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. 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 homoerotic 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 American publisher, DreamWorks, decided to change the name, it’s unclear. 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 Vallejo, one of the masters of fantasy art, to illustrate the North American cover.
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 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.
Gynoug features numerous waves of fast-moving enemies. Thankfully, you start the game with a rapid fire spread shot. You can 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.
In addition to orb upgrades, you can change your shot pattern by collecting one of three gems, which 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.
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. 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.
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. For the most part, those disparate design choices all fit together surprisingly well. After navigating a cave full of flying mollusks, 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 an endboss, and they sure are messed up. 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 seen from the 16-bit era, and is almost worth the price of admission alone, even for non shooter fans.
The designs can be credited to Satoshi Nakai, who later designed art assets for Cho Aniki, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Culdcept, and others. The visuals are quite dark and muddy, but that’s probably 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 at all.
Gynoug‘s score seems to be a point of contention. Some people love it, others hate it. Regardless, it suits the dark themes of the game quite 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 instruments. The third stage, which has you traversing a castle interior, has a piece of music that would feel right at home in a Castlevania game.
Overall, Gynoug is a game that deserves to be played by any shooter 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.
This is a no-brainer for anyone who enjoys Genesis shoot-em-ups. Gynoug was released on the Wii Virtual Console, but only in Japan.