Title Elemental Gearbolt
Developer/Publisher Alfa System/SCEI
Type 3D Shooter
English version Available
Reviews #1, #2

Review #1 by Michael Motoda

"All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl."
- Jean-luc Godard, French filmmaker, 1991

Alfa System and SCEI were probably thinking the same thing when they set about to produce Elemental Gearbolt, a first-person shooter which is compatible with Namco's Guncon and Konami's Hyper Blaster (Justifier) light gun peripherals. The lead characters, comprised of a scantily clad female duo (one a little more so than the other), would likewise do nothing to dissuade Mr. Godard's above opinions, either. But while many movie and game directors would be satisfied with just that, this game also manages to excel in other areas as well.

When I first turned this game on and saw the "Alfa System" logo, I almost turned my PlayStation off. The reason? Alfa System is the developer who created the tedious and lethargic Horned Owl, a title chock-full of great production value (character and mechanical designs by Shirow Masamune, the creative genius behind Appleseed, Dominion, Orion and Ghost in the Shell). Unfortunately, extremely poor game design and a virtual lack of gameplay in general marred it, making it one of the worst games of 1995 - taking Prozac was definitely a requirement after playing it.

But since I had already spent my money on it, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. It's a good thing I did. Rin Tarou, director of the extremely popular X: The Movie was brought aboard this project as the animation film director, and the prestigious Mad House was put in charge of the fluid animation production in the game. Therefore, you can imagine the quality that the anime intro and cut scenes possess. While it's not as intense as SCEI's Ghost in the Shell or Namco's Tales of Destiny intro movies (both done by Production I.G.), the quality is nonetheless high caliber and moves at a swift 30fps in widescreen mode. The look is reminiscent of Vampire Hunter D with a hint of Inoue Naohisa (the artist who created the dream sequences in Studio Ghibli's "Mimi wo Sumaseba") thrown in for good measure. It's very stylistic and creative.

However, it was the game's music that simply captivated me from the start. If my kanji recognition is serving me correctly, the music is composed by Kiyomizu Akihiko (could be Shimizu Akihiko), which is a name I'm not familiar with. However, after hearing Elemental Gearbolt's stunning soundtrack, I'd love to hear more compositions from this talented individual. The opening movie's music is reminiscent of the type of music you'd expect to hear from Kanno Yohko (Memories, Tenkuu no Escaflowne, Macross Plus), and is incredibly atmospheric. When you hit the title screen, the sweet and soothing composition you hear really manages to stand out. Hearing this music while looking at the image of a pixie's silhouette on the game's title screen seems to just mix together perfectly. The song is worth listening through all the way, as it's very nice.

Interface is clean simple, and setting up the game is similar to that of Virtua Cop 1 & 2 on the Sega Saturn, with the trigger cycling through options and the B button selecting them. Game options are extensive, so take your time and set up everything to your liking. In addition to the game being Guncon and Hyper Blaster compatible, you can also use the standard Sony digital pad (not recommended) or Sony's analog controllers (also not recommended, but tolerable). Basically, it's compatible with virtually every two-axis controller on the market.

The gameplay is alarmingly similar to that of Horned Owl. From a first-person perspective, you move through various levels at a smooth 60fps, shooting at 2D and 3D enemies and items. However, Alfa System and SCEI must have heard the complaints from gamers who had played Horned Owl and improved the areas where that game suffered. There are a lot more enemies to shoot at, and the levels become progressively harder as you move through them. You also now have a different selection of weapons, all of which have good and bad points about them. Some are stronger, but you can't fire them as fast as the other ones. On the other hand, some are weaker, but you can get off a lot more rounds, thus destroying enemies and objects that blow up after a certain amount of hits, rather than a certain amount of damage.

To breathe life into the gun shooter genre, the developers tried something a little different. They've added RPG elements, which give you a choice as to how you'd like to distribute the experience points you collect throughout the game's various levels. You can either allocate them to your score, or have them go toward level advancement. The way you distribute them is up to you, which is similar to the star distribution system in Yuke's/SCEI's nice platformer, Hermie Hopperhead. Level advancement will yield in special abilities and bonuses such as invincibility and increased weapon power. Therefore, instead of simply going for the high score, there is a distinct element of strategy in figuring out when it's a good time to level up and when it's safe to simply fatten up your score.

There's also a nice combo system that rewards you for hitting multiple enemies at a time as well as hitting consecutive targets without missing. This encourages you to go for pinpoint accuracy instead of shooting away wildly, a la Sega's House of the Dead. While this seemingly detracts from the intensity inherent to most light gun shooters, it helps to support the game's feeling of being in an RPG, where early enemies are traditionally easier and become increasingly more difficult and exotic as you progress through the game. The first few stages are pretty easy, but by the fourth and fifth levels, the game's difficulty becomes pretty intense. Additionally, you can blow up pots to reveal health potions and gold/silver coins for points and combo bonuses. Finally, there are 20 pixies imprisoned throughout each level that also help to boost up your score. Shooting these pixies will release them and add 10,000 points each to your score. I have not successfully hit all 20 in every stage yet, but I would imagine that a bonus option opens up as a result (there are various grayed-out options that you can't select initially).

Another distinct improvement of this game over Horned Owl is in the dynamic camera movements and overall environmental presentation. Because you play the role of a winged heroine, your movements aren't simply limited to ground movements. You'll skim across vast waterways, catapult yourself over walls, slide in and out of caverns, jump down the faces of cliffs, all the while blasting enemies, rescuing pixies, and maximizing your combos. The movements aren't slow, either. You'll often find yourself trying to look around corners while bobbing your head trying to make up for tall jumps and landings. The motion is very smooth and convincing. However, there is a rather excessive amount of slowdown from time to time. This seems to be dependent on whether or not you're using a certain weapon or facing a large, high-polygon enemy. It's a bit annoying, but it doesn't happen on a constant basis. Its effect on you will vary. I found it rather distracting at times.

The bosses in the game vary from unimpressive 2D animated sprites to huge 3D, fully-living and animated creations. The bosses later in the game are especially fun to shoot at and experience. It takes some high stamina and concentration on all parts of the screen to beat some of them.

In terms of technical issues, the game in general uses a lot of dithered textures. Some are better than others, but all serve their purpose in conveying the atmosphere of their world beautifully. Animation is about what you'd expect out of 2D sprites in a gun shooter (think Steel Gunner 2 or GunBullet from Namco), and the 3D animations are well done also. The 2D sprites do tend to get a bit pixellated up-close, but overall, they're well-drawn, with good color usage. Pop-up is worse in some areas as opposed to others, but it is generally kept to a minimum and hardly gets noticed during the course of gameplay. It's mainly noticeable during transition/break sequences. Sound effects are also loud, crisp, and full of definition.

Fans of anime will also love the voice cast, which includes such prestigious names as Kasahara Hiroko (Magic Knight Rayearth), Okiayu Ryoutarou (Marmalade Boy), and a host of others that you'll undoubtedly recognize.

All in all, Elemental Gearbolt is a fun light gun shooter, but is not by far the best. It's nice to see the genre taken in a different direction with the addition of RPG elements, and the production value is commendable. However, at 6 stages, it's a rather quick romp and it doesn't truly get challenging until the 4th or 5th stage. The gorgeous movies, constantly unraveling storyline, top-quality soundtrack, bonus options/play modes, and clean and intuitive gameplay do help to make this game worth buying, especially if you are a big fan of gun shooters and high-quality anime. It's the first light gun shooter I've experienced that tells a great story.

Score Breakdown:
+ Wonderful anime scenes, directed by Rin Tarou of X: The Movie 
+ Clean and colorful interface.
+ Game engine running at primarily 60fps.
+ Nice 3D monsters and competent 2D animations.
+ Gorgeous environments and overall presentation.
+ Cute (but unnecessary) name entry feature.
- Unavoidable pixellization of 2D creatures up-close.
- Slows down to 20-30fps at times, slower than the slowdown 
  in Taito's RayStorm.
+ Awesome and moving soundtrack - one of the best.
+ Music changes to fit the mood of each level in the game
  multiple times.
+ Crisp ambience and general sound effect presentation.
- Slight pops after the end of each level is a bit annoying.
+ Interesting and unique fusion of RPG elements.
+ Decent difficulty curve for novice/intermediate players.
+ Fairly long boss encounters later in the game.
+ A wide variety of options and bonus features.
+ Two-player mode holds appeal to many gun game fans.
- Very short, at only 6 levels.
- The game takes a little too long to get going; the early
  levels are a cakewalk.
- Doesn't quite have the flair or excitement of the other
  offerings from Namco (Time Crisis & GunBullet).

Capsule Review: High production value and an incredible soundtrack give the game polish, but the game's length and overall difficulty hurt its lasting replayability. Excellent anime cut-scenes and a decent amount of action make Elemental Gearbolt worth a purchase if you love gun games and anime. We'll see if Jaleco's Game Teigoku 2 fares any better later this year.

Review Copyright © 1998 by Michael Motoda (mmotoda@interplay.com). Please feel free to email me with your comments, questions, or criticisms about my review. Thank you very much for your time.