You have to hand it to developers who release certain games without any preamble or hype prior to actually dropping. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to be said for proper marketing and advertising of upcoming anything. The last thing a publisher wants is for their next great success to be marred by the fact that they forgot to tell anyone it was coming and they should want to buy it. So when Zerodiv dropped not one, but two games onto the eShop a couple weeks back, I think only the faithful who continually check the eShop for new releases were able to notice and appreciate things. I have a good deal of respect for the folk at Zerodiv for making such a casual but risky play, and I’d like to dedicate the next two reviews I have here to their flagship efforts on the Switch, which they have confirmed are not to be the last.
Firstly, I’d like to introduce you to Gunbarich, the story of two magical anime characters who are learning to become powerful magicians through breaking blocks. Each set of three stages, which appear to have some randomized elements to them, ends with a boss being that you need to strike multiple times before the timer runs out. Your two choices are to play either Marion or Grutan, the former being faster and the latter being stronger. It’s basically Arkanoid meets pinball, with your floating platform being two flippers joined together that you can use to shoot the ball faster, but obviously less accurately. Gunbarich was originally created by team Psikyo, who just let SNK bring their Aero Fighters 2 to the Switch a short time ago. Psikyo is killing it with the ports to the Switch, so kudos for them and we’re all excited for more from their team in the future.
Gunbarich is certainly a unique take on the genre of block breaking, and I really enjoyed the overall idea and general execution. There wasn’t a lot of difference I saw between the two characters initially, but it became apparent that each character would support a different play style. Grutan, as the stronger character, lended himself more to the player that was dedicated to accuracy and striking without any kind of flair or variety to the game. He had an inherent advantage when bosses came a callin’, and I felt that he could handle things better with blocks that split into multiple blocks when struck. Marion, on the other hand, was more prone to getting magical powerups from Majoria, the witch teacher, and the powerups did offer fun random chances to the game, like multiball, slow down or even powerful striking for a couple turns. Neither character was broken or unfair, so you could easily play through the whole game as one or the other and not feel a lot of loss.
Additionally, the slight chance and shuffle that came with each level did afford some replayability. There isn’t a static pattern to how the levels present themselves in Gunbarich: you can count on the first stage to be a simple setup so you can get your sea legs and that is it. After that, any number of traps and formats can happen when you change to the next stage. Sometimes there are unbreakable blocks, sometimes reverse panels that hurl your ball back at you, and even more. From level two onwards you get explosive shots from enemies than can stun your paddle for a few seconds, which would ultimately lead to defeat. Each stage does, however, require you to be a bit of a clockwatcher. Since this is a port from an arcade game, Gunbarich is very focused on you having no more than one minute per life, per stage, to accomplish your goal. Run out of time, lose a life and continue where you left off. Run outta lives and it’s game over, with an unlimited number of continues (but still costing your pride at needing to use another quarter).
One thing I will say is that this game was originally coded to be seen on a vertical monitor, and finding a way to play as such gives you the maximum amount of real estate to work with. Playing in landscape mode (as most TVs and the Switch’s natural orientation dictate) creates huge frames on both sides of the game, which means 66% of Gunbarich’s visuals are static pictures of the characters. Not great and honestly kind of boring. The options allow you to do a portrait display (as well as a pixel overlay for that arcade screen feeling) but it comes with caveats. For one, turning your TV on its side is a bitch, as I can attest, and I need to strongly recommend against doing it. If you have a monitor that can easily rotate with HDMI input, you’re well on your way to the best way to play. And, of course, you can change the grip order on the Switch and do some handheld, vertical action. BUT HOLD ON. For reasons that I can’t even articulate, when you do the portrait mode, the Switch auto rotates the display…in the wrong direction. You don’t have a choice and suddenly the kickstand and the headphone jack are far, far away from you. I realize this was probably a choice by Zerodiv to prevent fans from trying and failing to keep the Switch upright with just the kickstand (protip: totally doesn’t work) but I don’t like having the headphone jack floating up there when it would make more sense, aesthetically, nearer to the ground. This seems trivial, but, if you’re going to allow for rotation of the screen, I would highly recommend full rotation choices.
The soundtrack is goofy and poppy, with just cute tunes in the background to try and relieve some of the stress of bouncing the ball around erratically. You’re treated to a bevy of sound effects from the shots of suddenly appearing enemies to the pleasant “plink” of the ball bouncing off your panel. One sound you may not enjoy, however, is the over-the-top vibration when you end up dying. Holy hell, the first time I got a game over was in handheld mode and the sound was like I was revving up a chainsaw. It woke up my wife, who was dozing on the sofa next to me. The weird part is, dying is the only time you’re even reminded there is vibration, and it’s pretty gnarly and intense. There’s no option to turn it off, so, if you’re not a huge fan of heavy handed feedback, you may want a 3rd party controller to soothe the savage beast of losing a life.
Gunbarich is a light and interesting game that definitely holds a serious arcade appeal. I do wish you could pick and choose where to start playing from, as replaying the same intro stage gets a mite boring, but it’s still a good time to have overall. There’s not a lot as far as online elements (meaning nothing) so you lose out on the SNK leaderboards that I’ve become a bit spoiled by after ten or more different NEO GEO titles. I actually love the way the pinball paddles work, and I find myself going back to it time after time for a quick couple of levels. If Zerodiv can give some choice in the rotation, I think this could even be a perfect travel game for arcade enthusiasts on the road. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a solid cabinet play that combines the best of Breakout and Magical Drop, you might be ready for a flippin’ fun time with Gunbarich.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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