Last week, I was worshipping a corny 15-year-old gun shooter while moaning that “Light gun games don’t appear to have broken much significant new ground since Time Crisis and Virtua Cop.” I managed no more than grumpy shrug towards the extra pedal on Time Crisis 5’s new cover system. But that misery-guts posturing was all set-up. Against the dim background of the lightgunner genre as I described it, here comes 2012’s Gunslinger Stratos.
Where to start?
When I saw these cabs, the first thing that seemed weird was that there were four two-player cabs in a row, and light gun games aren’t usually in multiples. Next, seeing the “Gunslinger” title, big cowboy revolvers, and those holsters curving down like the chap-laden bow-legs of a Wild-West desperado, I couldn’t help thinking of Mad Dog McCree. It would have been easy not to pay much attention to this machine, especially because I didn’t see anyone playing it. But I’m very glad I investigated.
First of all, those aren’t two-player cabs: you play the game with a gun in each hand. And that isn’t a row of isolated solo machines, either. There’s a clue in the picture — those little headsets hanging up next to each cab are for multiplayer comms. This is a light gun game that is built primarily for multiplayer. The closest thing to the structure of the gameplay is the row, just opposite in this game centre, of similarly networked and miked-up Gundam pods. Just like Bonds of the Battlefield, Gunslinger offers team-based network deathmatches. But on a light gun game.
Still so many questions…
How the hell does that work? Well, first of all, if you’re doing arena combat, you’re going to need to move somehow. I don’t care how many pedals there are on a Time Crisis cab, it’s not going to make for a strategic eight-player battle. So, on the back of each gun is a thumbstick. These are like the PlayStation GunCons that came out in the 90s, but with a whole arcade game built around you having two of them. With a pistol in each hand, you have a standard twin-stick setup for navigation, which incidentally, you are doing in third person.
Yeah, so this is actually a multiplayer third-person arena battle shooter played with console-style controls built into dual light guns. Holy shit, right? But there’s more. Those two guns can be joined together — actually physically connected to each other — to change firing modes. You can use them freely in both hands if you like, or you can use them like this or like this:
Let’s run through the controls, since the official site provides such nice images. The pink labelling below shows where to connect the guns for side style, which activates automatic weapons, and the blue shows tandem style, enabling explosive weapons like the bazooka. Orange labels are the thumbsticks and a jump button on the right-hand gun. On top of all that, triggers, obviously.
This is already a dash more complexity than most arcade shooters, but it goes further — beyond most console games, even. Melee attacks require you to aim off screen and fire in combination with stick movements, while a communication system — presumably only useful if you’ve no headset — is bound to double clicking the right thumbstick in combination with movements on the left. Don’t forget you’re also whizzing around a vertiginous future city playing Virtua Cop against fast-moving human opponents.
About that future city
So it’s really not Mad Dog McCree. This isn’t the Wild West; it’s the future, and in the future there are some parallel universes or something, so you have to time-travel or something, to save the world or something, by fighting in teams of four with pistols, or something. Anyway, the upshot is that you run and fly around 2015 versions of some Tokyo districts and other Japanese cities.
Gunslinger Stratos is a spectacular mutant crawling from the deepest sewers of Japanese arcade culture. I mean that in a good way (in case you think there’s a bad way to mean that). The cabinet provides a physical experience that could only happen in the arcade, the future-fantasy content is strongly localised to the trendy city hang-out spots, and the smart card, team-based play and networking are all there to feed the otaku devotees. This is all thoroughbred arcade stuff, but not all that unusual. The freak twist is that incredible control scheme, which puts Gunslinger Stratos about 17 Far East Imperial City Management Districts from the tin-can-alley trigger rattling of Virtua Cop.
So is this the new dawn of the light gun? To be honest, I found this even more impenetrable than Bonds of the Battlefield. I also felt a lot more exposed standing confused in front of the 60-inch screen than I did pretending to drive a robot in Gundam’s private little dark room. At ¥200 for three plays, though, getting the hang of it seems like a realistic prospect. Although I saw no one playing, a sequel has appeared and there are a ton of well-viewed fan videos online. For its sheer originality, I hope Gunslinger succeeds. You should definitely try it if you get the chance.
Oh, and since I didn’t really tell you what the gameplay actually looks like, I’ll leave you with a video of the Ikebukuro stage:
See you next week.
(See all postcards from the game centre here.)
Photographer and writer covering Tokyo arcade life – the videogames, the metropolis and the people