After the unfair mess that was Last Hope (the original version, not Pink Bullets), it became easy to not care about any more releases from NG:DEV.TEAM. It wasn't like the posthumous Dreamcast scene was in dearth of more autoscrolling shoot-em-ups anyway, but the announcement of Gunlord turned all that around. Who can say no to a new Euro run-'n-gun platformer in the vein of good old Turrican, on the Dreamcast no less (or Neo Geo for the well-to-do)? Who cares if it's so difficult that it makes you want to melt your controller in a deep fryer?
Now Gunlord may have been originally developed for the Neo Geo, but it doesn't really look like a typical Neo Geo game. It doesn't look like a Dreamcast game, either. Its visual style and pixel work is much more akin to European Amiga games. The extra processing power does help to keep the framerate up and the extra buttons prevent the controls from getting all too cluttered, of course.
The story is the usual action game stand-in, but seems unusually gruesome. The hero is a dude in power armor named Gordian Gaiden. He cold-bloodedly murders his judges in a trial we know nothing about, to find and save his wife Vanessa Gaiden, who went missing after saving the universe from a threat we know nothing about. Also, lots of cyborgs and monsters. Now kill them all!
Gunlord doesn't even make any attempts to disguise that Turrican was its dominant influence. Like the German classic, the stages in Gunlord contain hundreds of little secret passages, although here there's a little more focus on a linear main path here. The optional parts of a stage are almost always immediately recognizable as such, and rarely bigger than a small room with an extra life. The design as a whole is a little more designed as a straightforward arcade experience.
This is also reflected in the weaponry, which on the surface seems copied directly from its ancestor, but makes for more fast-paced and immediate action: Whereas the standard weapons all started out relatively weak in Turrican, here they fire with full power all the time; the spreadshot fills the screen with five streams of bullets, while the equivalent for the laser starts out as the devastating flamethrower that it became only when fully upgraded in Turrican II. It is also quite overpowered compared to the other weapons, so it's likely to get the most use. It not only has a huge radius, but also damages enemies behind thin walls. The bouncer is the oddest of them all, as it only works as such when the fire button is tapped; when holding it pressed, it turns into a more concentrated straight shot.
All weapons can be aimed in eight directions, so the shooting is as dynamic and frenetic as Contra. As a result, the fun 360° beam from Turrican doesn't seem all that useful at first. It is best viewed not as a predominantly offensive weapon, but a means to neutralize most enemy projectiles. Then it becomes an extremely powerful tool, but it has to slowly recharge after prolonged use. The destructive but limited vertical Power Line attack and the Metroid-inspired Energy Wheel (complete with the ability to lay bombs) work just like they did in Turrican II, with the exception that the latter can jump while rolling and is thus even more useful in getting through the levels quickly or finding hidden passages.
In best Turrican tradition, Gunlord also contains a horizontal scrolling shoot-em-up level, although that is more like a simple mini game rather than a full-fledged game in a game as it was in Turrican. It's just one short stage with only one available weapon, and laughably easy.
The game as a whole is not nearly as difficult as expected from the makers of Last Hope. For beginners, the first big step to success is finding as much of the hidden extra lives as possible. Some of the bosses can be daunting at first, mostly because they're larger than the screen and it seems almost impossible to avoid their attacks. But once the right strategy is found, they're dealt with fairly quickly. Afterwards, it doesn't take a maestro on the joypad to 1CC the entire game within a couple of days.
It's mandatory to bring the time for longer sessions, though, as there's no save function whatsoever. Gunlord may be no longer than comparable games from the 1980s or 90s, expecting today's busy players to clear it in one sitting seems like a bit much to ask. Afterwards, there's not much left to do other than the hunt for high scores (there's an online leaderboard where scores can be uploaded via password). Besides "Original," there's also an "Arcade" mode, but the only difference is that using a credit after losing all lives resets the player to the beginning of the stage instead of respawning right at the spot. A few additional difficulty levels would have been nice, but there are none.
Gunlord is full of stunning graphics and may well be the best looking pixel art-based indie game yet. For Last Hope, the Hellwig brothers had adopted SNK Playmore's practice to use bad CG for special effects, which clashed heavily with the pixel art. Thankfully that is almost entirely gone here, with the exception of the ugly waterfalls. As with NG:DEV.TEAM's earlier games, the Dreamcast version looks exactly the same, displaying in an actual 240p resolution that only very few officially released games used. This means the image is ultra-sharp on a VGA or good TV connection. On emulators, however, the image will be blurred due to lack of proper support of the mode.
Gunlord wouldn't be a NG:DEV.TEAM game if there wasn't some major collector gauging. During the preorder process, there were no less than seven different packages of the game. Left available now (July 2012) are the "collector-priced" MVS and AES versions (the latter with both US and Japan style covers) as well as two different variants for Dreamcast. The Limited Edition features the game's soundtrack on an extra audio CD, but since the game's music is already contained as audio tracks on the game CD, the only added value are a handful of remixes by other musicians. The soundtrack predominantly consists of inconspicuous trance music. Some tunes start out stimulating - mostly the title theme or the BGM for the first stage - but eventually flatten out and become boring when listening to them standalone. There are just not enough interesting ideas to carry them over their whole playing time.
With 32 Euros (almost US$40) for the cheapest option (the Dreamcast Regular Edition) in NG:DEV.TEAM's shop, Gunlord comes at a tough price for an indie game. It is a fun, professionally-made product, but considering the slim content and the lack of difficulty options, it is hard to recommend it to anyone other than die-hard fans of the genre, or Neo Geo/Dreamcast enthusiasts who need to own every game for their favorite system. Sure, much of the price comes from producing the game for vintage home consoles and professional packaging, but it should be about time for NG:DEV.TEAM to forget about their pride and bring their games to download platforms as an alternative. It might cost them a handful of Dreamcast sales and street cred with their more snobbish fans, but would allow for a far better circulation among the non-collectors.