Gynoug is far from the first retro re-release to augment an authentic port with handy modern conveniences like save states and rewind tools, but it’s easily one of the better examples I’ve encountered. Amid the endless debate about preserving old classics exactly as they were and making their more dated elements more manageable, the ideal solution is almost always going to be: why not both?
If you just fire up Gynoug and dive right in, you’ll find all the glory and brutality of a shoot-’em-up from 1991, a direct port of its original Mega Drive incarnation. Death means losing a chunk of your precious power-ups, continuing after running out of lives kicks you back to the beginning of the current stage, and if you run out of a finite number of credits, that’s it. Enemy bullets aren’t the bright, impossible-to-miss energy balls that dominate shmups today, and movement is only as precise as the Mega Drive hardware could handle. There’s some nostalgic appeal in that, but if you’re more accustomed to modern games that find their challenge in other ways, playing a 30-year-old game “the way it was intended” can be frustrating and tiresome.
But it doesn’t have to be. Make use of any (or all!) of a wide array of options available, and you can customise the experience to an impressive degree. Being able to save and load at any point is standard in retro re-releases now, and a rewind function is fairly common one, too—make a mistake, and you can just rewind to that point and try again. But Gynoug goes a step further with its “Cheats” menu, giving you an assortment of toggles for various difficulty-affecting aspects of the game. Unlimited credits, unlimited lives, retaining power-ups upon death, even just outright invincibility. As a way of keeping the original game perfectly intact while also making it accessible despite some of its more archaic design, these sorts of “Cheats” are a simple, elegant solution.
Underneath these layers of added convenience is a retro shooter that is, in different ways, both unforgettable and entirely ordinary. Even among shmups of its age, it’s a rudimentary in its game design, with archetypal enemies that follow familiar patterns and never really do anything to stand out. That goes for the bosses, too—even as I write this, I can’t call to mind any specific boss attack, in a genre where the details of bullet patterns and attack cycles are often the very thing that come to define each encounter. Stages tend to drag on longer than necessary, which only highlights the lack of anything truly memorable in the design of the game.
But it’s also a game that stands out, even to this day, on the strength of its visual design. From the simple premise of a (burly, shirtless) warrior angel fending off hordes of demons attacking the heavens, Gynoug builds a grim vision of its world. Dark fantasy, biblical motifs, grimy industrial machinery, and H. R. Geiger-esque body horror all blend together to paint a picture that’s as horrific as it is captivating. And as unremarkable as the encounters themselves are, the boss designs are a particular stand-out, from a demonic train with a human head and arms, to a giant face wearing a pirate ship for a hat, to the decaying remains of a disembodied embryo. It’s not your typical bright colours and flashing lights, that’s for sure.
That also highlights a missed opportunity for this re-release: an art gallery or museum mode. Design notes and concept sketches would be fascinating to peruse, if they could be dug up—granted it’s often difficult to do so. But even without going to that length, a simple, handy gallery of Satoshi Nakai’s impressive concept art would be a nice touch, as would scans of the Mega Drive game manual. Preserving the game itself is obviously most important, but it’s easy to overlook how much extra historical value there is in those supplementary materials.
The rudimentary nature of the game underneath all the moody presentation mean Gynoug’s appeal is probably going to be limited to the most die-hard shoot-’em-up fanatics, historians, and those with a nostalgic connection to it. But that’s all the more reason to preserve it in a readily available, accessible way—and with the suite of conveniences layered over the top of , that’s exactly what Ratalaika Games have achieved.
Developer: Masaya Games, Shinyuden
Publisher: Ratalaika Games
Platforms:Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
Release date: 12 November 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.