For any gamers that enjoy strange Japanese visuals, the Cho Aniki series is about as bizarre as games get. Imagine sweaty, bare-chested men navigating surreal landscapes populated by demented man-machine hybrids, and you'll get an idea of why the series is often better remembered than other shoot 'em ups. Unbeknownst to some, the original Cho Aniki on the PC Engine CD was actually predated by a Mega Drive game called Gynoug. Developed by the same company, Masaya, Gynoug features many of the same design elements as Cho Aniki, minus the homo-erotic overtones. First released on the Mega Drive in Japan in 1991, it was later released the same year in Europe under the same title, and in North America as Wings of Wor. As for why the North American publisher, DreamWorks, decided to change the name, you're guess is as good as mine. It likely had something to do with trying to market the game as a fantasy adventure in the same style as classics like Conan the Barbarian. DreamWorks even went as far as commissioning Boris Vellejo, one of the masters of fantasy art, to illustrate the North American cover. This one of those rare times where I consider the American box art to be superior to its Japanese counterpart. Gynoug has its flaws, but its actually a really competent shooter, and deserves to be played by any fans of shmup gaming on the Genesis or Mega Drive.
As the American instruction manual explains, the game takes place on the fictional world of Iccus. Iccus is home to "flying men" who are capable of controlling the magical forces of nature. Unfortunately for the flying men, an evil has emerged on Iccus. A corrupting army of mutants led by the Destroyer are infecting the planet. Although many have tried, none of the flying men have managed to defeat the Destroyer. You play as a flying man named Wor who makes a ditch attempt to save Iccus from the mutants.
Taking full advantage of the Genesis' speedy processor, Gynoug features numerous waves of fast-moving enemies. Thankfully, you start the game with a rapid fire spread shot; if you were given a pea shooter, like in many Genesis shooters, you'd be screwed from the get-go. Throughout the game, you collect two types of orbs that increase your firepower. Blue orbs increase the spread of your shot, whereas red orbs increase the damage dealt by each bullet. As indicated at the top of the screen, your orb power levels max out at five, but you must collect several orbs to increase by one level. Dying will decrease your shot levels, but orbs are handed out generously, so death doesn't significantly hamper your groove. Unlike in games like Gradius, dying in Gynoug doesn't leave you completely ineffective, and most stages can be cleared fairly reasonably even without any upgrades.
In addition to the orb upgrades, you can change your shot pattern by collecting one of three gems. The gems, which look way too much like the orbs, come in three colors. Red gems give you a forward facing spread shot, blue gems give you a tightly focused forward facing shot that also fires slightly above and behind your character, and amber gems give you a weak forward and backward shot. Amber gems only appear twice throughout the game, so you'll spend almost all your time with the red and blue gems. Unfortunately, their effect is mostly interchangeable, so there's very little reason to get hung up on which of the two to choose from. The only exception is a sequence in the third stage in which the blue gem is crucial, because it saves you from projectiles that attack from above.
Instead of smart bombs, Gynoug gives you a selection of special attacks to choose from. These "magical forces of nature" are obtained by collecting scrolls that are designated with a letter. Up to three scrolls can be stored at once, meaning that any additional scrolls will replace the first of your three stored scrolls. If you have multiple copies of the same scroll, all of them will be activated at the same time if any one is chosen, and their effect will be enhanced. The A button on your controller lets you select a scroll, and the C button lets you activate the chosen scroll. Once activated, scrolls either have a set limit of time for which they last, or give you a finite number of uses. The Energy Balls scroll lets you manually fire diagonal projectiles that absorb enemy bullets, Lightning Bolts shoot lightning straight down in front of you, Magic Arrows fire homing projectiles, Ground Attacks shoot projectiles that hug the ground, Thunder Bolts harm all enemies onscreen at once, Wildfire increases the damage of your projectiles, Elemental calls forth rotating options that both protect your character and fire bullets that pass through walls, and Aura Shields protect your character for a set period of time. To be honest, most of the scrolls are fairly unnecessary because your regular shots are often more effective at killing most enemies. Most of the time I find myself just saving the most effective scrolls for use against bosses. The Stage 4 boss, who is typically pretty challenging, can be killed almost instantaneously if you activate the Elemental scroll. Apart from half the scrolls being relatively useless, my other biggest gripe is that their letter doesn't always correspond to their name. For example, the Elemental scroll is designated by the letter O. For your first few attempts at Gynoug, you'll likely be picking up the generously scattered scrolls with no real idea of what they do, and no huge incentive to figure out.
As I explained earlier, what really sets Gynoug apart from its peers are its visuals. The best way to describe them would be as a mix of ancient greek, gothic, steampunk, and bio-metallic (think H.R. Giger) imagery. Think that sounds like a strange mix? Well, it sure is. For the most part, those disparate design choices all fit together surprisingly well. After navigating a cave full of flying molluscs, spiders, disembodied heads, and snail men, the boss fight against a steam train with a giant human head doesn't seem all that out of the ordinary. After the first cave level, you navigate above (and within) a river, the inside of a castle, an industrial factory, the inside of a pink organic something-or-other (maybe a womb?), and finally the clouds. The locales and regular enemies,which come in all manner of variety and sizes, are actually pretty tame, at least compared to the bosses. Each level has at least a mid boss and and endboss, and man are they glorious. For the most part, they all look like grotesque human abominations that have been fused with metal. This is some of the most interesting sprite-work I've seen from the 16-bit era, and is almost worth the price of admission alone, even for non shmups fans. The designs can be credited to Satoshi Nakai, who later designed art assets for Cho Aniki, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Culdcept, and others. As far as I'm concerned, this man's a creative genius. Perhaps my only gripe with the visuals is that they're exceptionally dark and muddy, but I guess that's the look they set out to achieve.
Gynoug's difficulty sits somewhere around the mid-range of Genesis shooters. On the one hand, it's not nearly as difficult as games like Gaiares or Hellfire, but you definitely won't be clearing it on your first couple tries. In the American and European versions, the default difficulty is set to Easy, with the alternative options of Normal, Hard, and Hyper. The only difference between the Japanese and American version, other than the title change and the inclusion of Masaya's logo, is that the default difficulty is set to Normal, and there's no Easy mode. With a bit of practice, Gynoug's first few levels are relatively easy, but the game ramps up in difficulty significantly by the time you reach the 5th stage.
On the higher difficulty levels, enemies take more hits to kill, but everything else remains unchanged. On every difficulty level other than Hyper, you're given 4 continues; Hyper gives you 3. Players who want to see the game to completion (which is totally worthwhile), but aren't worried about a 1cc, can increase the number of starting lives from 3 to 5. In addition, the game has a number of secret bonus lives hidden throughout its stages. Finding each of these for the first time gives you a nice cozy feeling, because you know you're slightly less screwed. That, combined with extends that are received at every 200 000 points, means that by the time you make it to the last couple stages, you can easily have accrued an additional 6 lives. The game ramps up in difficulty significantly by the time you reach the 5th stage, meaning that if you inevitably Game Over later in the game, you have to slog through a tedious amount of repetition (which by that point you've probably mastered) to make it back to the last couple levels.
Scoring in Gynoug is is even more basic than most shooters from the same era. Essentially, kill as many enemies as possible without dying. Unlike most 16-bit shooters, there aren't even any "bonus point" tokens to collect. As far as I can tell, there are no multipliers, and collecting powerups doesn't award you extra points. Apparently, sticking to the same firing mode throughout the game will earn you more points than switching between modes, but I haven't seen this myself. Regardless, none of this would make a big difference, because there's a simple milking exploit on the 5th stage boss (Perfidy) that can be used to endlessly gain points until the score counter reaches its limit of 99,999,999. Essentially, there's a tiny space where he can't hit you, allowing you to gain points by continuously shooting down his projectiles.
Although most people who played it have fond memories of the game, the quality of Gynoug's score seems to be a point of contention. Some people love it, others hate it. Personally, I think it suits the game really nicely. It was scored by Noriyuki Iwadare, who was also responsible for Langrisser II and Gleylancer's soundtracks. The tempo is always upbeat, which provides a nice contrast to the bleak visuals. The melodies evoke a medieval sound, so expect plenty of organ and horn samples. The third stage, which has you traversing a castle interior, has a song that would feel right at home in a Castlevania game.
Overall, Gynoug is a game that deserves to be played by any shmup fans with a Genesis or Mega Drive, and anyone who's interested in experiencing one of the most bizarre visual experiences in gaming. The game provides a decent challenge, but isn't so difficult that completion feels out of reach. Furthermore, your starting firepower is pretty substantial, so you won't feel as immediately overwhelmed as in other 16-bit shooters. Unfortunately, the scoring mechanic can be exploited easily, which hurts the game's replay value if you're playing for score. An American copy of Wings of Wor is affordable, and can be found relatively easily, so this is a no-brainer for anyone who enjoys Genesis games. Gynoug was released on the Wii Virtual Console, but only in Japan.