The Switch has become home to an absolute smorgasbord of retro-inspired games. Whilst a lot of these may rarely be worth a second glance, a select few – such as Dead Cells and Undertale – might very well become some of your all-time favourites.
Gunlord X likely won't be on your radar at all, but it really should be. Its very existence is a bit of an anomaly in itself: initially releasing simply as Gunlord back in 2012 for the SNK Neo-Geo, it's arguably not technically old enough to be considered truly retro, despite clearly gunning for that particular aesthetic. It's also entirely possible, if not outright guaranteed, that very few Switch owners have ever experienced it before, despite it getting a little-known Dreamcast release. But by masterfully combining exploration gameplay with fluid, engaging combat (and a few surprises), this is a game that you won't want to pass up.
If you happen to be familiar with the classic 'Eurostyle' action series Turrican, you'll have a good idea of what to expect with Gunlord X. For everyone else, it's a 2D run 'n' gun action adventure elevated by a dollop of 'Metroidvania' sauce and a sprinkling of R-Type seasoning. Across nine sprawling stages you'll traverse a range of gorgeous locales, from moonlit castles complete with hulking gargoyles to dark dystopian facilities littered with deadly lasers. You'll spend your time seeking out secret pathways and collectables whilst gunning down everything in your path before finding your way to the spectacular end-of-stage boss.
Developer NG:DEV.TEAM has done a remarkable job in making the stages incredibly vast and expansive whilst ensuring you never stray too far from the intended path. This is partly thanks to some handily-placed markers that point you in the right direction, but these aren't generally required. Chances are that if you can navigate down a particular pathway, you can be sure that it will eventually lead you to the end of the stage. Along the way, you’ll come across dozens of enemies big and small, all of which are fully capable of taking you down. Make no mistake, Gunlord X isn’t easy, but we found that it always felt fair, providing you with ample opportunity to recover health where needed.
By default, you start off each level with a basic automatic spread shot. This is more than adequate for dealing with most enemies, but if you find yourself in want of something a bit meatier, the game generously doles out new weapons via boxes throughout the stages. These can be shot at to unveil several options to select from, including everything from powerful missiles to a bounce shot that ricochets around the walls in spectacular fashion. In addition to the basic weaponry, you’ll also have command of the ‘dragon whip’, a powerful beam that you can control with the right analogue stick, giving you full 360-degree range to vanquish enemies and even deflect hostile projectiles. Keep in mind, however, that it will easily deplete with use and only refill over time, so be sure to use it sparingly.
Alongside the standard run ‘n’ gun stages, NG:DEV.TEAM throws a delightful spanner in the works with the game’s second stage. Here, you’ll take to the skies in a straight up side-scrolling shooter, complete with a monstrous boss that fans of R-Type will absolutely adore. We’d have liked this stage to be a little bit longer, as it’s a bit short in comparison to the regular stages, but nevertheless, its a very welcome change of pace.
As is so often the case with games that imitate '80s and '90s design, Gunlord X can be beaten in just over an hour if you're a skilled player and know exactly what you're doing. Getting to the stage where you're so familiar with the game that you can achieve this kind of completion time is obviously not easy, and will take several days of committed repeat play. Still, once the end credits roll there's little reason to return, and that certainly counts against the game. While it lasts it's engaging and thrilling, though, which does raise a valid argument: is it best to have a game which artificially stretches its challenge over many hours or one which offers tightly-focused entertainment in a shorter space of time? If you're already a fan of this genre, then we suspect the answer is obvious.
Gunlord X looks absolutely stunning whether you play it docked or in handheld mode. Colours pop from the screen and it runs at a rock solid 60FPS with no noticeable dips. Should you choose to, you can also alter the display settings to suit your own preferences. Scanlines can be added for a more authentic CRT look, and you can stretch out the action to fit the entirety of the Switch’s screen, if you so wish. This doesn’t look quite as bad as you might expect, but rest assured you’ll have a decent selection of frames (or no frame at all) to choose from if you wish to keep the game at its intended display.
We’d be remiss not to mention the game’s soundtrack, which is – in a word – astonishing. Composed by Rafael Dyll, it’s the kind of soundtrack you’ll want to download immediately after playing the game – it’s that good. Each track is fully suited to its respective stage, and manages to make the action feel even more epic and frantic. We've had the music stuck in our heads hours after putting the game down.
If you’re a fan of classic run ‘n’ gun action games, then Gunlord X is an absolute pleasure to play from start to finish. It joins the ranks of must-own retro-inspired titles for the Switch, delivering blistering action, stunning visuals and an absolutely stellar soundtrack. It could be argued that there’s little originality on offer and the longevity of the game is also questionable thanks to the fact that it's 'built' like an old-school coin-op release, but honestly, when the experience is this good, it seems churlish to grumble.