I know I’m not alone in my preference for vertical shmups, especially of the bullet hell variety. It’s hard to articulate well, but tracking bullets, reading patterns, and positioning your ship just feels so much more intuitive in a vert. But every now and then, a game will come along to make the case for a horizontal danmaku—a game like Rolling Gunner.
There’s immediate appeal in Mebius’ indie shmup. The genre’s usual mix of neon plasma onslaughts and a layered, combo-driven score system that rewards both skill and strategy come together with a nifty gimmick at Rolling Gunner‘s core: the titular rolling gun. As a complement to your regular, forward-firing shots, the rolling gun can move in a full circle around your ship, providing that all-important multi-directional fire.
Depending on which mode you’re playing in, the controls are a little different: in Original mode, it “rolls” around the axis to file your ship’s movement, and can be locked in place by focus firing; in the remixed Over Power mode, you aim manually, twin-stick shooter style. They have a very different feel and pose very different challenges, but at at heart, the rolling gun serves the same purpose across both modes: to let you attack any corner of the screen from wherever you are, because in Rolling Gunner, threats come from all sides.
So while it is, nominally, a horizontally-scrolling game, it doesn’t strictly conform to that setup. Enemies and shots can come from all sides, and there are moments where it feels more like a vert—or an inverted vert—as waves attack from above and below and force a lot of left-right dodging. There are plenty of more “typical” horizontal formations and up-down dodging, too, and patterns that use the full screen in a way that feels unorthodox to either orientation.
It’s in that combination, and the way the level design moves so fluidly between different approaches, that makes Rolling Gunner such an exemplary shmup: it puts the abstract but significant differences between verts and horis into stark relief, forcing a fresh approach and a different perspective, while also pushing the boundaries of both. There really isn’t anything else like it.
With both the original game and the Over Power DLC packed in together, the PlayStation 4 version of Rolling Gunner offers a decent assortment of play modes. Over Power is, effectively, a Black Label-style arrange mode with remixed game systems: as well as the twin-stick controls mentioned before, it’s got a heavier emphasis on bullet cancelling (balanced out by patterns that are far more dense), and a reworked life system with rechargeable shields (but no bombs). It’s far more chaotic and dynamic, compared to Original mode’s more “pure” design and focus on shmup fundamentals. Neither is better or worse, just very different approaches to a shared foundation, and it’s nice to have them both available.
Both Original and Over Power have a handful of different difficulty settings. The harder modes having trickier attacks to avoid and some extra wrinkles to the scoring system, while easier options have more manageable bullet patterns and simpler scoring. Of particular note is the Novice mode, which is one of the better such modes around: it’s a lot easier than the other modes, with more obvious gaps to slip through, but it’s not oversimplified to the point of being defanged. An inexperienced shmupper will still have to work a bit for the 1CC, but it’s within reach—and in the process of gunning for it, Novice Mode is very good at intuitively teaching how to play bullet hells. (That said, I don’t like the no-penalty auto-bomb—that just teaches bad bomb habits.)
Novice mode naturally paves the way to the harder modes, with their more devious attack patterns and amped-up scoring systems that encourage more forethought and tactical play. A decent training mode helps with nailing those chart-topping runs—especially handy now that, with the PS4 version, Rolling Gunner finally has an online leaderboard. But even if record-setting isn’t your goal, there’s plenty of inherent fun in the frantic, combo-driven scoring and the risky play it rewards.
At a glance, Rolling Gunner may not look like much, but there’s a recent it’s earned a reputation as one of the better bullet hells of recent memory. It’s a finely-crafted danmaku with a unique hook in its multi-directional rolling gun, and doesn’t shy away from pushing that idea to its limits. In the process, it winds up picking apart the whole “vert vs hori” discussion, showcasing—and subverting—the abstract little nuances that distinguish the two.