Gunbird 2: Peak Psikyo

Speak to anyone familiar with Psikyo’s work, and doubtless Gunbird 2 will come up sooner rather than later.

It’s probably one of the most fondly regarded entries in the company’s back catalogue, and for various reasons. Not only is it a solid shoot ’em up in its own right, but it also had an excellent Dreamcast release in collaboration with Capcom, featuring Morrigan from Darkstalkers as a guest character.

The Nintendo Switch version that comes as part of the Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo collection sadly lacks this latter aspect — presumably due to licensing issues — but otherwise allows a whole new audience to enjoy this classic blaster. Let’s take a look!

While the first Gunbird was one of Psikyo’s earliest games, releasing not long after the company’s debut Samurai AcesGunbird 2 came a little later — 1998, to be exact. This places it a year before Strikers 1945 IIItwo years before Dragon Blaze and three years before Zero Gunner 2.

As such, it’s a product of a Psikyo that is comfortable and well-established in producing games with solid core mechanics — but the company hadn’t yet started experimenting too much with complex scoring systems, technical bonuses and the like. Although they had released arguably their most experimental game Sol Dividebut that game is a law unto itself.

Mechanically, Gunbird 2 is essentially a refined form of Strikers 1945 II’s formula. We have the company’s trademark lineup of unique playable characters, each with their own shot patterns, charge attacks, bombs and lightweight narratives to follow. We have the loop-based structure with the randomised opening stages. And, of course, we have the multi-phase boss fights.

Of particular note in Gunbird 2’s mechanics is the charge attack system, which is similar to that seen in Strikers 1945 II with a couple of important additions. Firstly, you can store up to two full bars of charge instead of just one, and secondly, a smaller segment of bar — less than that required for a full level of charge attack — can be used to trigger an “approach attack” or melee move, which generally takes the form of the character striking out in front of them with some sort of long implement for significant damage. Hard to pull off, but effective if you do.

Additional challenge for those chasing high scores is provided by a coin chaining system that would later be seen again in Strikers 1945 III. When destroying certain enemies or ground installations, spinning coin will be left behind. If you grab these with perfect timing — when they flash white and face the “camera” — you’ll get the maximum possible points for them, and if you can continue to do this repeatedly, you’ll get an increasingly large number of points for each. The Switch port even allows you to check your average coin score and maximum chain achieved at the end of each playthrough, so you can see how much you need to improve — a nice touch.

Gunbird 2’s narrative involves its playable cast all searching for a magic “cure-all” medicine for their own reasons. Marion the witch returns from the first game, seeking a return to her 17-year old self after having accidentally transformed herself into a 9-year old girl. Dracula’s son Alucard (not that Alucard) seeks to “cure” his weaknesses. Tavia is the niece of Ash from the first game, seeking to heal her mother’s illness. Valpiro is a Russian robot similar to Valnus from Gunbird, and may have sinister intentions for the medicine. Hei-Cob is a chubby Arab riding a magic carpet. And, if you push “down” on the random character option on the select screen, you can play as Aine from the Samurai Aces series, who is… quite a character, to put it mildly.

Like Psikyo’s earlier games with a narrative component, there are storylines for both solo characters and specific pairs in two-player mode; in the Switch port, it is possible to play a two-player story as a solo player, too, so even if you don’t have anyone to play with you can still enjoy all the possible endings. Beating the final boss also once again presents solo characters with a binary choice, presenting further longevity for those who want to see everything the game has to offer.

Sadly, unlike its predecessor, the Switch version lacks the voice acting that was added to some of the ports of Gunbird 2 over the years, which leaves the villains of the hour feeling a little flat compared to the first game’s ridiculous group of antagonists. Although in what is perhaps an unintentional bit of humour, none of the playable characters even so much as vaguely acknowledge the villains in any of their dialogue, despite the majority of the enemies in the game sporting their logo; everyone has their own selfish interest in seeking the cure-all medicine, it seems, and no-one, not even the “Queen Pirates” will stand in their way!

As with previous Psikyo games, each character feels distinct enough from the others to make every playthrough a noticeably different experience, and practice with each cast member is very much necessary to truly master the game. The differences are probably most apparent with the charge attacks, which vary enormously from one character to another. Alucard fires a barrage of homing bats, for example, while Marion shoots out a narrow series of powerful fireballs and Valpiro blasts out a pair of drones that slowly move up the screen, relentlessly firing spread shots as they go.

In classic Psikyo tradition, the boss fights are a real spectacle, generally consisting of a battle against a vehicle of some sort which then transforms or releases some sort of giant robot. There are plenty of bits to blow off each boss for bonus points — or just to calm the bullet patterns down a bit — and the animation on each is beautiful, especially in the later stages of the game. These fancy setpieces are complemented by the same wonderful level of background detail and animation seen in the previous game; it’s a delight to see tiny people running around on the ground as you fly over their heads, blowing up all and sundry.

The final boss is absolutely bizarre, though; taking the form of an elephant god that parodies “Sato-chan”, the mascot of a Japanese pharmaceutical company — remember, everyone in the game is searching for “medicine” of some description — it might initially seem oddly incongruous and somewhat anticlimactic. Then you remember all the other absolutely bonkers stuff this game has thrown at you up until this point and it doesn’t seem quite so strange any more.

Like its predecessor, Gunbird 2 is a pleasingly accessible shoot ’em up, offering a wide range of difficulty levels for everyone from casual shoot ’em up enthusiasts to the more hardcore. Once again, the Switch port lacks online leaderboards and a replay function, but as with the other games in the Psikyo Shooting Stars collections, for many people this will be a small price to pay for the opportunity to enjoy these classics on modern hardware — including in TATE mode if you have an appropriate setup or are happy to play handheld.

It’s easy to see why Gunbird 2 is a firm favourite of so many people. It’s colourful, it’s cheerful and it’s just plain fun. It represents Psikyo at its absolute best, and is a game that will keep you entertained for a good long while, even with each playthrough only taking 10-15 minutes or so!

More about Gunbird 2
More about Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo

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