In conversation with casual shoot ’em up fans I’m acquainted with, I’ve come to learn that Gunbird is one of Psikyo’s most fondly regarded series.
It’s not hard to see why, either. Although the first Gunbird game predates many of Psikyo’s other works, it features a lot of their most appealing elements. We have the multiple endings and strong replayability of Samurai Aces. We have the strong degree of physicality of the Strikers series. We have the overblown narratives of Sol Divide and Dragon Blaze. And the whole thing is topped off with a ton of ’90s anime charm.
Sounds like a recipe for success to me. Let’s take a closer look.
Gunbird has had an interesting history when it comes to home ports. It initially released to arcades in 1994, then received a Japan-only port to PlayStation and Sega Saturn a year later.
It wouldn’t come West until 2003, when it was inexplicably renamed by Western publisher XS Games to Mobile Light Force, had all its narrative content (including its endings) stripped out, and was given a Charlie’s Angels-style makeover for its box art and title screen — but not the in-game visuals, which were still super-anime.
As an aside, Mobile Light Force 2, which released for PlayStation 2 in North America and Europe the same year, is actually a port of Shikigami no Shiro (aka Castle of Shikigami) and absolutely nothing to do with Gunbird or Psikyo. Gunbird itself did, however, get an official port to PlayStation 2 alongside its sequel in 2005. And today we’re specifically looking at the Nintendo Switch port that is available as part of the Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo collection.
Gunbird is a vertically scrolling, TATE-mode shoot ’em up that features multiple selectable characters, each with their own unique shot pattern, charge shot and special attack. As you progress through the stages — the first three of which are randomised out of a pool of four — you collect power-up icons that increase the intensity of your main shot as well as activating a character-specific secondary fire method such as homing magic or powerful supplementary shots. So far, so Psikyo.
As in its immediate predecessor Samurai Aces, the maximum level of shot power in Gunbird is temporary; unless you continually collect power-up icons — which are also worth points when you’re at full power — you will drop back down to the second-highest power level after a short period. As such, you generally need to be proactive and seek out power-ups, balancing the risk of getting into the thick of things with the potential reward of increasing your score and maintaining your weapon at its maximum potential.
Probably the most noteworthy thing about Gunbird is the strong degree of characterisation it features. Each of the playable cast members are very distinct in both visual appearance and personality as well as mechanics, and this is supported by brief, between-level cutscenes helping us get to know who we’re playing as. There are also unique story sequences for specific pairs of characters in two-player mode — though some home ports (including the Switch version) allow you to play the two-player story solo.
The playable cast is a diverse bunch, too; we have series mascot Marion, the 13-year old English witch; Ash, the 1950s-style rocketeer; a “stubborn old carpenter” who is a raging homosexual; a Russian robot who wishes to be human; and a Chinese female fighter inspired by Sun Wukong from Journey to the West. All of them are seeking fragments of a magic mirror that can supposedly grant their wishes, and each single-player finale offers two possible conclusions depending on a choice you make after beating the final boss. Two-player mode has a single ending for each possible pair.
That’s not all, though; there’s plenty going on during the levels themselves. Background detail is extraordinary; the ragtag villainous organisation Trump (don’t) can typically be seen running around, frantically leaping into various war machines to get into your way, and each level inevitably concludes with a confrontation against at least one of these reprobates and their latest evil scheme — with plenty of delightful gloating that brings to mind the best villains of series like Sailor Moon and its ilk, especially with the deliciously crispy, low-quality voice acting.
Gunbird just exudes a sense of fun for every second you’re playing it. Whether it’s the cheerful, bouncy music that accompanies the action, the satisfying explosions, the spectacular multi-phase boss fights or the simple joy of clearing a stage that has been giving you grief for a while, it’s a constant pleasure to play time and time again. And with Psikyo’s usual seven difficulty levels, you can start gently and work your way up to more significant challenges, giving the game plenty of longevity.
For more casual shoot ’em up fans, it’s worth noting that Gunbird is probably one of Psikyo’s easier shoot ’em ups — while I’ve struggled to one-credit clear most of the others even on the lowest difficulty levels, I can beat Gunbird with relative ease. When coupled with the appealing art style and overall cheerfulness of the whole experience, this makes it especially suitable for shoot ’em up newcomers or younger players; it’s not a threatening, punishing game in the slightest and, aside from Psikyo’s habit of becoming increasingly insulting with any difficulty levels below “normal” (level 5 out of 7) it’s a very welcoming, approachable and accessible example of the genre at its finest.
For the more hardcore, the upper echelons of difficulty offer a stiff challenge that demands solid memorisation of enemy and bullet patterns, skilful manoeuvring and a solid awareness of your character’s hitbox. Sadly, as with all the other Nintendo Switch ports of these Psikyo games, this version of Gunbird also lacks replay functionality and online leaderboards — but again, whether or not this matters to you is down to your own personal taste and how seriously you take your shoot ’em ups!
Personally speaking, having explored all these Psikyo titles for the first time with the Shooting Stars collections, Gunbird has become a firm favourite of mine. For me, it’s the quintessential Psikyo shoot ’em up in so many ways — and the delightful presentation is just the icing on the cake.
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