Few gaming genres are so completely intimidating to newcomers as the shmup, or as its known to its most hardcore fans, the bullet hell shooter. It’s one that easily earns its name as even most veterans can find themselves intimidated and overwhelmed as they try to guide their poor ships through wave after wave of incoming projectiles and enemy attacks. The difficulty and challenge is by design, offering players with patience the ability to master and memorize patterns in ways that goes beyond normal human capacity.
I’m going to go ahead and coin a new term. If an intense shmup filled with a cascade of dodgeable bullets is called a “Bullet Hell”, then an even more intense version should be called a “Projectile Vomit”. I don’t mean this as a pejorative, but as a more apt term for what players can expect because when bullets take up 90% or more of the screen; what else would it look like but a screen covered in upchucked ammunition refuse?
Rolling Gunner is a mix of both Bullet Hell and Projectile Vomit, one leaning slightly more toward the freshly-minted genre as it goes whole hog into the bullet hell genre with excessive bullets, mayhem and death galore. Oh, and it carries a family-friendly E-rating… so I guess everyone is invited to experience this chaos for themselves.
The game takes place in the year 2061, where you are tasked in destroying an AI known as BAC – a computer system that has taken over other machines and caused the Earth’s population to take a huge hit. It’s a shallow setup that’s largely unnecessary but still had more thought put into it than most of its peers in the genre, which is commendable enough. Rolling Gunner has 6 levels, each with well animated, though short, cutscenes bookending them. To be honest, these serve more as a respite from the onslaught and provide a “Explosions! Yea!” tone rather that any real story progression.
As an aside, I did notice there’s a common thread between much of the cutscenes. You know that shot in Star Wars: The Last Jedi where they lightspeed through the ship and it tears it in half? It was rad there and it’s rad each of the dozen times it happens here. Yes, I know it’s been in other things but The Last Jedi had one good scene and that was it…so let that be what it’s known for.
The combat itself is fairly straightforward and doesn’t add anything unique to the genre, either in the area of weaponry or in any other area really. While just as hard to explain as it was to figure out, the way you shoot can take some time to get used to. Holding Y fires your weapon straight ahead as your ship cannot face any other direction than left but you also have a drone firing in the opposite direction you last moved. So, move the thumbstick right and you’ll start to shoot to the left; move up and you’ll start to shoot down. It takes time to acclimate your mind (and trigger fingers) to firing this way, but once you do, it feels intuitive enough.
Each of the 6 levels aren’t very long and, in total, the game took me about an hour to finish the first time around. I believe the intention here was to feel authentic to an arcade experience and offer something that provides more about the replayability and topping your last high score. Reaching absurdly high scores here doesn’t seem feasible by my abilities, as dying causes your score to reset and I died… a lot.
Of course, death is more a hurdle than an end. The biggest penalty is that you lose your score, yet continues are limitless. Without that threat of having to constantly restart, there’s really nothing wrong with just spamming your continues just to make it through the game if you don’t care about your final score. This is great and accessible for those just hoping to see everything the game has to offer.
Of course, this is a game that encourages higher scores over true completion, so if its bragging rights you’re after, here’s a shooter after your own heart. But for those just hoping to survive at all, I found the accessibility a nice feature. Because I never aimed at being the best Rolling Gunner player there ever was, I did end up dying a lot more than I probably should’ve. Bosses are bullet sponges and take tons of effort to whittle down with their massive amounts of gunfire raining down on you.
And yet, I never found myself upset when I was (inevitably) taken out because I knew getting back in the action was just a matter of hitting continue. All things considered, that actually raised my enjoyment of the game. While some people might find unlimited continues an outrage to the spirit of bullet hells, I know that by any other way I would never quite finish the game on my own technical merit. Death is inevitable so why not make it virtually meaningless to those couldn’t care less at being the best?
Technically the game is very stable, but there are moments when the framerate dipped when things became too hectic due to the overwhelming amount of bullets on screen. The only real solution, naturally, was to wipe everything out with a well-timed bomb to clear a path forward. I realize this isn’t a perfect solution, but we all know bullet hell shooters are the one genre where a little slowdown now and then is actually appreciated.
A word of warning for those Switch fans who either fat-finger their controllers or confuse the Minus (-) and Plus (+) buttons: please be aware that the Minus (-) button immediately drops you back out to the main menu without any chance to hop in where you were. I found this out the hard way when I hit that button by a slip of the finger. Turns out I was on the very last stage with moments to spare before the final boss and I was suddenly back at the menu with nothing to prove for my accomplishments. Luckily, the game is short so it didn’t take much longer to get back to where I was, but the idea that your progress and score could be lost that easily seems like a dangerous game – and bad design.
Rolling Gunner doesn’t do much to improve or innovate the bullet hell genre but it sure was a hell of a lot of fun to play. Bullet hell shmups are, by their very definition, not for everyone so it was odd – and slightly refreshing – seeing one rated E that was so accessible. This accessibility affects every part of the game as continues are endless and death itself only a slightly inconvenience. Sure, it’s entirely possible to play this game as the gods of the bullet hell universe intended, i.e. high-scores galore, but Rolling Gunner never imposes it on players. These kinds of games surely aren’t for everybody, but those looking for a tough challenge and willing to put in the time to figure out patterns, this is something worth mastering.