Anyone interested in collecting video games has doubtless run into the issue of certain titles from previous console generations commanding astronomical prices.
There are numerous reasons this might happen — perhaps the game had a very limited print run; perhaps it only came out in certain territories or perhaps it had problems with distribution when it was current.
One such example is Zero Gunner 2 for the Dreamcast, which, at the time of writing, is going for anywhere between £100 and £200 on eBay. Fortunately, there’s a much cheaper way to get your hands on it today: the Switch version, which is available either on its own via the eShop, or as part of the Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha collection. Let’s have a look!
An interesting bit of trivia about the Nintendo Switch version of Zero Gunner 2 — which is actually dubbed Zero Gunner 2- for reasons we’ll get to in a moment — is that unlike the other entries in the Psikyo Shooting Stars collections, it’s not a direct port of the arcade version or even the Dreamcast version.
Nope; regrettably, the original code for Zero Gunner 2 was lost at some point in the distant past, leaving the Switch version’s developers Zerodiv little alternative other than to rebuild the game completely from scratch. Zerodiv CEO Takayuki Harakami knew that this would result in a port that wasn’t perfect to the original, and as such added the minus sign to the game’s title as open (albeit subtle) acknowledgement that the Switch version might appear “lesser” in the eyes of some die-hard fans of the original.
If you’re a fan of the original, however, you either have very deep pockets or you were lucky enough to score a copy when it was current, and as such the vast majority of players will be judging Zero Gunner 2- purely on its own merits. Which is, of course, fine.
Unlike the other titles in Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha, Zero Gunner 2- is fully polygonal rather than sprite-based. It also uses landscape screen orientation, newly expanded to full 16:9 widescreen for the Switch version as opposed to the original’s 4:3 display.
Zero Gunner 2- unfolds from a top-down perspective, but it isn’t quite a vertical scroller, nor is it a horizontal scroller. Rather, it moves in a variety of different directions — albeit very much on rails rather than providing a free-scrolling environment — and keeps you on your toes, watching for threats from all angles.
This multi-directional scrolling is entirely appropriate for the fact that the craft you’ll be flying in Zero Gunner 2- are helicopters. We’ve had a number of helicopter-themed shoot ’em ups over the years, but relatively few of them acknowledge that helicopters have unique characteristics over fixed-wing aircraft, such as the ability to face a different direction to that in which they are travelling.
Not so in Zero Gunner 2-; not only does the background swoop, spin and slide all over the place as you progress through the stages, but there’s actually a unique mechanic at play, too: the ability to change the direction you’re facing, and shoot in directions other than straight up or across the playfield.
Zero Gunner 2- doesn’t use a twin-stick setup to pull this off, either; rather, holding a button places a targeting marker just in front of your craft’s nose, and moving while holding the button causes your chopper to constantly face that marker. Releasing the button fixes your orientation, allowing you to return to moving around the screen normally while firing shots in a specific direction.
The levels and boss encounters are designed to make this a necessity at times; a good example comes during an encounter with a stealth bomber that splits into three parts, one of which is very close to the bottom of the screen. You could try and cram yourself in underneath it, but you’re at high risk of being taken out by point-blank shots if you do that; instead, it’s much more sensible to position yourself over at the side of the arena and rotate to blast the troublesome component from afar.
Those accustomed to twin-stick shooters might initially find Zero Gunner 2-‘s control scheme a little confusing, but it soon becomes second nature. If you imagine it as pulling back a rubber band so that you can twang it in a particular direction, it makes a lot more sense — and allows for some very entertaining, unusual battles when compared to other, more conventional shoot ’em ups.
Perhaps because of the additional challenge provided by the control scheme, Zero Gunner 2- feels quite a bit easier than many of Psikyo’s other shoot ’em ups. On the lowest of the seven available difficulty levels, there are hardly any bullets on screen most of the time — making it all the more heartbreaking and infuriating when you plough right into one — and even on the higher settings, things never quite feel like they’re becoming unmanageable.
The three available helicopters also feel powerful, making it a very satisfying game to play. Much like in Psikyo’s sprite-based classics, there’s a strong sense of physicality to all the weaponry in Zero Gunner 2-, and the decision to eschew bombs completely in favour of special attacks that you charge by collecting drops from enemies gives a markedly different feeling to the action. You may be a laser-spitting, missile-spewing machine of pure death and destruction in this game, but you’re most certainly not invincible and you definitely do not have a “panic button” for when it all goes wrong!
The only arguably weak spot in Zero Gunner 2- for me — and this is very much a personal thing; your own mileage may, as ever, vary — is that the background music lacks a bit of “oomph”. This isn’t a side-effect of Zerodiv rebuilding the game from scratch, either; the Dreamcast original music lacked a bit of punch, too.
This partly stems from the fact that back in 2001, when the game was originally released, many games were still using synthesised MIDI soundtracks rather than recordings of live instrumentation. And while we’d moved beyond the FM synthesis of the 16-bit era long ago, MIDI instruments of the era still sounded kind of tinny and weak compared to their authentic counterparts; this is most evident in Zero Gunner 2- when it comes to the boss music, whose weedy orchestral hit sounds are always a bit underwhelming to hear as you attempt to blow up yet another piece of Psikyo’s trademark Military Hardware That Transforms Into a Bipedal Robot After You’ve Shot It A Bit.
Still, the game makes up for this relatively minor shortcoming with some satisfying, beefy explosion sounds and some lovely visual effects. Despite hailing from the relatively early days of polygonal 3D graphics being used in arcade games, Zero Gunner 2- still looks pretty nice, with its low-polygon models and simple but clear textures giving it a pleasant sense of style — and, of course, running on considerably more powerful hardware than it was originally designed for means that it speeds along at a wonderfully smooth and slick 60fps at all times, too.
Zero Gunner 2- is a great shoot ’em up with an unusual, enjoyable twist, and its presence in the Switch’s lineup is just further evidence that, as much as being a console full of wonderful new games, it’s also one of the best ways to experience a variety of retro classics — particularly those that have historically been rather inaccessible to the common audience!
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