Most of the games that get reviewed here are either fully retro, usually being re-released in one form or another, or have some kind of retro pedigree, even when they’re brand new – 2020’s Wonderful Dizzy on ZX Spectrum, for example, or our 2021 game of the year Resident Evil Village, or the brand new (at the time of writing in May 2022) Cotton Fantasy. On the surface, Rolling Gunner, on the other hand, has no such pedigree whatsoever, but despite also being brand new (kind of), it’s suspiciously very late-nineties shoot ‘em up and, specifically, very CAVE shoot ‘em up in almost everything it does… Time for a bit of sleuthing! Actually, not much of that needed because Rolling Gunner is directed by ex-CAVE programmer Daisuke Koizumi, who schmup fans might remember from bullet-hell classics such as Akai Katana, DoDonPachi SaDaiOuJou and, er, Deathsmiles 2; okay, it’s no Deathsmiles, but it’s still the best Christmas game ever! And we found some retro pedigree after all, so we’re good to continue!

Schmup fans might also remember Rolling Gunner itself, as it’s been around for a while now! In fact, it’s been around since the summer of 2018 and is already available on Nintendo Switch and PC, but what we now have is this very quiet, almost stealth release by ININ Games of the complete Rolling Gunner with its literally game-changing Over Power DLC on PlayStation 4, which is possibly also available for Switch in Japan, but is definitely being primed for imminent release in various crazy physical editions for both formats by Strictly Limited Games. The digital version seems to have already appeared a few weeks ago at a price of £24.99 or your local equivalent though, and for the purposes of transparency, the publisher has since kindly provided me with a review code. I also want to mention that normally in my reviews, the screenshots you see are ones I’ve captured myself, but in this case, for some reason, a fraction of the screen is being cut off top and bottom on the TV my PS4 has now been relegated to, so I’ve mostly used the stock ones provided by the publisher.

The story here is that you are humanity’s last hope in the defence against the now-sentient computer system BAC, which, only a few short decades into the future, will be in complete control of nearly all the world’s engines, and the subsequent disorder that this apparently caused has somehow also caused the planet’s population to reduce in size by half… The half that don’t play bullet-hell shooters, I guess! Anyway, fortunately someone had the foresight to develop a special weapon, the Rolling Gun, for precisely the event that BAC went nuts, and even more fortunately it’s been bolted onto your RF-42R STORK spaceship! There’s actually a very comprehensive and very slick set of anime-styled cutscenes going into way more depth (than you’ll ever want) on this, and are worth watching for their often interesting translations at the very least… “Destoroy the BAC!” With that we’re now good to start shooting stuff, either in the more or less traditional fashion of the original game or with the Over Power mode, which turns the experience into a frantic twin-stick shooter, with your Rolling Gun now controlled independently on the right stick, supported by additional new weapon types and shields, as well as more enemies. And we’re going to be coming back to that because while it’s presented as a “super expansion” what it also does, in its own way, is fix one of regular mode’s issues, although the need to have done so might then become questionable, but in the meantime, we should start at the beginning…

I might have been playing shoot ‘em ups for over forty years now (not that you’d know it!), but I am a very recent convert to the bullet-hell variety, although I’d say I’m now at a level of proficiency where I’m enthralled rather than intimidated by it! It certainly can be as unwelcoming as many (including me a year ago) might perceive, not just from a mess of bullets covering 95% of the screen at any given time, but also the equally impenetrable firing and scoring mechanics usually at play. There is a route in though, starting with mastery of fundamentals on regular shooters like Star Parodier and Blazing Lazers on PC-Engine, then crossing the divide with the likes of Toaplan’s Batsugun SP before moving on to the Xbox 360 (or their later Nintendo Switch) releases of CAVE’s Mushihimesama and Espgaluda II, which brought with them a multitude of beginner-friendly modes to ease you in. And that’s exactly what we’ve got with Rolling Gunner, because if you think they’re rough, then just wait until you find out why your Rolling Gun rolls in all directions! Novice Mode has the simplest score system with the least difficulty “for those who are new to playing games” but unless you’re some kind of schmup junkie (shoutout to my guru Schmup Junkie, original source of the above wisdom and a lot more) then they mean you! Casual mode “is a content that supresses the difficulty level for those who want to enjoy the game easily” which actually means normal difficulty, and I’d recommend this once you’ve got to grips with Novice as your standard play mode for a while. Original Mode introduces a rank system where the more you score, the more intense the attack; by all means have a go at this like I did, but almost everyone is getting totally destroyed here after a couple of stages! And finally there’s Expert Mode, which is just totally insane, and, despite its difficulty, is where you really notice the deficiencies in controlling your Rolling Gun with any degree of precision in the game’s original incarnation.

Let’s have a quick look at your ship and its fancy gun. You begin with choosing one of three fighters, from a basic one with normal attack range and normal speed; a high speed one with narrow attack but fast movement which excels once you have a fix on enemy attack patterns; and an assault-type, with a wide attack range but slow movement for taking down a lot of stuff in a small area all at once. Your Rolling Gun allows you to fire a second wave of fire in any direction around your ship, which you manoeuvre into place by moving your ship in the opposite direction to where you want it to be any time you’re not holding down fire, then once it’s there you lock it in by firing again; holding down fire is also going to slow you down for more precise movement when you need it. It’s way easier to use than it is to describe, but it does take a bit of practice, and even then it’s not always ideal in the heat of battle. That’s where you might want to unleash one of your bombs with L2, although in the lower difficulties you’ll get an auto-bomb if life-threatening trouble is imminent. And trouble is imminent now because if I was on dodgy ground describing the Rolling Gun’s movement, then just wait for my attempt at the next bit! When you shoot an enemy, it drops a medal. The closer you are to enemies, the more you’ll pick up, but with everything coming from all directions here, hanging around somewhere around the middle of the screen is usually a good default position regardless, but ideally you want to be as close as you dare! Picking up medals increases your energy gauge, and when it hits 1000 you can hold down L2 to trigger a higher scoring power-up mode until it’s depleted your energy gauge; now, any medals you collect while powered-up are going to increase a limit gauge, and once that’s over 10% you can press L2 again to boost your powered-up state even further. Again, it sounds a bit more convoluted here than it is in practice, and when to unleash the fruits of this risk-reward mechanic will become second nature pretty quickly. And if you’re after big scores, it needs to, because that’s where the biggest medals are dropping for the biggest points, although there’s another balancing act at play here because your powered-up state is going to be depleting much faster when you’re maxed out. Phew!

I’m hardly the connoisseur yet, but from the very outset my favourite thing about Rolling Gunner has been the bullet patterns; actually, forget everything I said about difficulty earlier – jump into the higher ones and just soak in the craft and creativity that’s gone into building them… At least for the split second you’ve got before you’re dead! When you hit one of the end of level bosses, they’re as dangerous as they are mesmerising, but their depth as their complexities gradually emerge is sometimes staggering, although there were more than a couple of times I instantly regretted looking up from my ship’s fractional progress to admire the terrifying big picture! And this is true whatever difficulty you’re on – again, don’t get fooled into thinking Casual is in any way casual in the slightest; give it a few levels and it’s going to be hammering you, and, in fact, the final level is absolutely bewildering whatever the difficulty calls itself! While their bullets never fail to impress, the boss designs themselves are a bit of a mixed bag – always polished but you’ve seen it all before; although unless you’re watching someone else play, you’re not exactly going to have time to take them in whatever they look like! Looks aside, in second half of the game in particular their phases are consistently as surprising as their bullet patterns, and there were several times on my initial runs that I couldn’t help but smile at the ingenuity behind what their deceptively mundane exteriors were getting up to! The level design in general across its six stages is very impressive though, mixing up swarms of grunts with tanks, mini-mini-bosses and then with mid-level and third-quarter and pre-boss mini-bosses, all delivering huge panic-inducing bullet cancel opportunities. Then there’s vertically scrolling sections sometimes mixing up the horizonal action and introducing things like laser gates that need taking out before you reach them, but at the same time the screen is filling with enemies and their bullets so where to shoot first? Actually, that’s more often than not the case anywhere in regular play later on as well! This did make me really appreciate the directional visual and sometimes audio cues for something nasty on the way, but, as always, intimate familiarity with each level and its enemy patterns is going to be your best friend, and thankfully getting familiar is going to be an exhilarating joy!

As you can tell, I could wax lyrical about the gameplay all day, so I’m going to try and ground myself again by talking visuals. Don’t get me wrong, they’re mostly fantastic, but apart from an evolutionary resolution bump, for me they don’t quite reach the levels of character and maybe even polish that you’d find in something like the DoDonPachi or Mushihimesama or Deathsmiles games from CAVE that they’re so heavily influenced by. Maybe it’s just about time and place and expectation in 2022, or maybe the sheer level of detail now possible has left things a little more sterile. It really is fine though, and I’m sure to most pretty much perfect – the authentic, almost photo-realistic stylings of vintage pre-rendered looking backgrounds, the shadowing on the clean lines of the multitude of ships, the delicate colouring… That reminds me, special mention for the thoughtful colouring of the bullets from colourblind guy here! I don’t expect slowdown from a PS4, but I do always expect slowdown from an old shooter so can’t help but be impressed by the consistent smoothness of everything however many hundreds or maybe even thousands of things are darting about the screen in perfect harmony all at once (except where it might or might not use that old trick of stuttering a bit to help you out), and on the whole it’s a modern-retro treat without really doing anything to marvel at. Except for the cutscenes, which did develop into something I found myself marvelling at by the end of stage five. It’s how I imagine my old favourite Battle of the Planets would look if they made it today!

Before we jump over to the DLC, a quick note on all things sound. First up, it’s not my cup of tea, but so far that hasn’t stopped me loving the music! It starts out like a dark techno version of an eighties action movie soundtrack as the intro sequences play out, then business picks up wherever you decide to get going to from the title screen with some thumping beats and rocking guitars gradually giving way to some ethereal electronic melodies as you get ready to launch! I don’t know much about late nineties house and techno, or even what they are really, but I reckon they probably sound like what’s next, and through the entirety of every game that sound is absolutely massive! What’s most impressive, though, is how often it’s in sync with the on-screen action, with meticulous pairing of ups and downs and general chaos, from simple lighting changes as you transition areas to the chained explosions of a big set piece coming to an end, like some audio-visual fireworks display, right through to the epic and sinister entrance of the next boss approaching to pummel you. It’s not what I’d listen to in my spare time, but for sheer energy to enhance everything else that’s going on I wouldn’t change it here! Couple that with the total cacophony of the sound effects, which seem to infinitely layer guttural mechanical roars, explosions and every form of on-screen violence with enormous weight, and if it wasn’t for the gameplay distracting you so much you’d probably go insane listening to it!

I’m not sure the soundtrack in the Over Power DLC has quite the same impact, which, I believe, features a bunch of new composers brought in to mix things up rather than re-using COSIO’s original soundtrack, but top marks for that much effort on a piece of DLC all the same! When I say DLC, as I alluded to earlier, it used to be DLC that I think was initially only available in Japan, but it’s all included from the outset here. Make no mistake though – the “Over Power” bit is still spot on! Gameplay is totally redefined, with the Rolling Gun now controlled independently on the right stick, and if the controls felt good before then now they’re out of this world! The level of control you now have over your firepower is now a literal gamechanger, but there’s a few new tricks up its sleeve too, with a block ability and the Buster Beam, which will penetrate and destroy enemy bullets – handy, because there’s way more of them now too, whatever difficulty mode you’re on! You have, however, lost your bomb, which is now replaced with a three-hit plasma shield that can also be powered-up. Apart from that, the gun’s power-up and boosted power-up seem to work the same way as before, and while scoring also seems to now be the same across the difficulty modes, I think being powered-up or boosted offers new opportunities for massive score multipliers, especially when you’re faced with a huge curtain of bullets in a boss battle – seeing those things turning into medals in a massive cancel is such a blast! There seems to be a ranking system at play on every difficult too, so the better you do, the more intense the actions gets.

As cool as it genuinely is I’m not totally sure how I feel about Over Power yet, because I’m not entirely sure why it exists! Yes, it feels fantastic, but as a schmup player who’s still more concerned with learning to survive over score or expert gameplay, I don’t really know what I’m getting out of blasting through the game in this mode at my current level of play. Maybe I need to expand my horizons and start playing more advanced, or maybe I should stop worrying about getting good and just enjoy the ride until it happens by itself, and then maybe I’ll find the long-term fix I’m currently missing! It’s included here though, it’s not a paid add-on anymore, and it’s going to make you feel like Superman every time you pick it up! And that’s the exact opposite of the original game, which is going to relentlessly beat you into oblivion, but in such a stylish and creative way that you’re going to love every second anyway! From your very first game, Rolling Gunner is fun – overwhelmingly so – and that doesn’t stop as you progress through its stages, and then start upping the difficulty, and yes, have a go at Over Power too! Subjective gripes about the visuals aside, I think this continues to be a joy to play, and if you don’t have it yet, this is a decent place to play it!