My biggest sin as a shmup player is the low amount of Cave games I’ve played. I’ve watched tons of videos about Mushihimesama and DoDonPachi, but never played them myself. Growing up I didn’t have access to any arcades that had Cave games. My choice of consoles growing up didn’t really lend itself to that either. There is one Cave game I owned and absolutely loved and played the shit out of it: Ketsui Death Label for the Nintendo DS. That game was the beginning of my love/respect relationship with Cave games.
Enter Rolling Gunner. One day I randomly stumbled upon Rolling Gunner when browing the JP eShop. It looked like a fun game, but nothing to lose my mind about. That was until I learned that it was developed by ex-Cave staff. Immediately my excitement grew and my expectations went sky high.
With its fast paced combat, beautiful cutscenes, engaging boss fights and the grand limiter removal, Rolling Gunner blew my expectations out of the water!
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release date: Jun 20, 2019
Rolling Gunner is a 2D horizontal shmup. Taking advantage of the current gen, Rolling Gunner is able to take advantage of the wide screen ratio and modern graphics. The result is one of the most beautiful 2D shmups I have seen on the Switch.
The busterium and development of Buster Engines has created a new era for mankind, but it all went to hell when the BAC attacked and wiped half of the humanity. As the STORK ship, armed with the rolling gun, you are the only one capable of rendering busterium inert. This is humanity’s last hope.
The best of another era
One of the things that immediately stood out to me is how Rolling Gunner looks absolutely like a game which was spawned on a different generation. It took me some time to realize that the graphics, the cutscenes, the menus and even the sound effect all have a very distinctive root: The Dreamcast.
Perhaps you might know the Dreamcast as the main console for one of the most legendary shmups of all time. The Dreamcast itself was home to many incredible shmup games, with people still releasing new games to this day.
Movement and maneuverability in Rolling Gunner is better kept simple. After all, with all the different things that will be going on in a stage such as the curtains of bullets and the prizes, your mind is better left with some simple moves to remember.
Rolling Gunner has a grand total of 3 different buttons to use: The fire button, the bomb button and the focus fire attack. Each button does exactly what you would expect them to do. Fire allows you to shoot enemies in front of you while being able to move. The bomb releases a screen wide explosion that wipes bullets and gives you brief invincibility. The focus fire lets you concentrate your firepower in a narrower area, while also allowing you to move more slowly and precisely.
Speaking of movement, Rolling Gunner features the traditional 8-way movement. I wish more games went full 360 when using analog, especially danmakus, but alas 8 directions are the genre staple.
Although the main controls are simple, there are 2 elements which make Rolling Gunner unique: The rolling gun and the limiter system.
Your path to success
What will determine if you are good enough or not, is your proficiency using the rolling gun. The concept is simple, a rotating gun that stays in the opposite direction, and locks in place when you press and hold Y. However it bring you focus fire when needed, and also gives you flexibility and 360 degrees of firepower.
A huge weakness in shmup mobility has always been defending your rear, thankfully the rolling gunner is the right tool for the job. Even better, it opens up an entirely new dimension of shmup design where you can threaten the player from multiple directions.
Being able to shoot in 2 different directions is what enabled Rolling Gunner to go nuts with the stage design. Enemies come in from every direction and you need to be aware of where your rolling gun is shooting and where it SHOULD be shooting. The stages become overwhelming if you can’t handle the hordes of enemies by using the right position and the right angle of the rolling gun.
The design of the rolling gun makes me so happy because this is exactly what Last Resort should have been in first place. It is great to see that someone actually understands the concept of coverage in shmups.
Limits are meant to be broken
As your enemies fall, they will drop golden medals which are called “prizes”. Prizes are also dropped by bigger enemies if you are shooting at them from close-medium distance. Collecting prizes will fill a gauge in the bottom left which goes from 0 – 1000. Once you reach 1000, you can press the bomb button to release a pseudo-bomb and increase your firepower.
The duration of your power-up is limited and will be shown as a blue circular gauge around your ship that slowly depletes. If you collect additional prizes while in this powered up state, you will start to build a circular red gauge. Beware that being hit will kick you out of your powered up state. As long as you filled 10% or more of the gauge, you can press the bomb button to activate limiter removal.
Have you ever heard the factoid that humans are able to crush walls walking through them like terminator, but our body limits the muscle strength to protect us from long term damage? Well, limiter removal is exactly that.
You can activate the limiter removal once you fill at least 10% of the gauge. Once activated it will run on its own timer regardless of how much of the previous power up timing you had left. You probably want to activate this as your powered up state is about to expire for maximum efficiency.
Once activated, you will trigger a second pseudo-bomb effect and your firepower will skyrocket. You will also gain a tremendous increase in shot size and the enemies will drop much bigger prizes.
It’s beautiful to see yourself become such a destructive force and collect crazy amounts of prizes. It is no secret that I love games that let you experience brief periods of being overpowered. It truly makes me happy to go nuts.
The bullet hell
A good hard pattern is something very close to what you would find on the final boss of Mushihimesama. At first it looks intimidating and like a sea of bullets, but if you watch closely enough, you will find that there are “weaknesses” to a pattern, as in, spots where bullets naturally diverge and give you a path to safety. Every pattern feels really hard until something clicks and you find the light at the end of the tunnel.
My initial issue with Rolling Gunner was how the pattern feels like moving walls that move ever so closely as if they wanted to crush you. Rather than being majestic streams of bullets, they are more akin to a bunch of bullets randomly thrown together as to kill the player. There didn’t seem to be weaknesses or specific routes that allowed you to push through. They are extended vision tests where you just focus on moving colors and staying out of their way.
And then it clicked…
In shmups, the easy way out of complicated patterns is always away from the enemy. The reason is simple: enemy fire comes from the enemy itself, and narrow passages open up given the distance. It is very possible to avoid to a certain point most patterns by just moving backwards and slightly nudging your direction up or down.
But that’s not what you are supposed to do!
The limiter system rewards you for being close to the enemy. Other than potentially gaining 2 extra screen clears, your limiter will drastically increase your damage output to dispose of enemies before the patterns become unbearable. And that is what you are supposed to do.
Patterns are a tug o war battle with the enemy. You need to gain ground in order to gain limiter charge. Put yourself in increasingly more danger in order to unleash potential. You need to leverage risk/reward. That is what makes Rolling Gunner beautiful, this pursuit of power that can only be achieved by risking it all.
Accessibility and forgiveness
Despite how much I have tried to illustrate the skill ceiling of Rolling Gunner and the level of challenge imposed by the bosses, I gotta say that Rolling Gunner is absolutely one of the most forgiving shmups currently available on the Switch.
The biggest thing you should know is that Rolling Gunner is by default a free-play game. This means that you are free to go into the highest difficulty setting and die over and over, but you will always be able to continue with the only penalty being shame and losing all your score.
Your other protection system will come from the bombs. At any point in the game you can fire your bombs and clear the screen, deal damage and gain brief invincibility. However, if you are hit, you will automatically expend all your bombs and clear the screen. As you might imagine, it is probably not the best way of using your bombs, but it will protect you from accidental deaths. Furthermore, you are encouraged by the game to use all your bombs but 1 in order to carry its protective shield in case anything bad happens.
A challenge for every skill level
There are 4 difficulty levels available to tailor for every skill level:
Original is the intended difficulty of the game and the one most people should be trying. Expert amps things up and offer increased prizes, perfect for hardcore shmup aficionados looking for glory and high scores. Novice and Beginner are designed for players seeking for a casual experience, or those who want to experience the beauty of Rolling Gunner on their own terms without worrying about flashes of blue and purple.
Other than the 4 difficulties mentioned above, you can further adjust a secondary difficulty level on the config screen. I forgot the exact names, but it is pretty much an easy, medium and hard toggle. This means that you can be playing on the original difficulty but easy mode. I don’t have the specifics into what this secondary difficulty does, but it feels like it is related to enemy HP and bullet speed.
I like to take note of little things that enhance the experience, so let me share a few of the things I noticed that I liked a lot.
You will spend a lot of time viewing your own ship to dodge, so thankfully many useful indicators are located around your ship. I mentioned before how the limiter gauges surround your ship, but before activating, you can easily tell if your limiter is ready by watching for a yellow circle of circles pulsating around your ship. A nice detail that lets you know the state of your limiter without looking at the corner of the screen. You can also find your hitbox in the form of a green circle (you can adjust the color on the config screen).
For enemies, there are a couple of useful indicators. When an enemy is coming from off-screen, you will get warning signs if its a medium-big enemy, but for smaller it is a more subtle red flash on the edge of the screen. I cursed the game for a long time for being unfair before realizing this and now I feel dumb. I also complained about bosses not having an HP gauge at the beginning, then I realized it is a subtle green bar at the right edge of the screen. Not as easy to see as most other shmups, but still there regardless. They also have some separations which indicate when a boss will transition to its next phase.
The coolest feature in Rolling Gunner is the replay system. As good or bad as your run might have been, Rolling Gunner lets you save your replay so that you can watch it anytime. This is great because it allows you to capture your best moment, but also analyze your worst ones and devise winning strategies. The replays will show input display and will allow you to fast forward the action, but unfortunately you can’t rewind.
This is a huge step up from Ikaruga’s replay system that only recorded one credit. You might not impress the internet with a run that uses multiple continues, but you can still cherish your best runs.
For other extra features you can select specific stages to play and adjust several settings such as your power level, number of lives and even if you start at the mid boss or end boss of each stage. Perfect for practicing that troublesome dragon satellite.
A modern classic
It took me a while to understand the game, but once I did, I started loving it as a staple of my Switch shmup collection. The gameplay is tight and the action is never ending. But truly my favorite thing is to collect prizes and remove my limits for a blaze of glory.
Every aspect of Rolling Gunner is perfectly executed and the extra features ensure that there is something for everyone. This is definitely one of the few shmups that I can recommend to absolutely anyone and they will enjoy it. The gameplay is suited for casual play, but also covered in layers of complexity and mastery for more hardcore players.
I’m awarding Rolling Gunner a 3rd place because it is an incredible game, but it is hard to top Ikaruga as the best shmup. The competition with Devil Engine is fierce, and they probably could share a #2 spot, but I feel that Devil Engine has so much soul poured into it that makes it a unique beast of its own. Couple that with the upcoming Ignition DLC and you have a package that slightly edges out the title of second best shmup.
- Devil Engine
- Rolling Gunner
- Steredenn: Binary Stars
- Stardust Galaxy Warriors: Stellar Climax
- Sky Force: Reloaded
- Black Paradox
- R-Type Dimensions EX
- Shikhondo – Soul Eater
- AngerForce: Reloaded
- Aero Fighters 2 (ACA Neogeo)
- Lightening Force: Quest for the darkstar (Sega Ages)
- Switch ‘N’ Shoot
- Last Resort (ACA Neogeo)