Box Shot
Platform: NES
Publisher: NexOft
Designer: Compile
Genre: Shoot-em-up
Players: 1
Published Date 1990
Reviewed by: Bryan Cord

Ever since Carol Shaw's space shooter game for the Atari 2600 was rejected for release by Activision, subsequently revised and improved, and released as the seminal River Raid, the mindless, scrolling shooter has been a popular genre in both the arcade and nearly every gaming platform ever to exist (The CD-i wasn't really a gaming platform, wise-ass.) The NES is no exception, as both the popularity and ease of development of the blast-a-thon genre led nearly every NES developer to release at least one shooter of this type at some point. Unfortunately, all but about ten of these can be immediately disregarded as mediocre also-rans or outright crap in the more extreme cases. Not only does Gun*Nac make the "ten good ones" list, but it is considered by many NES veterans (I prefer Zanac to this one, but only slightly) to be the best shooting game ever released for the platform. It boasts myriad weapons, graphics rivaling a low-end Genesis cartridge, and code so sophisticated that slowdown is almost entirely negated. Add to all that the weird Japanese humor that is so prevalent in the game (always a hook with me) and Gun*Nac (weird name aside) is a true masterpiece.

There seems to be some vague connection to Zanac here, as the weapons in both games are similar, little red and blue Lolo-looking critters carry power-ups in both games (When these guys aren't dispensing power-ups in the "nac" games, they can be found tending the shops in The Guardian Legend), and the titles are even slightly similar. Despite all that, calling Gun*Nac a "sequel" might be pushing it a bit, since both of them were developed by different companies (Zanac was an FCI production, although it's possible that they hired out). At any rate, all this is relevant only to trivia nerds like me; all the average NES fan needs to know is that Gun*Nac takes the near-perfect game play of Zanac, keeps a few elements (that unearthly AI of Zanac is sorely missed, as well as the random enemy placement), and improves even further on the rest of it.

Plot seems to be nonexistent in both games (at least outside the instruction books, which I lack), which is perfectly fine with me, and the game play is very simple: fly your expandable spaceship through several vertically-scrolling levels of hostile critters and the like, fight bosses and mini-bosses, upgrade to any of 36 weapons, and generally have one hell of a time. The twist here, though, is that many of the enemies are downright odd. From the giant mechanical bunny rabbit who tries to blast you with what appear to be carrot missiles to what appear to be flying toasters in one of the later levels, the enemies in Gun*Nac seem to possess that quirky Japanese quality enjoyed by much of the cast of Little Ninja Brothers. Weapon chips are prevalent; the different weapons are numbered from 1 to 6 and range from conventional bullets to homing bombs to a kind of flamethrower device. Grabbing a weapon chip different from the one you're currently holding will switch weapons, while one similar to your present weapon will power that weapon up another level. In addition, "wings" (ship add-ons) are available. These are tacked onto the ship and serve a dual purpose: they allow the ship to take more hits (a hit with a wing will simply vaporize the wing; a hit without one is fatal) and provide additional points from which weapons can be fired. In a final incongruous twist, many enemies drop money upon death. If collected, the cash can be used at a shop that's visited between levels, where weapon upgrades and wings are available for a nominal fee.

Like nearly every other aspect of Gun*Nac, the graphics ooze sophistication and attention to detail. Against colorful backgrounds similar to those seen in The Guardian Legend (but better-looking!), your fighter is almost immediately set upon by insane numbers of weird, wacky, and colorful enemies. An option in the Config.Sys (heh heh, bad computer joke) menu lets you toggle the sprite engine to prioritize speed (less slowdown, but more flickering) or graphics (more slowdown, less flickering), but the amount of sprites displayed at one time on the screen (sometimes above 20) with little or no slowdown is incredible no matter which sprite mode is selected. Bosses, at least when compared to the end-level behemoths in Gradius, Life Force, and the like, are generally fairly small and unimpressive. The graphical detail that is the hallmark of Gun*Nac is still present though, and most of them are mobile enough to give you a pulverizing that some of the slow, ungainly bosses of R-Type might very well envy. With nine lives to start, easily-earned extras, and available continues though, Gun*Nac's "normal" difficulty mode won't challenge a die-hard shooter fan for even a quarter of the time that something like Life Force would. The later levels are no cake walk though, and most twitch fans will still need more than one sitting to get through them all. For true experts, there are two modes higher than "normal"; both exhibit an exponential increase in the challenge level.

Play control is absolutely perfect (a must in this genre), allowing razor-sharp and quick movement anywhere on the screen. In sharp contrast to the rest of the game, the sound is merely innocuous; it isn't actively grating, but the quality just isn't up to the standards of the rest of Gun*Nac. I guess there had to be a space tradeoff somewhere...

Shooter fans rejoice; there exists a twitch game on the NES that's at least as good as Life Force and isn't half as thumb-numbingly difficult! With dazzling graphics, inherent wackiness, a goodly amount of levels and weapons, and selectable difficulty, there's something for everyone here. Gun*Nac is not to be missed.