2001’s Gunbarich was one of Psikyo’s last games before they merged with X-Nauts in 2002 — and the last title in the Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo collection for Nintendo Switch.
It wasn’t one of their last shoot ’em ups, however, because despite technically being part of the Gunbird series in the loosest possible sense (it has the word “Gun” in the title and also features a cutesified version of recurring Gunbird mascot character Marion the witch) it’s not actually a shoot ’em up at all.
Nope; Gunbarich represents Psikyo turning its hand to that most venerable of genres: the ol’ bat and ball. Let’s take a closer look!
In Gunbarich, you take on the role of either Marion or some boy named Grutan, who looks like a rejected Pokémon protagonist. You are challenged by the great magician “Majoria”, a busty MILF of a witch with supposedly formidable spellcasting skills and a questionable grasp of both the English language and correct use of speech marks, to become “the great magician” in your own right. In order to do this, you need to destroy a series of block arrangements using “Magical Flipper” and a big pink ball of magic. Oh, you’re under a strict time limit, by the way.
Yes, we’re firmly in classic Breakout territory here, albeit with something of a twist: rather than a conventional flat paddle as in traditional Breakout clones, here we have a set of pinball flippers sloping downwards until they meet in the middle. Thankfully, there’s no hole between them for the ball to drain down, so while you’re getting accustomed to the game, you can simply use this arrangement as you would in any other bat-and-ball game.
Things get interesting if you hit the button to twang the flippers, however. Appropriately timed twanging results in the ball not only being fired back towards the wall at a much higher speed than usual, it also allows you to apply spin on it after you’ve launched it, meaning you can direct its trajectory to a certain extent. This allows you a lot more control over the ball than in many games of this type — though not quite as much as in that one Breakout variation on Atari 2600 where the ball literally moves from side to side as your paddle does!
The flippers tie in with another important mechanic, too: the power-up system. Much as in Taito’s renowned bat-and-ball classic and Breakout spiritual successor Arkanoid, occasionally capsules with letter names float down the screen. In this case, they’re flung by “Majoria” herself, who seems keen to give you a helping hand, and are universally helpful. Assuming you don’t let them put you off, of course.
The effects of the power-ups are varied. Some are pretty simple, such as the one that temporarily widens your flippers, or which causes the ball to fall towards you more slowly for just a single hit. The multiball powerup launches several blue balls alongside your pink one; unlike many other games of this type that offer a similar feature, you can’t just let any of the balls drain until you only have one left — you must keep your pink one in play at all costs.
Probably the most helpful power-up in the grand scheme of things is the one marked “H” for “Hyper”. This makes the ball more powerful, allowing it to break through bricks rather than bounce off them — but only if you successfully launch it at high speed using the flippers, and only on the way up the screen. On the way back down, it behaves normally. If you use this effectively, you can launch the ball up to the top of a complex arrangement, then keep it bouncing for a long time to build up a huge combo — which means lots of points.
Yes, Gunbarich is very much a score attack game; there’s no semblance of narrative to it, so it’s all about getting those delicious points. And the best way to do that is with a combo — hitting multiple bricks and enemies in succession without the ball coming back down and hitting your flippers. The potential score bonuses on offer are enormous; on more than one occasion I’ve scored more points in a single lucky combo than I have in an entire other game.
You may notice I mentioned “enemies” there, too; again like Arkanoid, these provide optional moving targets in addition to the static brick layout. Unlike Arkanoid, however, they’re not just a means of gaining a few extra points and speeding the ball up; each enemy type has its own distinct behaviour that you’d better familiarise yourself with.
Some will shoot orange bullets at you, which must be bounced back up the screen or destroyed with your ball, lest they sit beneath your flippers ready to temporarily paralyse you the moment you move over them. Some will swallow your ball and their matching partner will spit the ball out at high speed elsewhere on the screen, so you’d better be ready for it! And others still just get in the way.
There are also boss encounters at the end of each “world”; these are large moving targets each with their own distinct patterns. Many of these also launch the paralysing bullets at you in various ways, but here you can actually use them to your advantage by hitting them back at the boss to deal damage. For those just coming off all the shoot ’em ups in the rest of the Psikyo Shooting Stars collections, it might feel a bit strange to be deliberately trying to run into bullets, but it soon becomes second nature.
Gunbarich is nicely presented, with a distinctly “Dreamcast” look about its visuals, blending crisp 2D art in the game border with attractive pixel art and pre-rendered sprites in the main play area. Much like in the Gunbird games, the real highlight here is the level of detail in the animations; the various bricks are all personified and change their attitude over the course of the level, going from sleepy to panicked according to the proximity of your ball to them, for example.
On top of that, you’re given some assistance in the first “world” of levels with your selected character’s mascot partner popping up to show where the ball will land based on its current trajectory back down the screen. This is a really nice touch, and helps those new to bat-and-ball games understand how the basic physics of the game work. Looking back on how accessible many of Psikyo’s shoot ’em ups are while still offering a formidable challenge to genre veterans, this is entirely in keeping with how the company has always done things.
Gunbarich is obviously a very different affair to most of Psikyo’s other output, but it still has plenty of that Psikyo magic. It’s colourful, it’s vibrant and, most importantly, it’s an absolute ton of fun. If you’re yet to try it — and chances are you never played it, since the Switch port is the first ever home version — then set aside a bit of time and get them balls a-bouncin’!
If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via any of the services below! Your contributions help keep the lights on, the ads off and my shelves stocked up with things to write about!