What do space cowboys have to do with one of the greatest men ever to grace the game industry?
The history behind Gunpey takes some explaining. Gunpei Yokoi was an amazing designer at Nintendo who created products including Ultra Hand, Game & Watch, Game Boy, and Virtual Boy. Though extremely successful with his earlier hardware, the failure of the Virtual Boy caused Mr. Yokoi to leave the company. Gunpei continued hardware design at his own company, Koto, coming up with the WonderSwan, which was manufactured by Bandai. He also developed the concept for a new action puzzle game. Until now, the game had not been released outside of Japan due to its debut on the WonderSwan handheld game system. Sadly, the designer was killed in a car accident even before the WonderSwan was produced. His legacy lives on not only through his philosophies, which Nintendo still follows, but through the game bearing his name, Gunpey.
The original Gunpey for Wonderswan actually featured anamorphic cowboys in a western story setting. The DS version simply updates the concept, combining it with the style of Meteos, resulting in a unique, albeit bizarre, space cowboy theme. Q Entertainment handled the modern ports of the game, and it shows. While there really isn’t a story to speak of, the characters you’ll meet are some of the most flamboyant found in any game. Fans of Meteos will recognize the bright colors featured in the game, which have been turned up several notches. These fluorescent colors, in combinations not seen since they were popular in the 1980s, occasionally distract from the game field. Music also has a similar style to Meteos, with different actions affecting the beats, and the songs are catchy. Each world features its own backdrops and designs as well as genre of music.
Like most good action puzzle games, the gameplay is simple to learn, but challenging to master. The game field is made up of a grid five tiles wide. Each tile may contain one of four different lines, which connect the top or bottom corner on the left to the top or bottom corner on the right. By properly aligning the tiles, a complete connection from the left side of the field to the right is made, and those tiles disappear. New tiles appear at the bottom of the screen as the field is pushed up. If any tiles reach the top of the screen, the game is over. Lines may be completed in any manner, directly left to right, or in complicated backtracking or branching chains. Clearing lines is a pretty simple task, but connecting multiple sets of lines simultaneously or in combos takes some thought—thought which takes precious time.
In the original version, two tiles could be swapped at a time within a column, similar to Tetris Attack. This method of play is still present, but the DS version adds another control scheme borrowed from Meteos: the ability to drag tiles up and down a column. Though it is not necessary to use the stylus, control is quicker that way. A new “Break" mode makes the game a little easier to manage by moving tiles down after a line is completed. The number of tiles cleared within a line determines the score, and a completed line remains on the screen for a short amount of time to allow players to tack on extra pieces, clearing even more tiles and gaining an even higher score.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the game is its randomness. Too often, one column will get less tiles than the others, and players are forced to wait for a tile to appear while managing the rest of the columns lest they be met with doom. Due to small flaws such as this, Gunpey, while fun, is simply not a classic concept in league with games such as Tetris.
The game features several modes of play. Unfortunately, the story mode from the original is gone, so unique enemy attacks are no longer part of the game. However, other types of attacks, based on the number of tiles cleared at a time, still come into play during “Frontier" mode, which is similar to the original’s story mode. These attacks include scrambling the player’s tiles, blocking out rows from view (which is particularly dastardly), or disabling stylus input, forcing players to switch to D-pad and button control. Completion of Frontier mode unlocks new characters and stages.
Other modes include time attack, endless mode, and double screen mode. Double screen mode is the most interesting and challenging. Players must manage two Gunpey grids simultaneously, while switching back and forth with the shoulder buttons. Multiplayer is also included, and requires two game cards for play. A single player demo version can also be transferred from one DS to another.
One very cool addition to the game has nothing to do with the game itself. A music sequencer, called the Patternizer, is included with the game. Anybody who liked Electroplankton, but was disappointed that they could not save their beats, should check out Gunpey. The sequencer is a bit complicated for those who haven’t used one before, but it allows selection of notes, each using a different instrument. Instrument sets are unlocked when certain worlds are unlocked in the main game. Preset harmonies can also be combined with the user-created melodies. The Patternizer is quite nifty, and it is a shame that the music created within it cannot be used in-game.
The other extra mode is far more pointless. A small sprite character named G-Note walks around a Gunpey grid, performing various actions assigned by the player. More actions are unlocked through the main game.
Gunpey is a decent game with an intriguing history and very unique art direction. The included music sequencer is a surprising added bonus. Unfortunately, the inherent design of the game just isn’t up to the standard of many other games in the action puzzle genre. Despite its flaws, and certainly for puzzle fans, the game is sure to result in many hours of tile swapping fun. If you want a real preview of Gunpey DS, go ahead and give the Flash version a go.