Before 2022, we hadn’t played a single Psikyo shoot ’em-up. But thanks to a wave of re-releases in mid 2022, and now a few more in 2023, we’re getting a pretty decent overview of their entire back-catalogue. There’s no danger of us stepping into the Mastermind hotseat quite yet, but City Connection’s one-at-a-time approach of re-releasing Psikyo’s games has allowed us to spend a fair amount of time getting to know each one.
That time has meant that we’re now intimate with the Psikyo formula. Almost all of their games consist of seven or eight vertical-shooter levels, stacked with enemies, ending on a boss that – almost inevitably – transforms into a mech at some point. There’s often a choice of characters, each with their own special attack, and an ending that’s specific to that character, tempting us to play one more time. Wrapped around all of this is the City Connection framework, where you can press pause to adjust the number of lives and continues, play cooperatively, and save the game, should you fancy.
It’s hard to know how City Connection are approaching their re-releases (most popular first? Newest first?), but it does feel like they’re becoming more oddball as we go along. Zero Gunner 2 feels very, very different from the Strikers, Gunbirds and Samurai Aces that we’re used to. In fact, we haven’t played any game that is like Zero Gunner 2, let alone a Psikyo title, although there might be a good reason why.
Zero Gunner 2 was released on the Sega Dreamcast, and it certainly shares the console’s love for 3D spaces and polygonal enemies. Psikyo are better known for their 2D pixel-art shmups (Dragon Blaze, released in this second wave of re-releases, is far more conventional), so Zero Gunner immediately starts feeling unusual. While we certainly wouldn’t say it’s attractive – there are some flatter-than-flat textures here, and some pretty rough geometry – it has a chonky Dreamcast appeal.
But it’s how you play Zero Gunner 2 that feels downright barmy. Psikyo clearly wanted you to be navigating a full 3D space, moving seamlessly around the edges of the disk-like arena, so it had a problem. The Dreamcast pads didn’t come with dual analogue sticks, so there was no possibility of doing some twin-stick shooting (which, let’s be honest, hadn’t truly been invented yet either). So, to strafe and fire at the same time, they invented the Pivot System.
The Pivot System, and we’re going to throw up in our mouths a little here, requires you to hold the A button to create a kind of dial in front of your helicopter, and then use the analogue stick to ‘pivot’ around the circumference of that dial. Want to turn right? Hold A and then use the analogue stick to reposition yourselves.
It was clearly the best that Psikyo could have done with the resources they had. But playing it now is like trying to control a remote control car by throwing teacups at it. It’s flipping awful, and it only barely improves over time and experience. We are still, after four or five completions, accidentally flipping our comanche through 180 degrees when we only wanted to dink to the right, and dinking to the right when we wanted to 180. Helicopters are meant to be nimble, but in Zero Gunner 2, they’re abominable.
Thankfully, it’s still Psikyo, and they know how to do certain things right. The enemies, bosses and gunplay are all stellar, as we have almost taken for granted across their games. Hulking great bosses and platforms of war come into view and then dominate the game screen. There’s barely any room for you (something of a problem with those controls), so you’re pivoting around the outside of the screen, leathering them with everything you’ve got.
Zero Gunner 2 adopts an Energy system, where opponents explode in a shower of green energy pickups, and you’re spending them on powerful special attacks. The further you are up the energy meter, the greater the potency of the attack, so there’s some strategy to be had here. And your attacks get increasingly powerful thanks to Power pickups, often popping out of the red enemies you defeat.
There are some cracking bosses here, with a few that are memorable. A submarine parks itself between two skyscrapers (we didn’t question why there were underwater parking spots in the middle of the city), and then transforms into a kind of robotic King Kong that shimmies up to fight you. Two armoured trains travel on parallel tracks, bombarding you as you try to keep up.
What lets them down, though, is that Psikyo keep yelling “cut!”. The action is not seamless in Zero Gunner 2: the action keeps stopping to allow the boss to change form, the scenery to change, or for a multitude of other reasons. Psikyo shooters are notable for their flow, but here it’s too stop-start, and we wished that the re-release had time to remove these kinks, as they were undoubtedly down to the Dreamcast’s limitations.
Those limitations are also seen in a surprising number of visual bugs. Again, this isn’t something that has plagued Psikyo titles in the past, so we can only assume it’s the tech that’s letting things down. The submarine we mentioned arrives on screen with a glitchy doppelganger, and another boss explodes in a series of blocky, artefacted fireworks. Again, we don’t understand why these haven’t been tidied up.
But for all these clear and present criticisms, there’s still a raw joy from playing Zero Gunner 2. Psikyo haven’t just given up and dived out of a back exit: their knack for designing a boss, surprising us with a cinematic moment, and filling the screen with innumerable bullets hasn’t gone away. There are moments where, like riding a rodeo bronco, you begin to master the Pivot System. You’ve collected enough Energy to destroy anything on screen in a few minutes, and the Psikyo-branded fun kicks in.
But there’s no denying that Zero Gunner 2 is one of, if not the, weakest of City Connection’s Psikyo re-releases. It hails from a time when every game went 3D and polygonal, and those games rarely stand the test of time. Thanks to Zero Gunner 2’s abysmal Pivot System, it’s about as nimble as a crashed dumper truck.
But don’t dismiss it outright: if you have a deep love for Psikyo shooters, or carry some nostalgia for the Starfox era of 3D gaming, then there is some rough, unrefined enjoyment to be had in Zero Gunner 2. Just with plenty of asterisks.
You can buy Zero Gunner 2 from the Xbox Store
- Blocky and colourful graphics
- Imaginative, screen-filling bosses
- Successful and replayable Psikyo template
- Pivot System controls are horrid
- Plenty of graphical glitching
- Keeps cutting away from the action
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Purchased by TXH
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
- Version reviewed - Xbox One on Xbox Series X
- Release date - 11 January 2023
- Launch price from - £7.49
I appreciate the comment – it’s not often we get this kind of critical appraisal, and it makes me second-guess the way I approach reviews. Thank you.
My context is that I am newbie shoot’em up convert. I’ve mentioned it in other reviews, but I’ve really only played them in the past couple of years, so I don’t have the wealth of experience that it sounds like you have. That might align with some readers who are not coming to Zero Gunner 2 from a position of nostalgia/experience, but want to know if it holds up today. Equally, it won’t align with people like you who have so much knowledge of the genre! Particularly with reviews of older games like this, I will try to add more context about where I come from.
With that in mind, it’s hard for me to ‘Digital Foundry’ the game against its older incarnations, as I don’t have them to hand, nor have the experience of them. I have taken note of your comment on input lag and framerate, which I can understand is incredibly pertinent with shooters like this. Again, will try to include, as I have been covering a lot of the City Connection rereleases.
In terms of the fightstick compatibility, I wonder if the best solution is a feature that covers the topic more broadly? I am wary of including commentary on that as it could stretch to a host of peripherals/hardware (mouse and keyboard, different platforms for example), that not every reviewer has so we can’t make consistent.
Regardless, you’ve given me plenty to think about, and I apologise that my context and experience is so different. Will try to make that more clear in the future.
I am honestly shocked by this review. While not on the same league as Ikaruga or Border Down, Zero Gunner 2 is undeniably a classic. It’s control system works, and better than on Under Defeat, a similar DC game that got better reviews than this one when it was released full price for 360. While I haven’t tried the Xbox version, the Dreamcast original was original, was fun, was excellent graphically, moved super smoothly and had really impressive and very exotic bosses, in line with other Psyko offerings. It is worth noting that zg2 is a very doable shmup, you don’t have to be a Japanese pro player with a seimitsu stick, a CRT and a supergun to have a chance. It is one of the few shmups that I have 1cc. There is a ranking system, but it is nothing crazy or unfair. It is also a 4:3 game, so it looks great in modern TV’s for people without a Tate/rotating screen.
It is worth nothing that the scoring system is very bare bones, with no combos or chains. I am not into that, but I understand that they are the meat and bones of all shmups. So there’s that.
Instead of focusing so much on the game itself, I wish the reviewer had given more details about the quality of the port. There are glitches, OK, but how bad is the input lag? The framerate? And something critical considering the infamous MS driver policy with fightsticks? Does it accept fightsticks? I wish there was more focus on this because even games obviously intended to be played with a stick, like Super Hydorah, Maldita Castilla, Streets of Rage 4 or Shredders’ Revenge are being released without stick support and this fact is hardly ever mentioned.