Cross-breeding a vertical shoot ’em-up with a brick-breaker sounds like it should work. There isn’t much distance between Space Invaders and Arkanoid: they’re both challenging you to fire projectiles at a grid of targets, clearing them to trigger the end of a level. We had our money on the bet coming off, and if we realised that shmup linchpins Psikyo were behind it, we would have topped up the bet a little further.
We thought it was a safe bet and… drum roll… it was! GUNBARICH is a whole wodge of fun. The similarities between the two genres give the game a strong foundation, and while it stumbles on a couple of issues, GUNBARICH ends up making a case for more games following in its wake.
We’d say that GUNBARICH is 70% brick breaker, 20% shoot ’em-up and – out of nowhere – 10% pinball game. Your ship is locked to the bottom of the screen, and can only move side-to-side, as you’d expect from any brick-breaker paddle. But your paddle has been pimped out, as it’s got pinball-like flippers welded onto the top. With a tap of A, you can flip the ball with much greater force, and a deal more direction. It inherits all the control that you get from a pinball game, as you match the flip with the trajectory in which you want the ball to travel.
The objectives are the same as a brick-breaker too. There are bricks in the top half of the game screen, and you need to plink every last one of them to progress. They’re not all laid out in a grid, waiting for you to clear them, though: there are shiny, unclearable bricks; pinball bumpers to bash the ball back; and walls that slide in and out of view. Getting your ball to the bricks isn’t always easy, but when you do manage it, there’s that undeniable brick-breaker joy of sitting back as the ball is trapped in a cage full of blocks.
So far, so brick-breaker. Where’s that 20% shoot ’em-up? Psikyo have clearly watched the Arkanoids and Alleyways of the world and decided that they’re lifeless and slow. With their shooter smarts, they’ve come up with a few solutions. What happens if you introduce shmup enemies, power-ups, and the helping hand of an auto-aim?
GUNBARICH is wise enough not to fill the arena with enemies. That would have been a special kind of chaos. Instead, it adds in a couple to keep you on your toes. The method of killing them is obvious: you just need to aim your ball at them one or more times. But it’s how they attack that’s genius: they fire projectiles at you, but those projectiles can also be bashed back with your flippers. Suddenly, the enemies are a built-in multiball, and you now have the means of clearing the screen quicker. Of course, the enemy’s balls can still hit you – stunning your paddle and leaving you wide open to a lost life – but timing your flipper strikes can turn enemies into boons, rather than buggers.
Every three levels, a boss rears its head. There are no blocks on these levels, so the bosses are the focus. Clowns, dogs and others get the boss treatment, and this is where Psikyo’s shoot ’em-up experience really comes to the fore. They have multiple phases, clear weak spots, and they toss balls at you to reflect for massive damage. The boss levels are fab, and they still carry the brick-breaking joy of getting your ball stuck in the top of the screen, as you watch the health bar get eaten up with every bounce on their noggin.
But the real crossover joy comes from the power-ups. These are tumbled down sporadically by a witch character, and you’re more likely to get them if you lose a life. They range from true multiballs, all the way to converting your ship into a spaceship, firing lasers at the blocks; speed-downs to give you more time; and a Hyper power-up that lets your ball break through blocks like they were knives through butter. They are always transformative, and they can make short work of a level that would otherwise have given you a hard time.
Which is a neat segue to the last of the borrowed elements from shoot ’em-ups: auto-aim. We never quite got the sense that the ball was being bounced off our paddle in the same way it did in Arkanoid or other brick-breakers. Physics often seemed to take a step back, allowing the game to nudge the ball towards the last brick. It’s the greatest Achilles’ heel of the genre: hitting the last brick is a recipe for incredible frustration, and few brick-breakers find a solution for it.
With power-ups and a helpful auto-aim, the issue is reduced, if not completely removed. When you have switches, pinball bumpers and moving walls obscuring the bricks, there’s an increased chance that a brick will hide in a nook and be a pain to clear. But the various helping hands lessen the problem.
If you’re on Score Attack mode, though, when time is of the essence, and you can’t just let a life deplete so that you can replenish the timer, then it still stings. GUNBARICH has answers, but not fool proof ones, for easing the frustration of the final brick.
While we’re at it, did there have to be a timer? There are enough ways to fail already, without the timer ticking down and stealing a life from us. Considering your fate isn’t always completely in your hands – the last brick can feel like it’s got luck-armour – the timer can feel like a kick in the nuts. And is there a reason why there are so few levels in GUNBARICH? It makes sense in shoot ’em-up land, where the levels and bosses are hard to construct, but you get the sense that a GUNBARICH level is comparatively easy to make.
But for all our whining, GUNBARICH is a success. It’s a blemish-free port of a game that spliced brick-breakers with shoot ’em-ups, and got away with it. It solves a lot of Arkanoid’s issues by stealing from vertical shooters, and speeds everything up while it’s at it. If you’ve ever felt that brick-breakers were missing something, that they never quite amounted to fun, then GUNBARICH may be the game to – finally – showcase their potential.
The best brick-breaker on the Xbox? It’s not a high bar to clear, but GUNBARICH does it with style.
You can buy GUNBARICH from the Xbox Store