Gynoug! Now that’s a blast from the past. There was a time, around the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, when a Sega Megadrive/Genesis owner couldn’t move for high quality shoot ‘em ups. I remember jumping down the rabbit hole, starting with Space Harrier and then moving through Forgotten Worlds, Xenon 2, Truxton, Super Fantasy Zone, the Thunder Forces and Mega Swiv. What a time to be alive.
Gynoug sat somewhere in the middle of that list. Not one of the top-tier shmups, but good enough to leave a mark. My memory’s hazy, but I do remember it being hard as steel, and I’d top out at roughly the boss battle of Level 2. I remember Level 2 because, after Level 1’s body horror and HR Giger-esque creations, you were suddenly fighting seagulls, fish, and a cloud that vomited mincemeat, which was all a bit of a left-turn.
But what always stood out with Gynoug was your character. Rather than the generic spaceship or armed marine, you were playing – what I imagined to be – an angel, fighting back the hordes of hell to earn his place in the halls of legend. There wasn’t much in the way of story: just a winged dude standing on a pillar on the title screen, and the incoming horrors from level 1 onwards. But it did a job of implying a wider narrative.
Booting up Gynoug, a slick menu kicks in and you’re given a few options. This isn’t a museum title, which is a moderate shame: there’s no additional material to look through. But Gynoug does offer a surplus of visual and audio options (including an on-point CRT experience), as well as a welcome and generous ‘Cheats’ menu, where you can play around with things like Unlimited Continues, Infinite Lives, Invincibility and the rest. Perhaps the most welcome is the option to disable a loss of weaponry when you get killed: if you want an easier experience, but still retain the challenge, then we recommend it. Achievement hunters take note: you can also have these cheats enabled and get 100%.
Starting a game, the 4:3 frames automatically kick in, and Gynoug starts the action. Particularly with CRT enabled, this looks exactly as I remembered it. The only visual issues are in some flicker on the menus, particularly when a boss is about to enter play. We think this was the case with the original Megadrive version, but a tidy-up would have been welcome.
Visually, Gynoug is a mixed bag, but when it gets it right, it can be one of the most grotesque and visually sumptuous shoot ‘em ups out there. On the poorer end, you have some out-of-theme enemies that just don’t sit flush with the archangel-against-hell theme. We’ve already mentioned the vomiting clouds and seagulls, but level four introduces some enemies that are basically Spider-man, and some weird putty men who fire cocoons(?) at you. The imagination gets lost in the execution. There’s also a habit of adding ‘balls of stuff’ as enemies, with a will-that-do shrug.
But Gynoug has some of the best and most memorable bosses committed to cartridge. They tend to come in two flavours: the first is a kind of industrial flesh-grafting, as faces are bolted onto trains, planes and automobiles. It’s a bit like those terrifying Resident Evil mods where Lady Dimitrescu is replaced with Thomas the Tank Engine. The other flavour is pure HR Giger. Twisted body-horrors greet you, mostly phallic or foetal. They might attack you by thrusting their heart at you, revealing a ribcage full of pustules, and more. It was a lot for a nine-year-old to handle at the time, but coming at it now, you can admire the scale and design of these grotesques. Gynoug also does a cracking job at playing with depth and parallaxing, as backgrounds shift and shake to create a sense of a world collapsing.
Playing Gynoug is still a hardcore test. Luckily, we had the safety net of the cheats and Gynoug’s helpful RB rewind button, otherwise we wouldn’t have made it past Level 3. At times, Gynoug resembles a bullet-hell shooter more than a pure shmup, particularly in the boss sections (and the near-impossible Innerspace-themed level 5). You have a small and mobile ship, so you can find smaller gaps, but Gynoug replies by filling the entire screen with bullets. If you’re coming at this fresh, this is on the top tier of challenge.
Gynoug does outfit you with plenty of weapons, so you can emphatically retaliate. It’s a really well-stocked arsenal, actually. You can pick up red and blue orbs, which increase the width of your attack beam and add power to it. But you can also gather bombs and special attacks, displayed on-screen as scrolls with letters on, and they have a wide range of benefits, from angel allies to lightning bolts that obliterate everything. Gynoug is punishing in the way it takes the power away from you – you lose some of your accumulated red and blue power on death – but it’s possible to reach a point where you’re so superpowered that barely anything can touch you.
Until something attacks you from below or behind. Gynoug has a habit of creating cruel situations that can’t be anticipated. Giant heads will suddenly leap from below without any telegraphing, or ships will appear from the left of the screen (one miniboss in particular abuses the problem). Gynoug desperately needed a warning system, a small red triangle or similar to highlight that something is coming. Your character is fast, but not fast enough that you can suddenly rush-burst out of the way, so these moments can rankle.
Tastes will differ on whether Gynoug gets its approach right. It likes to fill the screen with a cacophony of enemies and bullets, but doesn’t skimp in giving you powerful weapons too. It’s not hot on finesse or strategy, but it’s impressive to watch, and the sheer bullet-hell-ness can bring its own exhilaration. In our opinion, it stops Gynoug from being a truly top-end shooter, but makes it well worth playing regardless.
All-in, Gynoug is a welcome re-release. Ratalaika have done a sterling job with the visual presentation, making time to include a range of cheats and rewinds to suit your ability. While there’s no concept art or interviews to fill the package out, you’re getting a rock-solid little shmup with a fine line in disturbing body-horrors. Play it once without the cheats, then flick a few on and go on a tour of Gynoug’s hellish spaces.
You can buy Gynoug from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S