decide how to split the score you’ve earned: either into further experience or plain arcade-style points for the high score table, perhaps the game’s one true nod to the more traditional side of the genre.

Elemental Gearbolt’s an admirable game. It’s not interested in conforming to any rules, behaving itself, or making you feel comfortable—it only wants to see its imaginative idea through to completion. I’m still not convinced this was the best way to tell the complex web of tragedy that unfolds across the game’s six stages, but in many ways this “mismatched” approach only makes it feel even more like a wonderful half-remembered dream.

Thanks to this odd blur of an experience, both too long and too short and wrong in all the right ways. I just want another chance to spend some time in this mesmerising world—wouldn’t it be something special if every game could leave us feeling that way?

Further reading:

[Ko-fi supporters made this article possible! They got to read it a week early too!]

3 thoughts on “Elemental Gearbolt: Arcade shooting in an RPG world

  1. Very nice write-up. Been interested in the game for a while.

    I’m so hoping this game will get one of the Un-Working-Designs patches. I’d rather play on the original difficulty, but I also need to understand the storyline xD


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