Standing guard over your realm as a sentient winged statue can’t be all that exciting. I mean, having to watch as the world passes you by for centuries on end, unmoving, unfaltering, must truly be the definition of tedium. So, it’s no surprise that our hero Wor, from the classic Mega Drive shoot ‘em up Gynoug (a.k.a Wings of Wor), jumps at the opportunity to clash swords (or bullets?) with the malevolent entity known simply as The Destroyer. A virus that threatens the safety of his home world Iccus, and is mutating its flora and fauna into horrific malformations, hell bent on clipping Wor’s wings and stopping him in his tracks.
It’ll be a strange, nostalgic, and hectic voyage from Ratalaika Games, to be sure, but here’s how we fared on our adventure through Iccus!
Right off the bat you can tell that Gynoug was ahead of its time, at least visually, and especially on the Mega Drive. There’s multiple layers of scrolling, rotations, and a variety of interesting visual effects, like pulsating and wobbling backgrounds, that really gives each environment you playthrough, depth. I also really appreciate the variety of environments across the 6 levels you’ll be flying through, ranging from your run of the mill oceanic stages, to cold and foreboding castles, to grotesque organic passageways. All highly detailed, and with their own unique styles and sets of enemies. It’s unfortunate however, that the sound effects and soundtrack didn’t really live up to the same standards. In fact, a lot of the soundtrack feels uncharacteristic and unsuited for what’s happening on the screen, and the sound effects are grating and repetitive at best. Most notably that pinging sound that plays on repeat when you can’t damage a boss!
For the most part, all of the enemy and boss designs are quite impressive, and definitely reinforce the mutated virus vibe the story was going for. There is the occasional uninspired enemy design, that seem a bit out of place or awkward, but they’re typically not on screen long enough to offend your sensibilities before you shoot them down anyway, so I didn’t really dwell on it. Though I don’t think I’ll ever get over those stiff, unanimated, wizard things.
When it comes to the readability of the action while in the thick of it however, Gynoug turned out to be a mixed bag. Fortunately, Wor is wearing bright blue armor so he stands out like a sore thumb, and his bullets follow suit so you always know what and if you’re shooting. The enemy bullets on the other hand, can sometimes get lost in the fray. Especially come on the end of the game when everything, including the backgrounds, are moving and are some slightly indistinguishable shade of red. Which makes accidentally running into a stray bullet, enemy, or barrier, an inevitability.
Although Gynoug only features one character to play as, you do have some variety in how you can play the game. As you shoot your way through each stage you’ll come across a few different items that’ll change your shot pattern. There’s the blue shot, which will create a large spread in front of Wor, the red shot, which fires a much more concentrated stream of bullets in front of you, and slightly behind you, and finally the orange shot, which does a small spread of bullets both in front and behind you. That said, I never really found any of them to be better than the others, since they all do the same amount of damage, and shoot at about the same speed. Well except for the orange shot, which I found to be the least useful of the three. You’re also able to power up each of the shot types, by collecting orbs of their respective color. Doing this will add more bullets and a wider spread to the attack, making crowd control a bit easier, and as long as you don’t get hit or lose a life, you can maintain that power through the entire game.
Aside from your standard attacks, you can also collect a few other items that’ll help you along your way. The first being a feather that basically just increases your movement speed. Honestly it’s a double edged sword, because from the get-go you’re pretty dang slow, and the speed boost helps immensely when trying to avoid enemy attacks. On the flip side however, collecting too many, and increasing your movement speed by too much, almost makes you unwieldy! Then there are your special magic abilities, which is probably the most unique feature of the game! Instead of your typical screen clearing bomb, you can collect a multitude of scrolls that will unlock some multi use spells that you can activate at will. Collect more than one of the same spell scroll consecutively, and you can unleash a more powerful version of it! These will range from a spread of fireballs, to strikes of lightning, to transforming your bullets into giant bubbles! All pretty cool, and definitely useful during boss fights. I especially appreciate that once activated you can use them as many times as you like, until you run out of charges, and you can switch them up frequently since you’ll run across a ton of the spell scrolls in a single playthrough. Oh, and they don’t have any negative effects on your score, so don’t hesitate to use them often.
If you’re a highscore hunter, Gynoug has a relatively simple scoring system, and only really rewards you for staying alive and killing as many enemies as possible, so it doesn’t really promote extended or repeated playthroughs. In fact, most of the stages felt way too long, and became monotonous relatively quickly. That said, if you do happen to be determined to crack the top 10, survival and hitting that high score isn’t always easy, despite most enemy and boss patterns leaning toward the less than complex side. The biggest run killers will probably be the constant barrage of enemies flying at you from both sides of the screen, or getting hand fatigue as you wait for a boss’s dang weak point to reveal itself. The final boss in particular will make you question if it’s even beatable! Luckily, you can extend your chances of survival by collecting the 1ups hidden throughout each level.
If you’re finding the game too challenging, or want to induce controller breaking habits, Gynoug does feature three different difficulty levels. Though, since there aren’t any special clear conditions, unique endings, or unlockables attributed to the difficulty you play it on and/or finish it at, or even your overall performance, changing the difficulty really only affects how driven you are to see those credits roll. Also, if or when you do beat the game, it loops back to the beginning so you can keep gunning for higher and higher scores.
With the version of Gynoug we played being an emulated port of the original, it does come with some added features that pretty much makes its challenge negligible, if you are inclined to use them. Like save states, a rewind feature, and cheats. Which include everything from infinite lives, to invincibility. That said, if you’re all about those achievements, the cheats don’t disable them, and you can get a cool 1000GS, with minimal effort. Unfortunately, the port itself was relatively bare bones outside of that. I would have loved to see a scan of the original manual, or maybe the different regional versions of the game, and a concept art gallery would have been amazing. Things like that always add value to retro ports, and it’s really too bad they weren’t included.
I love discovering new and obscure shoot ‘em ups like Gynoug, especially those I’ve never heard of, let alone played! Although there have been more exciting games within the genre since, Gynoug really demonstrated at the time that you could get a bit weird conceptually, and still be fun. Even if I would say that it’s more of a curiosity that’ll satisfy those who have dug themselves deep into the shoot ‘em up rabbit hole, I do think that there’s enough fun to be had that’ll satisfy any retro or shmup fan that’s looking for something a bit different!