As I’ve of often said, I might not be great at horizontal shooters, but I’ve been playing an awful lot of them for an awful long time! And while we might only be in the second week of November 2021 as I write this, it’s already been quite the month for them in these parts too!

It all began with Deathsmiles. And you know I said I’ve played an awful lot of them? Well, I’d never played Deathsmiles, but in the space of a week it’s already knocking on the doors of Thunder Force AC as my favourite shooter ever! It’s a very gothic, occult-infused arcade bullet-hell from Cave back in 2007 that’s simply gorgeous, and its Castlevania-esque soundtrack does it no harm either! Unfortunately as I write there’s currently no legitimate way for me play this, although we’ve just found out there will be soon, and I’ve gone crazy and preordered the Collector’s Edition, so watch this space! However, needing to play it the second I’d seen it in action it did finally force me to sort out MAME on my MacBook after years of putting it off.

A few days later, something that I had legitimately been looking forward to for ages, Schildmaid MX from HitP Studio arrived. “Turn bullet hell into bullet heaven with your advanced Schildmaid technology and start collecting dangerous projectiles to power up your ship and score big!” I’m still getting to grips with its Jaeger mode for bullet-hell babies, but there’s a bunch of more frantic modes for veterans, and everyone’s getting a wonderfully catchy soundtrack against some often-breathtaking 2D visuals. And I almost forgot to mention that it’s one of the most exhilarating games I’ve ever played!

And while all of that was in full swing, along came Ratalaika Games, on the back of their recent rerelease of cult Sega Mega Drive shooter Gleylancer, and the announcement that they’d be pulling another one out of that same bag with Gynoug, or Wings of Wor as it was known outside of Japan. And that was most definitely one of an awful lot of horizontal shooters I’d been playing for an awful long time because because we’re talking one of the old-school heavyweights! Now it’s back on Xbox, PS4 and Switch, the price is just £5.99 or €5.99 or $6.99, but for the sake of transparency I was kindly provided with a review code by the developer.

You can usually spot an old-school heavyweight shooter from a mile away thanks to its old-school heavyweight story, and Gynoug is no different! It’s an eerily familiar tale too, with the planet decimated by a virus, although this one’s got a bit further along than the one we currently know and love, mutating into some of the most fearsome creatures ever, the Mutants of Iccus, led by the terrible Destroyer! Now it’s your turn to try where many others have failed and take on the mutants. “From the deepest caverns of Iccus to the belly of the beast itself, you must fly and fight for the life of your planet! It won’t be easy… but then the best battles never are! Destroy the Destroyer and Iccus will be saved, its skies free once again. But fail and your wings will be clipped… forever!”

Everything about Gynoug screams 1991 horizontal shooter, from that lovingly crafted storyline to the six levels of mythical fantasy-infused, powered-up annihilation, littered with hundreds of nasties, monstrous bosses and some wild screen effects! You set out in a subterranean cavern that quickly becomes infested with ghouls and demons, armed with a tri-shot blaster that will deal with pretty much anything you’ll encounter if you shoot it enough, but there’s way more fun to be had than that!

Keep your eyes peeled for blue crystals amid the carnage because they contain special items, and collect a few of these and you’ll soon become winged-devastation incarnate! They’re mostly genre staples like feathers, which will increase your speed by up to eight times, though getting shot is going to slow you down again, or there’s an up-to five-times shot power up. Things get more interesting when you start increasing the number and width of normal shots, and really interesting when you add everything coming out from the back as well as front, or creating a big fan of hellfire!

You’ll also come across offensive and defensive magic scrolls, and now Gynoug is starting to come into its own. Picking them up will store them at the top of the screen, ready to select and use whenever you want until its magic counter hits zero. It’s worth saving it up if you can though, because filling the three magic slots with a single spell type means it’s going to be unleashed at its maximum effect.

Offensive magic includes diagonal energy balls (that can also be used as a defensive bullet sponge), then more elemental-type magic such as lighting and thunder bolts that will attack everything on-screen, and a cool ground attack that will demolish everything down there with an earthquake effect; useful for some of the tighter spaces you find yourself in later. The magic arrow is cool too, seeking out the strongest enemy on the screen, and last, but certainly not least, we’ve got wildfire, which creates an expanding wall of bullets that takes out everything in its path.

Defensive magic is a bit more focussed, with an elemental shield where the magic counter decreases as you get hit by bullets (but not enemies themselves), and there’s an aura shield, which will stop just about anything, but only lasts briefly. While none of this individually is massively innovative, combine it all together in different ways and there’s a lot of variety in how you can approach different areas, and you’ll feel like a boss doing it!

Speaking of bosses, as well as the regular swarming enemies, you’ve got huge organic, mineral and mechanical (and a bit of all of them) mid-level and end of level bosses, and speaking of swarming, that’s often a good way to know one is coming, because the amount of enemies that can announce them will be teetering on the edge of overwhelming if you haven’t been powering up! Once you’ve punched a hole through these, you’ll be confronted by rock dragons, living galleons, sinister gargantuan aliens and more, including a literally screen-filling locomotive that gives you a single space to scurry to before you can even think about fighting it! That one is dead in seconds once you have found temporary safety though, while others will take a bit more dodging and weaving and relentless shooting, although sometimes it’s worth easing off on the fire button for some of the more bullet-heavy bosses so you can actually see what you’re avoiding!

This was the only real issue I had with playing on the Switch in handheld mode too, but I will preface that with stating that my red-black colourblindness didn’t help either – a mass of red bullets on a dark background was a struggle to navigate on the small screen. There was one similar occasion where I was caught out by some rocks you need to dodge, but once you know they’re coming it’s not so bad. No such problems on a big screen though, and the wealth of shaders and display options now available will have you getting the most out of it either way. Other modern conveniences include save states and a handy rewind feature, which ideal for when you’re feeling particularly frustrated about not being able to see one colour on top of another! And there’s a bunch of cheats you can turn on, from retaining shot power after you die to all-out invincibility… disgraceful!

While I’ve long-since considered this to be one of the best shooters on the Mega Drive, and in turn considered that to be one of the best consoles for shooters, I’ve never really given much thought to how much identity your main character sprite here gives the game as a whole. Replace it with a space ship and it’s another Thunder Force or Darius, but a geezer with a set of Icarus wings brings a whole new dimension to these similarly underground or underwater settings. And I’m still a little taken aback by the realisation that such a relatively small thing can change the overall context so much, creating its own originality along the way!

He’s a lovely sprite too, with a surprising amount of character coming out of little more than some flapping wings over a blue uniform! The bosses more than make up for that though, with a ton of large-scale detail and animated highlights dramatically hosting those classic flashing indicators for where you need to shoot! There’s steampunk, there’s ooze and there’s a few surprises too – I had such a smile on my face when the end of level two boss properly revealed itself!

It’s a shame that you have to get so far into the game for the environments to really start popping in the same way though. There’s some great use of parallax scrolling to add quite near-field depth, which is so impressive when those screens effects I mentioned earlier – varying from prolonged earthquake shakes to screen-bending psychedelic wobbles – are going on in front of it. But the backgrounds themselves are just a bit bland and repetitive and, the odd spidery vine or shipwreck aside, mostly earthy rather than fantastic in the main, and it’s not until stage five, and you’re inside some kind of Xenon II-esque organic, meshy nervous system, that it shows any real ambition. Which means most won’t even see that, unfortunately! It’s all pretty enough though, and the dynamic fantasy soundtrack more than drags it along, veering from thumping to haunting in a very Mega Drive way – reminded me a lot of Road Rash II actually, which I definitely appreciated!

Gynoug doesn’t begin outrageously difficult, but by the middle of stage three it’s getting rough, and beating it in its original form is going to take some doing. Do it though, and there’s a really interesting hard mode than mixes up the now-familiar attack patterns (as well as just being harder), and if you’re invested enough to have played through it a couple of times certainly adds a bit more life to it, because honestly you’ll probably move on after that otherwise, especially when the only high score to chase is your best run hidden away in the options. There’s a hyper mode too that’s also a decent challenge, meaning you know it’s do-able even if you can’t do it; and if you can’t, there’s easy mode too, and all those cheats and saves and rewinds, so there’s absolutely no excuse!

Gynoug or Wings of Wor on the Mega Drive or Genesis is pretty much timeless. The creepy pixel art from 1991 could be creepy pixel art from now, and the 1991-vintage gameplay mechanics might have been done before and have definitely been done since, but they’re still really good! If you’re into your shooters, at this price you already know it deserves to be on your latest console (particularly one that you can carry around with you!), but if you’re just a dabbler like me, you can’t go wrong either. You might just be amazed at how much not being in a spaceship can change your mind!