Posted on July 8th, 2010 5 comments
Release Date: 7/7/89
Price: 5800 yen
Media: HuCard (3 Mbit)
PC Engine FAN Score: 24.10 / 30.00
Kōgien: “A standard vertical shooter, much like the other shooting games used in the Caravan. Based off the film of the same name, although none of the movie’s elements are used in the game. An exhilaratingly powered up shooter.”
Gunhed, the 1989 Japanese live-action SF flick, is not very good. You can tell it’s trying very hard, but it can never quite shake the fact that it’s, well, a low-budget ’80s SF flick, one that wouldn’t be out of a place in a late-season episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I like the film for those qualities, but many don’t. Heaven knows director Masato Harada didn’t like the English VHS release I saw back in the early ’90s, one that was extensively edited to remove most of the very Japanese bits; that’s why that version is directed by “Alan Smithee” instead. (ADV, my former bosses, released a much better DVD in 2004.)
Hudson and Compile’s video-game version of Gunhed has absolutely nothing to do with the film — you’re piloting a spaceship, for one, while the Gunhed shown in the movie is a robotic tank — and it’s far, far better off for it.
It’d be fair to say that Gunhed helped shift a lot of PC Engines in the summer of 1989, and not simply because it was the competition game for the Summer Caravan that year. It’s also one of Compile’s best releases ever, packed with everything that makes a Compile shooter so good: a numerical power-up system, changes to upgrade weaponry at regular intervals, and really fast vertical scrolling. It’s also one of the longest shooters they’ve ever made, with a full run taking around an hour to complete assuming you don’t continue. (It’s no coincidence, I don’t think, that stages 5 and 8 — both very slow-scrolling levels — are also the most boring and frustrating to me.)
You’ve got four main weapons to choose from: the standard Star Soldier five-way beam, a half-moon rapid-fire beam which later got lifted wholesale for Donpachi, an undulating lightning shot that I remember thinking was totally “next generation” back in the time, and some useless orbs that fly around your ship. You’ve also got Gradius-style options called “multibodies” (or, as the in-game voice calls them, “Mmrnh Bnhh”), optional shields, and upgradeable homing missiles. These missiles are secretly the best weapon in the game, because they home in on enemy bosses even before the hit detection kicks in — they make things so much easier, and once they’re fully upgraded, it’s like you can beat the game blindfolded. Sort of. Not really.
Gunhed is a product of the age, and as such, it’s kill-or-be-killed. None of this “only the center dot of your ship has hit detection” stuff — your entire spacecraft explodes if anything overlaps with it, and that’s that. On the other hand, you’re never asked to perform a lot of fancy bullet dodging in this game, not even in the later stages. It’s a careful balance Compile has pulled off here, and it results in an exhilarating shooting gallery, especially in the high-speed stages 3 and 4. (It’s no accident that the Caravan competition version started in stage 3, probably because of all the destructible blocks and things. Competition HuCards were given out to Caravan champions as prizes, and like the Nintendo World Championships cart, they’re now pricey collector’s items.)
Really, this is one of those very few PC Engine games that’s so universally praised worldwide that I don’t have much to say which hasn’t already been written elsewhere. The graphics are great, the music’s thumpy and catchy, and it’s just a perfect game to turn your brain off and blast away with. Man, the summer of ’89 was an awesome time to be a PCE owner, wasn’t it?