Shooters are getting to be few and far between in today's game scene. While they represented a significant portion of the 16-bit era, developers just aren't making them anymore despite all of the amazing technology at their disposal. Newer gamers probably don't even notice the genre's vanishing presence. But as someone who can appreciate barrages of homing missiles and deadly laser blossoms destroying hordes of enemies in aerobatic fury, it's sad to see it fade away. Still, the games haven't completely disappeared—yet. Thanks to Atlus, you can add at least one more attempt (I think) to bring the faded glory of days gone by onto the shelves of today. The funny thing is, after spending time with developer Pixel Arts' product, I miss those old games more than ever.
Sky Gunner is a 3D shooter in which you pilot fanciful airplanes resembling a cross between Renaissance thinking and the early days of the Wright Brothers. Your craft come equipped with machine guns, three different types of lock-on weaponry and unique abilities (one for each ship). There are five levels in the main game, along with additional modes that become unlocked as you progress. Interestingly, a large emphasis is placed on the storytelling in Sky Gunner. The interludes are quite long and are presented through comic book-like cutscenes complete with word balloons.
Things start out promisingly with a cute cast rendered in the "big eyes, no nose" style of Japanese art. There are three main characters, a gruff chief of police and an evildoer with an army of diminutive henchmen. Add in the fanciful aircraft and a bright, cheery art style and the correct elements seem to be in place for a promising game. Unfortunately, the game's pervasive generic-ness is quickly revealed. The plot is forgettable, and the characters bland and uncharming despite the snappy visuals. Strangely, the non-gameplay elements of Sky Gunner remind me of nothing so much as a watered-down imitation of the Mega Man Legends series (the evil minions in the game are basically "Servbots" with minor cosmetic surgery). Shooting for the same kind of specialty niche is all well and good, but simply having anime-style characters isn't enough.
Play-wise, the game is only five short stages long, but offers five pilots (two initially, three locked) that basically take the place of difficulty levels. Each one goes through the same stages, but takes different routes and has new objectives. For example, while using Femme (yes, I'm sorry to say the female gets the Easy difficulty), your job might be to take out enemy squadrons and provide cover. Going through the same level using Ciel (on Normal) you'd go after the bombers or the robot on top of the ship's deck instead. It's neat to see the same missions through the eyes of each teammate and is a good way to add longevity to what would be an otherwise incredibly short game. My first playthrough took me approximately two hours, so the developers obviously knew they had to add something.
An unnecessary but welcome addition is the choice offered between Japanese voices with English Subtitles and English Voices with English Subtitles. The Japanese voices are nice, sounding like something right out of an anime. The English voices are just as good although a few of the characters irritated me a bit. Still, it's nice to just have a choice and the extra effort was appreciated.
Sadly, for all its attempts to be an adorably charming sleeper-hit niche title, it succeeds only in the "sleep" part. There are far too many technical shortcomings for it to reach the top tiers of either the action or shooter genres.
The first big obstacle the game faces is that the two available camera views both have significant problems. When using the default "Float" view, the camera will automatically keep your enemies in sight (always a good thing). The downside to this is that you'll constantly be flying towards yourself instead of the enemy since the camera moves independently of your heading. You'll be doing 180-degree turns practically every time you want to target something, and it becomes needlessly tedious to constantly reorient yourself. It's functional, but not very natural or intuitive.
The other option, the "Tail" view, has the camera centered behind the plane and feels more like a standard flight game. The problem with this is that when you use this view, the game no longer directs you to enemies, and there's no bogey locator or radar. In just about every flight game since flight games were invented, developers have realized the value of keeping gamers directed towards the action instead of blindly scanning the skies. It's especially rotten in 3D space since the targets can literally be anywhere above, behind or under you. While I preferred this view for its ease of maneuvering, it was hopeless to try and locate enemies without radar of any sort.
Technically, the game is no great shakes, either. In battles that feature large airships or graphic effects like thick cloud cover, the game comes to a near standstill due to massive dips in the framerate. It's easily the worst slowdown I've seen on the PlayStation 2, which puzzles me because the graphics aren't sophisticated enough to even begin approaching the console's horsepower limit. The only answer is sloppy programming, and with the problem as noticeable and annoying as it is, and I can't understand why they'd release it in this state.
While all those rough spots are bad, they're not enough to really kill the game. Sky Gunner's gameplay does that. For the average shooter, it's all about getting in the zone and running on reflexes. For a flight game, it's about heated dogfights and watching enemies spiral to the ground in a fiery explosion. Looking at the mishmash of ideas here, I don't understand which one Sky Gunner is trying to be. It originally looked like a shooter, but it can't be, since there aren't any on-the-fly powerups to collect and you basically fly around the environments shooting things at your leisure. It can't be a flight game since the control is completely off, there's no radar and absolutely no need to outfly opponents. Squadrons of hostile flyers slowly circle the area waiting to be blasted to bits, and I can't recall putting out any effort dodging enemy fire. I can't see how people are supposed to get any serious enjoyment out of this game. If I don't give a hoot about the characters, it does nothing for my trigger finger, and it doesn't work as a flight game... then what's left?
Overall, this seems to be a disc that wants to get by on its good looks and charm rather than on a foundation of quality and substance. It's not fast enough to get the adrenaline pumping, and it's not endearing enough to make up for its lack of intensity. Sky Gunner isn't much more than a halfhearted attempt at selling a few cute characters and a lot of half-assed game design. As much as I was hoping the game would bring back some of the shooter magic that I love so dearly, the game ends up missing the target by quite a large margin.