Kahen Soukou Gunbike: Speed Power Gunbike (可変走攻ガンバイク) - PlayStation (1998)
Years ago, before the Internet became the ever-expanding universe of useless information that it is, it was quite possible for obscure game titles to slip by completely unnoticed. It could have been a weird game that you played at a friend's house, or it may have even been a game that you owned (but that no one had ever heard of). However, in the current year, 2005, the likelihood of not being able to find someone who has played that game is a near impossibility. With countless fan sites, dedicated to the most niche titles, and sites such as VGMuseum it has become easier than ever to find out about a game than ever before. Now, all of this may sound nice and irrelevant, but it leads into the point of the article, trust me.
Despite all of the information available on games these days, there are still a few titles that no one will ever bother writing about. This would lead you to believe that perhaps the titles in question are no good. That's probably a true statement 90% of the time. This article, however, is about a game in that 10% range.
Search for Speed Power Gunbike on Google and you're likely to find a few links that lead you to places like Gamespot and Gamestats. Actually clicking on those links though will tell you very little except perhaps the publisher, the release date of the game, or some questionable codes. There is only a single (rather brief) review out there. Even GameFAQs has little to nothing on this game.
Speed Power Gunbike was released on April 23th, 1998 by Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) Inc. (also the publishers of Tenchu) in Japan. While some sites, including Gamefaqs.com, report that it was also released in the U.S. (on an earlier date?), this is in no way true. The game was developed by a team called Inticreates who, if you enjoy the Mega Man series, you may recognize as the developers of the GBA series Mega Man Zero.
Gunbike is an interesting title that mixes a few different styles of gameplay in order to deliver something that's somewhat unorthodox, but fun. Add some Engrish to the mixture, and you have a genuinely memorable experience. Gunbike takes place in Japan in the year 2097. While the specifics of the storyline escape me, the general feeling you get is that this representation of the future is not unlike any other typical war-plagued future. The game engine is something along the lines of a racing game, but you do no actual racing against anyone. The vehicle that each character in the game uses is called a Gunbike.
The Gunbike is a mixture of KITT from Knight Rider and a Transformer. It's capable of changing into three different modes: Bike, Rally and Robot. Each mode serves a different purpose to help you while you're playing. Bike mode is good for gaining speed, Rally mode is good for turning and exploring and Robot mode is your character's mode of attack. Changing is as easy as pressing down and up to switch between Rally and Bike mode, or pressing square to change into Robot mode.
You start off each stage with a full tank of "Anergy" (whether or not they meant to call it "Energy," I'm not sure). The tank starts at 99 and goes down by one every five seconds. To make it more than just a glorified timer, you will also lose some Anergy every time you're hit by an enemy attack. The main object of a general stage is to get from one end to the other before your Anergy runs out, making it similar to a racing game. However, not every stage is necessarily straightforward. Some stages are more maze-like than others and along the way you will run into enemies who try to slow you down. In order to help you navigate through the tougher stages, the Gunbike comes with a compass-like radar system (activated by pressing Select) that will point you in the direction that you should be headed in.
The gameplay of Gunbike is pretty fast-paced, along the lines of a Sonic the Hedgehog title. As you are speeding down the lane of a level, enemies and obstacles will often be in your way, or put themselves in your way. To destroy them, you simply have to switch into Robot mode. This is one of the features that make this game shine: you do not even have to stop to switch into Robot mode. By pressing the Square button after reaching a decent level of speed, you can plow through enemies and barriers in your way, therefore not breaking up the flow of the game. You can switch back to the bike just as easily by pressing square again, and you will retain a large amount of the speed that you started off with.
By hitting two or more enemies or barriers in a row, you will rack up "Rush" combos. The faster you are going before you switch into Robot mode, the longer and more powerful your Robot Dash Attack (also called a "Gun" attack) will be. To encourage attacking this way, and discourage staying in Robot mode all the time, a player can only accelerate in Robot mode for so long before they are forced to stop from overheating.
In both the Bike and Rally modes, controls are similar to a racing game, with one button being used to accelerate and another to break. If you time it right, you can even peel out. By holding the Triangle button down while standing still, you can make the bike turn in any direction you want, which is good for getting out of tight spaces.
In Robot mode, you have a few more techniques at your disposal. The X button will still make your character accelerate, but Circle will create a shield around the Gunbike. Pressing x and circle together will make the Gunbike jump. Pressing X again will make it hover for a bit. Pressing Triangle will make the Gunbike do a standing attack that changes depending on the character you've chosen. Pressing the Circle and Triangle buttons together will make it fire its guns.
On top of these regular attacks, Gunbikes also have ability to perform super moves that can be activated when the G-Power meter has reached a level of one or higher. To charge up the G-Power meter, you need to get as many Rush combos as possible. When the meter has reached level one, a super move can be unleashed by pressing Up, Down and Triangle. The move will vary depending on the character that you've chosen, but the end result is generally the same: total destruction of every onscreen enemy.
When you reach the end of a level, you will be placed into a one on one fight against the level's boss. The strategies you'll need to use in order to beat the boss will be dependant upon the attacks of the boss as well as your surroundings. For example, in the first level's boss fight, you are placed in an arena-style setting. You can use the extra room to run away and gain speed in order to use Dash Attacks against the boss. In level 2, you will be fighting against/chasing a cargo train, so you don't really have the option of slowing down or turning around.
From the get go, you have the option of practicing in an extremely thorough Training mode, or you can start the game's story mode by selecting "Operation." In the Operation mode, you start off with three selectable characters, each with her or his own unique Gunbike and storyline. For the most part, these first three characters only have slight differences in their playing style.
15 years old, Ippei is the kind of character that developers generally want you to like and pick first. He's energetic and prone to outbursts of yelling. A well rounded character and good for players just starting out. For me, his red outfit and bike conjure up images of Akira for pretty obvious reasons. Ippei's Robot mode attack is a kind of punch, useful in close-range combat. His gun attack is a cannon that can be aimed at enemies.
She's pretty well balanced gameplay-wise, but not necessarily mentally. Her past is unknown and she appears to have odd flashbacks and sensations that cause her a great deal of pain (fairly typical anime stuff). Her stats are very close to Ippei's, but she has a bit more power in the "Gun" category. Her standing Robot mode attack is a charging fist (think Terry Bogard). Ami's gun attack is an energy beam that fires in the direction that she's facing.
20 years old and the squad leader. He's also my favorite character of the three. His stats are similar to both Ippei's and Ami's but his speed and power are slightly better. His steering in Bike mode is the worst of the three, but that's what Rally mode is for. On top of having that cool, collected, stereotypical silver-haired anime look, Nouno also goes completely insane midway through his storyline and turns on the others. In other words, he's a lot of fun to play. His Gunbike also comes equipped with a laser sword in Robot mode. For his gun attack, Nouno fires two automatics in the direction that he's facing.
Playing through the game with a character will unlock a hidden character, complete with her or his own set of advantages and disadvantages.
Unless you absolutely hate both racing and action games, there is not much to dislike about this title. The controls are generally good, and the option of having different characters lets you find a Gunbike that's easy for you to use. Knowledge of Japanese is not really necessary to play this game, although it helps if you want to know the exact details of the storyline, which brings me to another good point of the game. Cutscenes are long enough to give you a sense of what's going on, but short enough to not interrupt the gameplay. All dialogue in the game is spoken, and your Gunbike will frequently talk to you, giving you hints or updates about the current situation (although these are generally useless if you don't understand Japanese at all). The music in Gunbike is pretty memorable as well, featuring synth-driven, rock-oriented, catchy tunes. There are plenty of tracks that will be stuck in your head for a while after playing.
The graphics of Speed Power Gunbike are good when you consider the era in which this game was made. They haven't held up incredibly well, but they don't look atrocious. Most of the negatives come from the limitations of the hardware that the game runs on. That, and maybe the completely nonsensical Engrish phrases you will occasionally encounter (i.e. at the game over screen, you are greeted by "ANERGY EMPTY!! YOU ALL OVER!!"). If anything though, these phrases just make the game more fun. A 2-Player option also might have been a nice addition, but the game isn't hurt by a lack of it.
There are really only two features that can be frustrating in Gunbike. First: the camera system. Generally, the camera stays behind you like a racing game or any third-person action game. However, after skidding out or getting knocked off of your bike, the camera will not be facing the right direction. After driving straight for a second or two, the camera will fix itself, but in tight situations, it would be nice to have some control over the camera. Second: getting knocked off of your bike. While in Bike mode it is possible to be knocked off either by land mines or enemy fire. After being knocked off, the character will have to run back to his or her Gunbike in order to get back on. There is a countdown (a "Compulsive Restart") that starts at 15 seconds and if the character has not reached his or her bike within that amount of time, s/he will automatically be placed back on the bike. This doesn't sound too bad, but on the rare occasion that you get knocked off far enough, waiting 15 seconds for your rider to get back on the Gunbike can be pretty horrendous.
The PlayStation had its limitations, but this game manages to work well in spite of them and in spite of any other minor gameplay issues. In the post-GTA culture, some people tend to expect their games to have hundreds of hours of replay value. Gunbike does not have this, but it manages to retain its charm from the feeling of a more "classic" style of game. It is still just as playable as it was when it came out (as opposed to say, 4-player multiplayer in Perfect Dark) and is just as unique. If you can find it (note: you probably won't), Speed Power Gunbike is definitely worth picking up.