Blissful Death: Enhanced retro shooting with Gley Lancer

Blissful Death: Celebrating the Shoot 'em Up

Whenever companies decide to rerelease classic games like Gley Lancer, there’s doubtless always a discussion in a boardroom somewhere about how “true” to the original the rerelease should be. Should it be a simple, no-frills port, exactly as players would have experienced it on a classic home system? Or should it take full advantage of the things we have available to us today in order to enhance the original experience somehow?

For Ratalaika Games, who have been bringing us a number of new ports of classic games recently — including several Cotton titles, PC Engine racer Moto Roader MC and classic Mega Drive shmup Gynoug, it seems that the optimal answer — and one I’d personally agree with — is “yes, both”. Because their Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4/5 and Xbox blah versions of Gley Lancer bring us not only some excellent ports of the original Mega Drive version, but also versions that play in a thoroughly modern fashion, taking full advantage of the increased capabilities and enhanced ergonomics of modern controllers.

Gley Lancer

Gley Lancer first released in 1992 and, like Gynoug, was the work of NCS Corporation and Masaya Games. The story follows the adventures of Lucia, a 16-year old fighter pilot in the Earth Federation. Caught in the midst of a war against an unknown alien race, the flagship commanded by Lucia’s father is warped out of the sector by mysterious technology, and left to fend for itself. Believing her father to be in mortal danger, Lucia breaches protocol by stealing an experimental prototype fighter known as the CSH-01-XA or “Gley Lancer” and blasts off in an attempt to rescue him single-handedly.

Naturally, this is a fairly ridiculous premise, but it is also a shoot ’em up, so these things are to be expected — and to be honest, the idea of a lone experimental fighter slipping out of an active warzone unnoticed isn’t completely unheard of. And Gley Lancer makes a noteworthy effort with its narrative, featuring attractive pixel-art anime-style cutscenes with dialogue — fully translated from the original Japanese in Ratalaika’s release — that help give the whole thing a sense of personality and urgency that is lacking from some other titles from the era.

On its original release, Gley Lancer has had the very definition of “mixed” reviews, with classic ’90s game magazines, suffering from extreme shoot ’em up fatigue, criticising it for seemingly offering nothing all that new at first glance — and likely being unable to enjoy the plot due to it only having a Japanese release back then. In more recent years, however, it has developed something of a cult following thanks to a rerelease on the Wii’s Virtual Console as well as an unofficial fan translation patch — and now, finally, Ratalaika’s new version makes it more accessible and enjoyable than ever before.

Gley Lancer

Gley Lancer’s core gimmick is the use of “Movers”, two options that, once power-ups have been collected, sit either side of your ship. As the game begins, you can choose between a number of different configurations of how these Movers respond to your controls and incoming threats; some of these configurations follow (or mirror) your control inputs, while others lock on to enemies, rotate around your ship or imitate your ship’s movements a short distance behind. In most cases, you can hold down a “lock” button to fix them in position or direction, allowing for multidirectional shooting; your ship always fires forwards, but the Movers can be shooting anywhere else on the screen.

Alongside the different Mover configurations, there are a number of different power-ups that correspond to how the Movers will fire. Your starting weapon is a rapid-fire Twin Shot, but other options include powerful but narrow-beam lasers, bouncing shots, wide-spreading 5-way shots, exploding plasma bombs and two short-range weapons: an energy saber and a flame thrower. Weapons appear at set locations in each level, so while learning each level, you’ll also want to take these into account — since some are distinctly better for certain situations than others!

The original control scheme of Gley Lancer takes a bit of getting used to, for sure, but back in 1992 it was an effective means of allowing you to shoot in up to 16 different directions while only using a single directional pad and three buttons. Now, however, we have controllers with dual analogue sticks, so wouldn’t it be nice if… oh, wait, they did? Yes, they most certainly did.

Gley Lancer
The parallax scrolling in this asteroid field would have been spooge-worthy in 1992.

By default, Ratalaika Games’ version of Gley Lancer allows you to completely ignore the different configurations of the Movers and instead simply aim them in eight different directions using the right analogue stick on your controller. This is an absolutely wonderful addition to the game — and while there will doubtless be some out there who feel like this detracts from the authenticity of this port, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you either keeping your filthy hands firmly off the right stick altogether, or even switching the game into its “Vintage” mode, which turns off all the modernisations and enhancements and simply provides a direct port of the Mega Drive original.

There are a couple of other convenient features included, too. The speed control for your ship, which toggled forwards through four settings on the Mega Drive original, can now be increased or decreased with the trigger buttons, which makes actually making use of it much more practical. And, as with most modern versions of classic retro games, rewind and save state functions are included if you want to use modern conveniences to actually see the ending.

Gley Lancer is a pretty tough game, see, and it’s one of those shoot ’em ups that sets you back to a checkpoint when you die — and the start of a level when you continue. This means you can’t simply brute force and credit-feed your way through to the finale — at some point you’ll have to actually get good and prove yourself.

Gley Lancer

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course — personally, I actually prefer this structure, since it gives me good reason to continually revisit the game and really get to know the levels, rather than simply ploughing through the whole thing in 20 minutes and immediately forgetting everything. But do bear it in mind if you’re someone who, when playing a new shmup, likes to see the ending as soon as possible before you start taking aim for high scores and truly mastering the mechanics!

It’ll still take you a while to reach that ending, though, even taking full advantage of the more modern conveniences. Gley Lancer is tricky, with it proving particularly challenging to keep an eye on your main ship when the screen gets chaotic. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, mind — more an acknowledgement that given the importance of the Movers and the natural tendency to focus your attention on what they’re doing rather than where you extremely fragile ship is, you might need to play this a little differently from some other shoot ’em ups you might be accustomed to.

This idiosyncrasy aside — it’s something you’ll just have to adjust to — Gley Lancer is a fantastic shoot ’em up, and Ratalaika Games have done an exemplary job with this port. Not only is it a fantastic, authentic-feeling way to enjoy a Mega Drive classic, but it’s also a thoroughly accessible means to do so, with its optional modernisations feeling fresh and well-implemented, but remaining optional for those who prefer to enjoy it how they knew it back in the day.

Gley Lancer

Here’s hoping we get many more of these fantastic retro rereleases from Ratalaika Games in the future — and how about some physical releases too, hmm?

Gley Lancer is available now for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4/5 and Xbox thingywotnots.

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Pete Davison
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