After the horribly unfair mess that was Last Hope (the first Dreamcast release, not Pink Bullets), I decided not to care about any more releases from NG:Dev.Team. It wasn't like the posthumous Dreamcast scene was in dearth of more autoscrolling shmups anyway, but the announcement of Gunlord immediately drew me back to them. I mean, seriously, who can say no to a new Euro run-'n-gun platformer in the vein of good ol' Turrican, on the Dreamcast no less (or Neo Geo for the well-to-do)? Who cares if it's so difficult that it makes you want to melt your controller in a deep fryer?
Now Gunlord may have been originally developed for the Neo Geo, but it doesn't really look like a typical Neo Geo game. It doesn't look like a Dreamcast game, either. Its visual style and pixelwork is much more akin to European Amiga games, albeit the extra power does help to keep the framerate up and the extra buttons prevent the controls from getting all too cluttered. Gunlord is full of stunning graphics and may well be the best looking pixel art-based indie game yet. For Last Hope, the Hellwig brothers had adopted SNK Playmore's practice to use shitty CG for special effects, which clashed heavily with the pixelwork, but thankfully that is almost entirely gone now, with the exception of the ugly waterfalls (see the screenshots below the main text). As with NG:Dev.Team's earlier games, the Dreamcast version looks exactly the same, displaying in an actual 240p resolution that only very few officially released games used. This means the image is ultra-sharp on a VGA or good TV connection. For those intending to buy the game to play it through an nullDC, though, the image will be blurred due to lack of proper support of the mode (as can be seen on the Dreamcast screenshots used here).
Ah, yes, the story! So, you're that dude in that suit, who cold-bloodedly murders his judges in a trial we don't know jack shit about, or why he was in it, to find and save his wife who went missing after saving the universe from a threat we don't know jack shit about. Also, lots of cyborgs and monsters. Now kill them all!
Gunlord doesn't even make any attempts to disguise that Turrican was its dominant influence. Like the German classic, the stages in Gunlord contain hundreds of little secret passages, although here there's a little more focus on the main path. The optional parts of a stage are almost always immediately recognizable as such, and rarely bigger than a small room with an extra life. The design as a whole is a little more explicitly designed like a straightforward arcade experience. This is also reflected in the weaponry, which on the surface seems copied directly from its ancestor. In reality though, the action is more fast-paced and immediate: Whereas the standard weapons all started out relatively weak in Turrican, here they all fire with full power all the time; the spreadshot fills the screen with five streams of bullets, while the equivalent for the laser starts out as the devastating flamethrower that it became only when fully upgraded in Turrican II. It's also the overpowered weapon one wants to use all the time, as it not only has a huge radius, but also damages enemies behind thin walls. The bouncer is the weirdest of them all, as it only works as such when the fire button is tapped; when holding it pressed, it turns into a more concentrated straight shot.
All weapons can be aimed in eight directions, so the gunfighting ends up as dynamic and frenetic as Contra. The Turrican trademark 360° all-around beam won't get that much use as a result, until one gets used to viewing it not predominantly as an offensive weapon, but a means to neutralize most enemy projectiles. Then it becomes an extremely powerful tool, but one has to wait for it to get recharged after prolonged use. The destructive but limited vertical Power Line attack and the Metroid-inspired Energy Wheel (complete with the ability to lay out bombs) work just like they did in Turrican II, with the exception that the latter can jump while rolling and is thus an even more powerful tool to get through the levels quickly or find hidden passages.
In best Turrican tradition, Gunlord also contains a horizontal scrolling shmup level, although that is much more of a simple mini game rather than a full-fledged game-in-a-game as it was in Turrican. It's just one short stage with only one available weapon, and laughably easy. One has to wonder why they even bothered to program it.
The game as a whole is far from being as difficult as one would have expected from the makers of Last Hope. For beginners, the first big step to success is finding as much of the hidden extra lives as possible. Some of the bosses are daunting at first, mostly because they're larger than the screen and it seems almost impossible to avoid them, but once the right strategy is found, they're dealt with fairly quickly. Afterwards, it doesn't take a maestro on the joypad to 1CC the entire game within a couple of days. Be sure to bring the time for longer sessions, though, as there's no save function whatsoever. Gunlord may be no longer than comparable games from the 1980s or 90s, but by today's standard, it seems a bit long to expect players to clear it in one sitting. Afterwards, there's not much left to do other than the hunt for high scores (there's an online leaderboard where one can upload scores via password). Besides "Original," there's also an "Arcade" mode, but the only difference is that using a credit after losing all lives resets the player to the beginning of the stage. A couple alternative difficulty levels would have been nice, but there are none.
Gunlord wouldn't be a NG:Dev.Team game if there wasn't some major collector gauging. During the preorder process, there were no less than seven different packages of the game. Left available now (July 2012) are the "collector-priced" MVS and AES versions (the latter with both US and Japan style covers) as well as two different variants for Dreamcast. The Limited Edition features the game's soundtrack on an extra audio CD, but since the game's music is already contained as audio tracks on the game CD, the only added value are a handful of remixes by other musicians. The soundtrack predominantly consists of inconspicuous trance music. Some tunes start out stimulating, mostly the title theme or the BGM for the first stage, but eventually flatten out and become boring when listening to them alone - there are just not enough interesting ideas to carry them over their whole duration.
With 32 Euros (almost US$40) for the cheapest option (the Dreamcast Regular Edition) in NG:Dev.Team's shop, Gunlord comes at a tough price for an indie game. It is a fun, professionally-made product, but considering the arcade-short content and the lack of difficulty options, it is hard to recommend it to anyone other than die-hard fans of the genre, or Neo Geo/Dreamcast enthusiasts who need to own every game for their favorite system. Sure, much of the price comes from producing the game for vintage home consoles and professional packaging, but it should be about time for NG:Dev.Team to forget about their pride and bring their games to download platforms as an alternative. It might cost them a handful of Dreamcast sales and street cred with their more snobbish fans, but would allow for a far better circulation among the non-collectors.