I’ve got a bit of history with Sega Mega Drive shooters; no good at them, but we’ve always tried! In terms of numbers played, probably more so with the vertical variety, which that system was always properly stacked with – Truxton, Mega SWIV, Twin Cobra, Elemental Master, M.U.S.H.A. and Xenon II (even if it’s a slightly ropey port!) immediately spring to mind as a few I’ve spent a lot of time enjoying. However, it’s the horizontal shooter where I’ve found the most enjoyment there – Thunder Force III and IV are without doubt the standouts, and then there’s Darius II port Sagaia and Wings of Wor… Loads of good stuff, but until the announcement for this freshly enhanced version appeared, I don’t think I’d even heard of Gleylancer, let alone played it!
I’m going to request a pass here though, on the grounds that Gleylancer was a Japan-only 1992 Mega Drive exclusive, which did make an appearance on Wii Virtual Console in 2008, but is only now making its way onto PlayStation 4, Xbox and Nintendo Switch in a new remaster, care of Ratalaika Games, at £5.99, which I imagine is a bit less than that Mega Drive cartridge would set you back now! They’ve also kindly provided me with a Switch code for review purposes, just so you know!
As with all great horizontal shoot ’em ups, Greylancer has some story too, where you are Lucia, a 16-year old star fighter pilot in the Earth Federation. In just four years from now as I write this, in 2025, a war is going to break out between humanity and an unknown alien race – you heard it here first! Anyway, your father, Ken, is a high-ranking admiral in the Federation Navy, but he was captured after his ship was warped out of the combat zone by alien scum with some teleporting skills. Heart-broken by her father’s disappearance, Lucia hijacks the prototype Gleylancer fighter, and together with her friend Teim, goes after him.
And that translates to this self-proclaimed no-nonsense single player shooter! In terms of upgrades from the original Mega Drive release, they’ve left the look and feel pretty much intact, and focussed on improved gameplay modes with a load of accessibility features and enhanced controls, as well as put some work into translating the game’s space opera anime cutscenes for that all-important story we just discovered! Fortunately they’ve left the classic Japanese “l” instead of “r” non-translation in the title intact though!
Jumping into the game for the first time by rapidly pressing the start button, rather than paying attention to any of the systems or options on offer (which we’ll come back to), my immediate thought was how much like Thunder Force III this all felt, as you launch into a deeply parallax asteroid field that is so brown that you might think you’ve landed in the Commodore 64’s finest graphical hour! It starts off in traditional fashion with a few bits of cannon fodder arriving in formation before the first power up appears, and suddenly you’re confronted with this slightly confusing but obviously game-changing feature – the Mover system for your secondary weapon power-ups. These bonus weapons are familiar territory, with twin-shots, lasers, 5-way energy pulses, rebounders, spread bombs, flame throwers and a cool double-light saber thing available from regular drop-pods, and you can have up two of the same equipped at any time.
What’s not so familiar is that this Mover system then dictates how you control them, as you’d know if you hadn’t skipped through everything at the start, because before each game you’re given a whopping seven options to choose its formation from. By default, the secondary weapon, called the Gunner, will fire in the direction that the ship is moving, while your main fire keeps shooting forwards, so if you’re moving backwards, right to left, so is the Gunner fire, while the main fire is going left to right ahead of you. Then you can reverse that; or you can set them to auto-aim, of sorts; you can have them swivelling around the top or bottom of the ship, or do that in reverse; they can follow the motion of the ship but only shoot forwards; and they can spin around the ship. Phew! Worth trying them all to find your preference, but the default’s usually the default for a reason, and that’s mine! It does take a while to get your head around, but once it clicks, these Movers and Gunners suddenly make those enemies coming from all directions or firing from around the next corner in a tunnel section a bit more managable!
Coming back to the level design, this is probably my main criticism with the game – it’s a bit hit or miss, or more often than not, just somewhere in the middle! That first stage really is a bit lacklustre, but get to stage five, for example, and you’re going to be treated to an inventive, all-direction trip around an enormous mothership (eat your heart out, G-Darius – even your three screens couldn’t handle this!), gradually wearing down its defences and inhabitants until you can deal the killer blow. And around and about that, you’ll see more riffs on Thunder Force (IV in particular) and P-47’s glorious sunset, if World War II had happened in space, and even that old master Scramble’s cruel mazes, but it’s mostly a bit uninspiring and by the numbers. Or “no-nonsense” maybe?
In fact, the levels vary more in difficulty than in design, and the same is true of their bosses, which range from tests of nerve in the face of masses of bullets to some very intricate and sometimes harsh laser dodging. There’s one boss, in that up to this point memorable stage five again, that I quickly realised that I could mostly just stay in one place and simply hold down fire to take out its artillery and still quickly chip away at its health!
I’m sure I’ll use the words no-nonsense at least one more time again later, but that’s also a great way of describing these bosses. No giant yellow robot fish called Moon Zapper here – in the main its all functional, grimy space pirate stuff; the kind of stuff that might realistically be kidnapping your Federation Navy father in real life in a couple of years time if the game’s story is true! The final boss is a treat though, especially once you get a couple of phases in and you’re toying with ship speed as you dance around fields of bullets.
Yes, you heard that right! If you’re playing the default Modern mode on normal difficulty (there’s also a hard one), it’s beatable. And it’s all down to those Mover weapon systems and Gunner secondary weapons… Modern concessions in this revamp include being able to change your Mover with a button press in play to adapt to your current predicament, and, most crucially, you can also freely aim those secondary guns with the right stick. This effectively turns it into a twin-stick shooter, and while it feels great, it massively reduces the challenge.
Just to complete the picture on different modes, you’ve also got a rewind feature and English subtitles here that you’re not getting in the original “Vintage” mode, as well as persistent high scores and an unlockable Mania mode that I’m still to discover! I did discover a Cheater mode while I was switching between them just now though, which offers invincibility and access to the debug menu, allowing for level warps and more.
As I’ve already alluded to, this game was never meant to be about blowing you away with impossible amounts of enemies coming out of wildly exotic stars-capes before confronting an equally exotic giant boss sprite. What I will say is that Mega Drive graphics always look at home on the Switch, and these look very crisp and move smoothly in both TV and handheld play. If only I could think of a more appropriate word than functional… Similarly, the music is never going to win any awards either, but it’s jaunty enough, and the end-game change in pace, as well as the fantastic end-credits theme, really raises the bar. It’s just a shame they’re tucked away so far into the game. Everyone’s going to get the cool robot speech that keeps popping up though, and the other sound effects also do a worthy job of keeping all that on-screen chaos continuously loud.
Gleylancer was and is a lot of fun, and with the conveniences that this modern version provides, is something far more accessible than those other games we’ve mentioned that might outshine it in most aspects. It’s not the most glamorous shooter out there, and with Thunder Force IV also available for a bit less, even at £5.99 you could maybe do better if there’s only room for one shooter in your life. But there isn’t, and you probably haven’t played this one to death, and there a reason this is being rereleased again now – if you want a no-nonsense shooter that’s stood the test of thirty years, here it is!