The year is 2061 and a fully automated energy system known as BAC has gone rogue, mankind teeters on the brink of extinction unless one hero pilot, (that’s you by the way), can manoeuvre their STORK fighter, equipped with the newly developed Rolling Gun, deep into enemy territory to face off against a sentient robotic terror and save the world. No pressure.
When we think of bullet hell shmups we perhaps don’t immediately think of accessibility or even a warm welcome; it’s a genre often defined by its difficulty or somewhat obtuse systems of scoring and combat which can initially act as barriers to those curious to have a punt. Enter Rolling Gunner. Set across six stages of ferocious combat, it’s an immediately addicting and highly accessible shooter which comes with both a casual and novice mode sat alongside its more traditionally fiendish Original and Expert difficulty settings. Developer Mebius has also seen fit to pack in a training mode, a tutorial that launches every time you start a game and the ability to save replays of your runs, Rolling Gunner really affords newcomers and experts alike every opportunity to get acquainted with its systems and post the highest scores possible to its leaderboards.
And what systems they are. Rolling Gunner’s various gameplay elements combine beautifully to pull you right into that addictive, zen-like bullet hell flow in short order. Your fighter, equipped with the titular rolling gun, can fire in two directions simultaneously by tapping the Y button; this ensures maximum agility and 360-degree fire coverage, perfect for dealing with nimble little enemies and manoeuvring through the almost constant hail of bullets. Holding the Y button sees your rolling gun’s fire lock to whatever angle it’s currently at, concentrating your fire for max damage against large foes or swarms of smaller craft that you need to eradicate quickly. Finally, holding down ZL will release one of your stock of bombs which will destroy every enemy bullet currently onscreen; a get-out-of-jail card when you’re absolutely outmanoeuvred.
The game then adds another layer to this. Every enemy you destroy spits out medals as you deal damage and the closer you are as they spill out the more you’ll collect; this adds to your energy score in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen and once that sucker hits 1000 you can jam the ZL button for a power-up to your main guns. This will begin to drain your energy but at the same time build a red “limit gauge” which, once over 10 percent, can be activated to boost the damage from your rolling gun. Congratulations, you are now at maximum badass.
As you move through each of these three stages of power-up from normal fire and damage to increased main guns to boosted rolling gun, the medals spilling from enemies increase in size from small to large, escalating in score value as they go, and all the while you need to remember that getting up close to enemies will ensure you grab more medals. It’s a perfect risk/reward situation that’s easy to get your head around and immediately imbues Rolling Gunner with that all-important “just one more go” factor.
Adding a final layer of choice to proceedings are the three different variants of STORK fighter ship you can choose from. The RF-42RX is an all-rounder with average damage output and manoeuvrability, the RF-42RS Super STORK has a narrower attack range but is much more agile, while the RF-42RA has the widest attacking range but is slowest when it comes to traversing the battlefield. Put all these systems and layers together and you've got a highly addictive horizontal scrolling shooter that challenges you to make quick decisions as to when and where you deploy your arsenal of weapons and power-ups in order to maximise damage output and push those high scores. It's extremely satisfying, moreish stuff. Starting off in the novice mode and slowly working your way up the difficulty ladder as you learn the stages inside out, get to know boss attack patterns and become comfortable with your choice of spacecraft type, it doesn't take too long before you'll find yourself sticking your nose into the original or extreme difficulty level, even if it does immediately get shot off your face the first few times.
Complimenting the tight gameplay are super bright and chunky graphics – some of the nicest we’ve seen across all the shmups currently available on Switch – and there's no denying this game really does look beautiful in docked and handheld mode, a pulsating neon barrage of enemy fire being blasted in your direction. It's all set to a cracking soundtrack by COSIO, with the six levels on offer bookended by some gorgeous little cutscenes and featuring some really well-designed end-of-level bad guys that, especially on harder difficulties, will absolutely test your mettle.
You'll also no doubt notice as you play Rolling Gunner that there's what seems like some slowdown as a huge screen-filling explosion occurs as you defeat an end-of-level boss. This also happens as bosses and other large enemies begin to fire insane amounts of bullets at you, but fret not, this isn't your Switch's framerate tanking, it's an effect that's been intentionally programmed into the game; one that PC players can choose to switch off. It's unfortunate that this version of the game doesn't provide players with the option to choose whether or not to engage this little design wrinkle, but it's something that's easily overlooked in the face of everything this game gets so right.
Directed by ex-Cave dev Daisuke Koizumi, who worked on Deathsmiles 2 and Dondonpachi, amongst other great entries in the genre, Rolling Gunner has pedigree, and it shows; this is one of the most addictive, accessible and downright fun shmups currently available on Nintendo’s system. It plays beautifully, looks amazing and is overall one of the most engaging side-scrolling shmups released in recent memory. Kudos to Mebius for creating an entry in the genre that does so much to welcome newcomers into the fold whilst at the same time offering a blisteringly difficult challenge with plenty of hidden depth to hardened warriors looking for their next shooter addiction.