Bullet hell games, or danmaku, are difficult. Ask anyone (well, maybe not your grandmother) and you’ll probably be told about how impossible they look – it’s something of a label the genre bears. And not for no good reason either, as genre staples such as the DoDonPachi or Espgaluda series have made mincemeat of even the most ardent fanatic. It’s just the way these things go.
When the original Rolling Gunner released on PC some years ago, it did nothing to cast any doubt onto this questionable genre legacy. And with the updated DLC of Overpower added to that, it would appear the script has been flipped; or at least that was my initial experience having powered the game on, went straight for the first button-press defaults for my first experience of the game, and proceeded to complete the game with its true final boss on my first attempt. And I consider myself mediocre at the genre.
Rolling Gunner + Overpower is two games in one game. This package does indeed contain the original; a tough-as-nails bullet hell with a firing mechanic that aims a firing drone (presumably the titular rolling gunner itself) toward the opposite direction the player moves the ship (unless held), and a scoring/medal system rewarding close proximity to enemies when killed. But it also contains the ‘Overpower’ DLC ‘arrange mode’, which takes the same levels and general content but takes the approach of “what if this were a twin-stick instead?” And it’s glorious.
Arrange mode’s twin-stick controls are a little more complex than the original game, as not only is there the dual moving and aiming to consider but a powerful ‘buster’ shot which eats enemy bullets and emulates the rapid/held firing of the original mode is consigned to the left trigger/bumper, with the ‘limit release’ hyper mode on the right trigger. These play second-fiddle to the rolling gunner drone itself, for unlike original mode it now serves as a defensive tool that also eats bullets. Add to this the addition of a shield offering three or more hit points before death (which was a standard one-hit kill in the original mode) and we’re looking at not only a much different game but a much easier one. Hence the accidental first-attempt completion.
This is not to say the game is boring. Like any good shmup, the scoring system is relatively deep and rewarding; incentivising close-proximity enemy kills, bullet-eating, smart use of the limit release mechanic, plus successful play without losing a ship. And at that, the ‘rank’ system necessary to unlock access to the true final boss comes into play with the enemy bosses too, them inheriting the player’s own rank when they appear, and their attack patterns’ intensity adjusted to suit. Meaning that subsequent games were not quite as easy-going as my initial one.
On top of all of this, there are four difficulty settings for each mode, ranging from ‘novice’, through ‘casual’ and ‘original’ to ‘expert’. And even on the easier arrange mode, expert ups the ante to extreme degrees with blanket fire from enemies absolutely filling the screen. With the rolling gunner, this can become a game about twitching the right stick around to essentially clear a path through the projectile curtains, and that can be satisfying as all hell. It’s a great time, for sure. And actually, I had played this a hell of a lot before deciding to attempt the original mode, which was something like a culture shock with how different an experience the two are.
Original mode, as noted, has the rolling gunner aim in the opposite direction the ship is moving. You move up, but you fire downward. Anyone familiar with Thunder Force IV’s ‘freeway’ weapon or Gley Lancer’s ‘reverse’ gunner mode will know the deal here for the most part. Original mode’s controls consist of a fire button on the face of the controller which can be tapped rapidly or held like most bullet hell games, with the ‘held’ mode-locking the rolling gunner in its current orientation, with the left and right triggers acting as combination bomb/limit and rapid-fire respectively. But there’s no bullet-eating here, and so the danmaku staple strategies of micro dodging and bullet-herding will come into play, hard. The levels are the same, the enemies are the same, and the game is a different kettle of fish – and one much tougher than the default ‘arrange’ mode the game initially presents.
They’re good games, but they aren’t perfect – I personally found the proceedings to grate a little, with seemingly very little variation in enemy nor bullet types, with forgettable bosses. Aesthetically the game sounds like it should, with sound effects never being obtrusive enough to distract nor drown out the banging soundtrack characteristic of the genre…but it doesn’t look all that great. The game seems to consist of sprites made from models that can be charitably described as having a fidelity close to late-gen PlayStation 1 games. Not a bad thing if you’re incredibly nostalgic for G-Darius and its ilk, but it is nonetheless a dent in an otherwise slick package – highlighted further by some actually excellent cutscenes between levels, presented with 2D graphics that are better drawn than anything in the game itself.
So, it’s very good but also a little ugly. In spite of this, I’m actually spellbound by the well-judged difficulty of the arrange mode, although seasoned shmup players may want to leap immediately to ‘expert’ difficulty and never look back – or play the absolutely punishing ‘original’ mode. The lower difficulties serve as an excellent introduction to the genre for anyone that may have been curious but put off by that notorious difficulty most games of this type exhibit. With it being pretty feature-complete, including online leaderboards and a replay-saving feature so players can watch their own runs and learn where they can improve, there are indeed many worse games of this type for newcomers and veterans alike.
Rolling Gunner + Over Power is out now on PS4, published by United Games Entertainment.