(Note: the actual game looks much better than it does in screenshots and YouTube videos, mostly because a terrible anti-aliasing filter is set by default. Switch it off, and the pixels literally pop with color, vibrancy, and detail).
Armored Hunter Gunhound EX, made by G.Rev (developers of Senko no Ronde, among other notable shmups) and Dracue, Co. ltd , presents us with a sort of spiritual sequel to Lucasarts’ long-forgotten 2D sidescroller Metal Warriors, or NCS Corp’s Assault Suits Valken (Cybernator in the West). Even so, Gunhound’s overall design is less “side scroller” and more “arcade mode shooting game”, with a touch of dense, obscure, and nuanced controls added to the proceedings. This is hard to explain, so let me do so!
Controlling giant robots or mechs in video games always presents a challenge to the developers of such a game. On the one hand, such companies can choose to go the route of “playability”, making fast, responsive controls that make the mechs indistinguishable from any other action game. I’m sure you’ve played any number of games that contain robots which have a certain fluidity to them, from Zone of the Ender’s Orbital Frames to Armored Core to Gundam’s recent Extreme Vs arcade games (based off Virtual On, of course, but that’s a digression for another day). Those sorts of games want to make you fast, dexterous, and certain of your ability to dodge and weave through enemy attacks and respond with offensive techniques of your own. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it doesn’t play to the unique possibilities of the theme.
On the other hand, some mech games want to duplicate the perceived physicality of controlling a mech through the controls; thus, in a way, you wrangle with a complex control scheme in addition to avoiding obstacles and achieving your objectives, whether as simple as blasting all of the things or rescuing civilians. The real archetype of this possibility comes from the original Xbox’s Steel Battalion, a game that required a $250 controller to play with over 97 buttons that truly wanted to simulate this experience, including a limited field of view. While most mech-based games in this vein don’t go so far, there’s still something to be said for implementing such a control scheme; it provides a certain sense of physical rhythm that enhances, rather than detracts, from the experience.
Armored Hunter Gunhound EX (quite a mouthful!) falls more in line with the latter set, while also trying to shove an arcade shooter in there somewhere. The result’s not perfect by any means, but it’s perfectly challenging, entertaining, and frustrating all at once. Gunhound puts you in a very, very heavy-set robot tank that moves incredibly slowly. It has a stock machine gun, which fires at a steady rate, and you can literally aim it at any direction on screen when pressing a direction. You’ll be using the “lock aim” button a lot, as this allows you to aim at a particular direction while moving; otherwise, you’ll just fire wherever you point the D-Pad, which isn’t exactly helpful!
Considering this limitation to your aiming, the Gunhound also has an “anti-air” weapons systems activated by holding the anti-air button, mostly containing homing missiles with a few smaller ones for good measure. The rockets come in limited stock, and you need to aim some and “lock on” other (by using the on-screen reticle). These missiles cannot aim like the machine gun in a full 360 degree, since they need to “home in” on their target, so plan accordingly. Lastly, the “punch” button lets you deal melee damage to foes, but it also doubles as a projectile reflector with the proper timing. There are other weapons, but you won’t unlock them until you finish the game once, so expect to become intimately familiar with them.
The other component of Gunhound, adding to its control complexities, are the dash/boost/jump systems. Considering the slow default movement of your mech, enemy shots comes far too fast and wide to simply avoid; as such, you need to use the boost button to move quickly around the screen. That boost also puts your mech low enough to the ground to avoid enemy fire at certain heights, making it essential. Additionally, your “jump” in this case consists of boosters which only raise your mech upwards for a short period of time, indicated by a bar in the upper left hand corner of the screen. Hitting the boost button when you land prevents your “shock absorbers” from activating, which delay you for a quick second. In this game, standing still is almost never a good idea! You’ll need to use boosting and jumping in concert to hover, slide, and move around the entire screen while, at the same time, managing your weaponry effectively at the same time.
Goodness, is that ever a lot of controls! For at least the first hour, using these various abilities in concert will present a seemingly unsurmountable hurdle for the majority of people who buy the game. Gunhound expects you to learn these by the first stage, where it start to unleash all sorts of nasty enemies from above and below. I’m not sure if I’d say memorization is absolutely necessary (switching between weapon modes on reflex will often help a lot!), but it definitely lends itself to that sort of mastery. The last two of the five stages present a ton of varied, difficult, and timed challenges that will test every skill in your arsenal to succeed. In a word: the level design demands mastery of the complex control scheme to succeed.
I like to think of “mastery” in terms of 1 Corinthians 9: all athletes in all games strive towards the peak of physical fitness and perfection. Getting there requires discipline, self-control, and the ability to not quit. Yes, I muttered and yelled at the game more than a few times as I wrangled my way around the controls, but a cool head usually became the perfect weapon towards some of the boss patterns and timed trial runs. Gunhound EX demands you play to win, and I was happy to oblige. Conquer the controls and make it your slave, man!
24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 25 Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27 but I [l]discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
The bosses present even greater difficulty, with a need to find weakpoints and figure out how NOT to die (trust me, it happens fast and furious here). That said, the controls aren’t bad; they are responsive, intuitive, and surprisingly natural once you get used to your controller sounding like the clacking of sticks and the switching of various modes. The first game that comes to mind is Project Gotham Racing, which often replicated the physical demands of breaking, drifting, and weaving around tight corners. As well, it reminds me of Dark Souls in a way, as the controls play against your expectations from its genre; appearances deceive! Gunhound makes 2D mech combat surprisingly tactile and interesting via its dense mechanical layers.
That said, while I think the game’s mighty interesting, I can’t say I demanded the inclusion of a typical anime giant robot plot. The dialogue and voice acting, for what it is, go on and on and on about things that Gunhound never bothers to explain, and that I could care less about. Who has time to read it when you’re trying not to die? People just keep yelling at me in Japanese while I’m trying to play, and that’s not helpful! There’s just too much technobabble, and too much text, and you can’t turn it off! Add that you need to MANUALLY SKIP any and all cutscenes after you continue, and it just becomes tedious. I’m thinking of the last boss, which required me to skip through its text dialogue at LEAST thirty times, every time I died. This is simply inexcusable, and I don’t understand it in the least.
There’s also the strange problem of graphical “flash”, as I’ll call it. Sometimes, explosions brighten the screen to an absurd level, or cause the screen to be slightly obscured. If an enemy fires something, you may not be able to see it as it travels through the explosion, hitting you in the process. I realize they wanted to give the explosions a big impact, and in that sense the graphics work fine, but it can hamper the game in key moments. I’ve been killed more than once due to this, and it’s nasty when you’ve just survived a massive onslaught to suddenly star at a Game Over screen.
Despite those strange problems, which detract enough from the experience to lower the star rating, I recommend Armored Hunter Gunhound EX if you’re looking for something different for a few hours. It’s a wonderfully design system of interlinking mechanics, and I’ve not played a game like it in a long time. Just be prepared for challenge!