It's always rather nice developers tried to give shooters a storyline. Gleylancer, released only in Japan for the Mega Drive by NCS/Masaya, features a cast of characters that you never really see outside of the intro, ending and a few brief cutscenes. But it adds a lot of personality to a genre where you control a cold, steel spaceship surrounded by things that will shatter you with a mere tap. It makes you feel terrible when you get killed, especially if your pilot is a hot anime chick.
The heroine of Gleylancer is Lucia Cabrock, a rookie pilot in the space fleet. When she hears of her father's mysterious disappearance in some kind of warp, she immediately commanders one of her ship's best fighters - the Advanced Busterhawk Gleylancer - and sets off to comb the farthest reaches of signs of her father. While the story doesn't plan an integral role in the game, it's interesting, and there are two different endings depending on if you can save Lucia's father in the final stages of the game. Oddly enough, the bad ending's credits are in English, while the good ending's are in Japanese.
But enough about the plot - what makes this shooter stand out? By the looks of it, Gleylancer doesn't seem any different from the hordes of other side scrolling shooters on the Genesis, and it's easy to just write it off as a Thunder Force clone. But it's the game's brilliant mechanics that make it stand out. Much like most shooters, you have two satellite which can fire weapons. However, these satellites can be aimed in any direction, allowing far more versality than your usual spaceshooter. Additionally, holding down the C button will lock your satellites in place, allowing you to shoot independently from your movement. It's completely brilliant, and later used to a similarly amazing effect by Konami in Gradius V. There are several different formations to choose from, including Shadow options (so your satellites move the same as options from Gradius) or Rolling options, which spin around your ship. There's even an Auto-Target option, although the game warns that it's not very accurate. Naturally, the game puts these to good use, as enemies pop up from every corner in the screen, There's also a good arsenal of weaponry - amidst your usual twin shots, lasers and multi-directional beams, there are flamethrowers, laser sabers and, the most useful one, the Bounce gun, which shoots green bullets that ricochet off surfaces.
It's a good thing that Gleylancer has these aiming satellites, because the level design is somewhat hit-or-miss. Some of them are fairly simple, open landscapes, with nothing but blind shooting - others are slow paced and methodical, taking pages from the book of Gradius. Needless the say, the latter are more interesting, although none of the stages are flat out boring. The difficulty is finely tuned, if somewhat scattershot. Getting killed means getting sent back to a checkpoint, which makes some of the boss battles somewhat devious. Again, the designs are somewhat over the map as far as quality - some of them simply ape designs from the Gradius games, and some are just plain generic. There are a few cool sparks in imagination, especially with the enemy that attacks in the form of a Hindu goddess.
The graphics are reasonable, with some decent multiplane scrolling, but nothing that hasn't been done on the Genesis better elsewhere. The music is similarly pretty good, with a handful of standout songs (the first level in particular.) Much like Life Force, there's a voice that narrates certain events, warning you of obstacles or relating inspirationial musings. ("Stick to it, and believe in your power!") In typical Genesis nature, it's tremendously scratchy, but amusing nonetheless.
While the level design lacks polish, the ability to aim your weapons really opens up new doors for shmup gameplay - after playing Gleylancer, every other game seems so strict, with just the ability to shoot in pre-determined directions. That's the trademark of an excellent game, and Gleylancer is one of the finest that the 16-bit era had to offer. Unfortunately, it's excellence combined with its relative rarity means it's something of an expensive gem, but Mega Drive shooters fans will find any price well worth it. In 2008, Gleylancer finally made it to the US and Europe in a Virtual Console release, now spelled as Gley Lancer.