Welcome to The Shmuptake, an occasional column about the history of the shoot ‘em up, aka the “shmup.” Here’s an introduction.
Shoot ‘em ups aren’t really known for their characters. Take Vic Viper: you might think that name sounds like a Punch-Out boxer or a vigilante trying to clean up the streets in some ‘80s urban paranoia brawling game, but it’s actually the ship in Gradius, and its name is the full extent of its character. There are outliers, of course, but in most shmups you’re dealing with a flashy spaceship and an unknown, unseen pilot.
One reason Psikyo’s Gunbird 2 stands out is because of how thoroughly it breaks from that mold. Want something a little more defined and memorable than a spaceship? Well, here’s not just one unique character, but five, each with their own distinct weapons and dialogue. Oh, and Psikyo throws three memorable villains on top of that, who pop up multiple times on each level, with dialogue before and after every boss battle. There’s nothing wrong with shmups that focus purely on the nuts and bolts of the genre—honestly, when done well, that’s probably the best kind of shmup—but Gunbird 2’s focus on character gives it a charm and personality that really stand out.
And what do those characters want? Nothing too extreme: simply to fly into the cave where God lives and then shoot him until he mixes a magical potion for them.
I’ll be honest: Gunbird 2’s story, such as it is, seems to skip a lot of steps. You’re gathering together the ingredients for a potion, which has to be mixed at the North Pole, after which you fly into God’s hole, where you find God is a cute cartoon elephant hovering within a red-tinted void, and then after shooting him a bunch he grants one of two wishes, after which everything starts over again from the top. Dialogue is minimal—your character has one or two lines between each level, whereas your archrival (whose henchman calls her “the Queen Pirates,” which might be a typo but sounds cool either way) has a short chat with her two goons before and after every big battle. Between those brief snippets of conversation and the singular designs of each playable character, Gunbird 2 does just enough to make you care about these people more than you would an anonymous space jet.
Don’t expect too much personality or uniqueness from these characters. They’re all fairly standard stock types, familiar not just from other Japanese media like anime and manga but from the larger world of pop culture. You’ve got a cutesy witch with a stern rabbit adviser, a schoolgirl trying to save her mom’s life, an Arab stereotype on a flying carpet (his bomb is a genie, of course), a vampire (named Alucard, but not that Alucard), and then a big clunky robot. Each one has a slightly different attack profile and movement specs, so your pick might be based more on your play style than on what character most resonates with you. Their motivation and backstory are thinly fleshed out after every level, and if you make it to the end you have to choose one of two requests from God. Apparently if you play two-player you get a different specific ending, so there are over a dozen possible endings to this game. If its various characters didn’t keep you coming back to Gunbird 2, perhaps the promise of those different conclusions would.
On higher difficulties, or even on later stages on lower levels, Gunbird 2 can get a bit bullet hellish. Fortunately your bombs wipe out the bullets they come into contact with, and each character also has a charged shot and a melee strike that can clear up some of the gunfire. Those charged and melee attacks deplete a meter at the bottom of the screen, but it refills a bit every time you shoot an enemy, which you will be doing pretty much constantly throughout the whole game, so you don’t need to be too stingy with either of those special attacks. Your standard weapon has autofire, which is nice, and in typical shmup fashion can be powered up several times by items dropped by certain enemies. Each power-up makes your spray wider or longer or more powerful, and eventually adds an automatic secondary attack to your line of fire; these are custom-tailored for each character, and some are stronger than others.
It also has a weirdly finnicky and specific scoring system. Certain enemies drop coins when they explode. Normally those coins are worth 200 points each. You’ll notice the coins spin, though, and sparkle in the middle of each rotation; if you grab them while they’re sparkling, you can start a combo chain, and as long as you pick up each following coin during that short sparkle, the score doubles for each one. It’s not important for the story, or anything, but you can net a couple of extra lives when you hit specific score thresholds. It’s only something to worry about if you’re fixated on getting a high score—which is a main draw for this type of game, obviously, but less crucial with one that has a story to it.
If you’re familiar with shoot ‘em ups, nothing about Gunbird 2’s design will be all that new or unique. It’s all done very competently and professionally, though, making it eminently enjoyable. It’s also fairly liberal with the continues, so if you’re a shmup vet you can probably make it through the entire game on your first play even at the top difficulty tiers.
With finely calibrated play and memorable characters, Gunbird 2 has lasted a bit longer with me than other shmups. Usually I move on from a game once I write about it; right now though I’m already thinking about which Gunbird 2 character I’ll choose on my next playthrough. Hell, maybe one day I’ll even give the first Gunbird a shot. First released in arcades in 1998, Gunbird 2 isn’t the only shooter to embrace more vividly drawn characters as technology made that more feasible in the later ‘90s and ‘00s—2001’s Progear similarly has you pick between a handful of different characters, and gives each boss a name and brief intro dialogue—but it prioritizes character more than most shmups from any era. I could see it winning over some players who might otherwise avoid this kind of game, especially if they’re already into the heavily character-driven world of fighting games, or even just Japanese pop culture in general. And if you’ve always dreamed of machine gunning an elephant god into creating a magical potion for you, well, this is probably the greatest game you’ll ever play.
: 1998 Developer
: Psikyo Publisher
1998-2000: Capcom (arcades, Dreamcast)
2020: NIS America (Switch), City Connection (PC) Original Platform
: Arcades Platform We Played It On
: PC Also Available On
: Switch, as part of Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.