Game: Gun Frontier (ガン フロンティア)
Release Date: September 25, 1997
System: Sega Saturn
The story of Gun Frontier was inspired by California's Gold Rush. An earth-like planet called "Gloria" was discovered by humans in the year 2120. On the planet of Gloria large amounts of gold was discovered and like the 49ers of California, humans ventured to the planet in search of riches. Unfortunately for the humans they made a very human mistake: poor planning. The cost to reach Gloria bankrupted them and the humans were forced to start civilization over again. Not back to the stone ages, but conveniently in this game humanity begins in what looks like the American Old West. And like the American Old West, bandits were there to spoil the fun and hard work of normal folks. It is these bandits, called the 'Wild Lizards', who play the role of the bad guys in your quest to restore peace to Gloria for all Glorians.
After viewing the never-gets-old Japanese Saturn boot up screen, the game begins with the story sequence. Images of astronauts in space and cowboys being brutalized by tanks set the scene and get you pumped up for battle. After that you are given three choices. Start, options, and a sound test. The game has a 'Saturn' mode (horizontal) and an 'Arcade' mode (vertical). The instructions explicitly tell you NOT to turn your TV on its side if you select 'Arcade' mode, which I thought was cute. Other options include a difficulty setting (Easy, Normal), ship stock (3-5) and a sound setting (Stereo, Mono).
Your ship, which looks like a 9mm handgun with wings and a cockpit, comes in two colors. Red (P1) and blue (P2). The game does support two-player simultaneous action. If you look closely at the short intro sequence that plays before the start of the first level, you'll notice the pilot of your ship is wearing a cowboy hat...which I thought was a nice touch.
"Push Start Butto" An example of bad cropping in Saturn mode.
Your ship's guns are leveled up by collecting coins which are available after destroying a specific enemy. Five silver coins levels up your gun, one gold coin maxes it out. The gold coin is rare and its flight pattern makes it even more elusive. You'll probably crash into enemy fire just trying to acquire it. When you die, your weapon is downgraded one level upon re-spawning. Power-ups in the game are few in far between in the first half the game, so treasure those coins dearly.
In addition to the coins, you can collect gold bars to build your bomb arsenal. The more gold bars you collect, the more powerful your bomb becomes. Keep in mind that unlike most shooters out there using the bomb doesn't make you temporarily invincible, nor does it destroy everything on the screen. I learned the hard way and sometimes it is difficult to see enemy bullets while the flames of the bomb cover up most of the area around you. It's kind of cheap, but I guess it's up to you to make sure there are no enemy bullets headed in your direction before you employ a bomb.
This is one of those shoot 'em ups which spawn you at some random checkpoint if you lose a ship (except during a boss fight). This is one of my pet peeves when it comes to this genre. The only shooter where I didn't mind was Super Aleste. At least in Super Aleste you are given an option to respawn at the location of death (it must be earned), but with Gun Frontier, you are not given a choice. You are often respawned in some bad places. In addition to sometimes being spawned where the enemy has an advantage, your weapon's power is knocked down one level. The game would be less frustrating if you would just spawn at the location of death like most other shooters.
The Saturn version is part of the "Arcade Gears" series which come in a double-disc case but only carry one disc. I guess the thicker case is meant to make the buyer feel they have bought something more grand than they really did. The extra space is for the small booklet which comes with the game which could have fit in with a single-disc case. The booklet is a step-by-step guide on how to get the most of the game. Upon reading the guide, I found it to be utterly useless as it was written by none other than our hero, Captain Obvious. The booklet tells you things like "Collect the coins to power up" and "Be careful of enemy projectiles". Yeah, thanks.
Back in 1990, this game placed 7th on the best games of 1990 by the long-dead Japanese magazine GAMEST. It placed 3rd in the 'Best Graphics' category. I would have to disagree. There were a lot prettier games in arcades back in 1990, but GAMEST thinks there are only two.This game was released at the same time as Street Fighter II so I could safely say that this game probably didn't get much attention.
Our pilot wears a cowboy hat!
Some of the enemies (especially the bosses) have cool retro-futuristic, original designs. Most of the enemies seemed to be inspired by weaponry available on earth between the mid 19th century up to World War II. Who would have thought an old revolver would make a cool design for a space ship? The premise of the game is also original in a shooter and gives the game a great aesthetic and theme. I believe this and Capcom's Gun.Smoke are the only shoot 'em ups with an Old West theme. References to Ufology are also in the game (face on mars, crop circles), which adds to its quirkiness. This game loves tank-type vehicles, so there is a wide variety of them.
Another cool feature is that this is one of the earlier shooters that had destructible backgrounds. In some parts, if there is a tank or tanks perched up on a cliff taking aim at you, destroy the box of explosives sitting on the ground and watch the cliff crumble as the tanks are swallowed by the ravine below. Most other destructible backgrounds are buildings which may house enemies. One of the cooler buildings is the movie theatre...upon blowing its roof off you are treated to an animated sequences depicting a movie. The 'movie' will change randomly with each time you play the game.
The game's sprites are pretty large and detailed. Usually for shooters of the era enemies are small and not very detailed. This game gives quite a bit of detail even to the lowliest grunt. It does seem they spent more time with the enemies than they did with the backgrounds. The game's soundtrack doesn't have much variety, but the tracks do have a funky Old West theme to them that match the game's environment.
The bland backgrounds which barely change between levels are ugly and boring. This is a shame because the graphics are fairly nice when it comes to the enemies, but they dropped the ball on the backgrounds. I know there is only so much you could do given the game has an Old West theme to it, but since it IS in the distant future on another planet, the designers should have added a little more variety. They threw a waterfall in as well as a loading dock/beach stage, but it wasn't enough.
At first I thought the game was hard, it wasn't, it is just cheap. Being spawned with a weaker weapon in a parade of enemies dancing in a bullet storm isn't exactly fair. Did they do it for the challenge? No, it's just cheap. The game's difficulty is inconsistent throughout and so are the 'hit points' of some of the enemies. For example, a specific enemy may take a lot of shots to kill on the first level, while on later level that same enemy could be taken down with one or two shots with the same level weapon.
Last, but not least (this may be a spoiler), the final true boss is something I have never seen in a shooter. Kill it with one shot or it's game over. If you fail to do so, you don't start the boss fight again, or even the last level. The game gives you a 'bad' ending and you have to start over from scratch. Fuuu! Actually, it's not a grievance but I don't think this is exactly praiseworthy either.
Less than a second after spawning.
The Verdict: 5.5/10
Gun Frontier has not really aged well. It was originally released in 1990 in arcades and I know I shouldn't ride an old game too hard given the technology in 1990, but there were better shooters available that year and even prior to that (R-Type, Raiden, Gradius, Darius, to name a few).
This game is definitely a mixed bag. There are these little quirks in the game that make you think "that was cool" but that is soon followed by something not so cool. As much as I love shooters, I didn't love this game. It was a bit below average, but it did get a little better the more I played it, but it still wasn't that great. The only great thing about this game was it drew inspiration for one of the greatest shooters of all time: Battle Garegga. They don't share any of the same designers, programmers, etc, but the similarities are there and the inspiration is obvious. If you play Gun Frontier before Battle Garegga, you could almost think that Battle Garegga is a sequel. Don't let that fool you, though. Battle Garegga is to Gun Frontier as a Lamborghini Murcielago is to a Chevrolet Cavalier. Well, maybe that is a bit much. But I do think the creators of Battle Garegga played this and thought "Neat concept, now let's make it perfect." And that is what they did.
If you're a collector of Saturn games or shooters, pick it up just to scratch the itch of acquiring the game. If you're looking for a really good shooting game, you can pass this one up as you will not really miss anything special. If you want to acquire the game on the cheap, it is also available on the PlayStation 2 via "Taito Legends 2" which includes some great games so going the PS2 route might be worth it. I have never played the PS2 version, so if there is much improvement over the Saturn version please let me know by commenting.
No backups, pirates, or emulation. My copy:
Don't do it!