Saturday, November 25, 2023

Gun-Nac (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile
Published by Nexoft in 1990

The position of Gun-Nac in the history of developer Compile is a curious one, especially within the NES platform. Besides being the last title released by the company for Nintendo's 8-bit system, it's also naturally related to Zanac both by name similarity and by gameplay aspects that resemble those of the Aleste series. Some people even consider Gun-Nac to be a comical reimagination of Zanac, but in my opinion this is quite a stretch and doesn't hold up if you actually get to experience both games to a certain degree.

Gun-Nac even has an intro that shows animals and objects suddenly attacking people in a planet far, far, far, far, far away. And off you go across eight stages to battle them and restore peace and order (the Japanese version has a completely different story though). Considering it came out much later it's only natural that it boasts more detailed graphics than Zanac and even The Guardian Legend, which was also released by Compile between Zanac and Gun-Nac and mixes elements of shmup and RPGs. However, despite the weird comical starting point and some really cool boss designs, Gun-Nac never reaches the wacky heights of something like Parodius. It's essentially an Aleste-styled shooter with your odd enemy here and there and a fluid performance that's nothing less than remarkable.

Heat flares from the sun of Bengayleum

Coming into Gun-Nac, the only idea I had about the game is what I just wrote above. Soon I figured out that button B is used to fire and button A is used to trigger the bomb. Firepower and bombs are dictated by specific items released either by flying smiley faces, specific turrets or specific waves that get completely wiped out. Numbers from 1 to 5 change or upgrade the current weapon (1 for blaster / regular vulcan shot, 2 for buster / detonating blast, 3 for search driver / homing arches, 4 for dragon napalm / fiery beam and 5 for wide beam / lasers). Four alphabet letters increase bomb stock and also determine the type of bomb that will be detonated next (F for fire bomb / ring blast, B for blizzard bomb / walls of ice that move left and right, T for thunder bomb / ricocheting lightning and W for water bomb / vertical 'rainfall').

There's also a P item that's supposed to also power up the ship, another item that looks like it but glows and works as a screen clearing bomb and a ship-like icon (the 'wing') that increases the size of the ship but gives you a 1-hit shield and allows additional levels of weapon upgrades. You can also collect money bags that give you currency to spend in the shop that appears in between levels, it's just not possible to see how much money you have during the stage itself. What you can see is your score, the life stock, bomb count/type and a number below that indicates the bomb power level.

Yes, there's a plethora of items and upgrades to work with in Gun-Nac. The game also has quite lengthy stages, which gives players plenty of time to get used to all of them. Everything moves at a wonderful pace with no slowdown, and yet in default conditions Gun-Nac falls on the easier side of the difficulty spectrum, mostly because the first half of the game is kind of a breeze and extra lives are handed out like candy just by scoring. I beat the game on my first try, and the score I got is the one you can see at the end of this blog post. I didn't bother to try again because I realized you can exploit several bosses to easily break the scoring system.

It was only after I decided to have a deeper understanding of Gun-Nac that I knew the gameplay is far more detailed that what you see up front. Sure, I did notice that whenever the bomb is used your firepower reverts to the default condition of weapon 1, that the number of bombs is not reset when you die (nor restocked), that red items are fixed and black items cycle through numbers/letters and that when you get hit while having an attached wing you go back to the default power and need to upgrade the ship all over again. These observations were all rather obvious, but several other aspects of the game aren't. One of them is the purpose of the SELECT button, which is used to switch the speed of the ship between four settings. Yes, I played the whole game till the end in the default speed setting of 1 (out of 4)!

Peace is about to be shattered in the vast universe far away
(courtesy of YouTube user nesguide)

Upon reading the instruction manual I learned that the number below the bomb type is its actual power, which can be increased up to level 4 by sticking to the same bomb type when collecting items. Picking up a different one resets bomb power back to 1. Part of the money collected during a level is lost if you die, and that's why I had so little of it to spend in the shop between the final stages (the difficulty picks up a little in the third half of the game). There's also a 1UP icon that looks just like the wing, only a little wider and more golden. Finally, there's a turbo power in the shop that once maxed out never resets even if you die. I'm not sure what it does exactly, but I suspect it's related to the weapon firing rate.

Gun-Nac is often remembered by the rabbit armada and their carrot projectiles from the first level, which takes place over the surface of a moon. The game design is much more diverse than what you see in the first stage though, with a distinct style that shows noticeable nods to titles like Star ForceXevious and of course Aleste and Zanac. It's also got a great soundtrack, with some catchy tunes except for the extremely annoying music that plays in the shop. The assortment of tweaks from the options screen is quite unique for an NES game and includes four difficulty settings, sound test, area select (from the ones you've reached), an optional switch to turn on suicide bullets (ricochet of bullets) and the choice between speed or sprite priority. In speed priority (default) the game sacrifices sprites in order to never slow down, so in this mode a minor degree of flicker is expected during busier sections.

I admit that having suicide bullets activated gives the game a whole new dimension as far as challenge goes. It does away with the abuse of boss milking, for instance. Even though I didn't venture into alternate difficulty settings I do believe the game gets even more fun when you do so. I just deemed my mission complete in the Normal/Intermediate (2) difficulty with no ricochet of bullets and speed priority. As mentioned above, the result below came from my one and only credit with no milking whatsoever.

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