INSOMNIA

Videogame Art: Gunvalkyrie (2002)

By Alex Kierkegaard / August 20, 2008


Videogame Art: Volume I

Gunvalkyrie was Smilebit's other ground-breaking 3D action game, every bit as ingeniously conceived and masterfully executed as the first one, though on a whole other level in terms of complexity and challenge — which is why it came nowhere near Jet Set Radio in terms of popularity, and why nowadays hardly anyone knows it.
   To be more precise, it's not that GV is that much harder to beat than Jet Set Radio (I think they both took me about the same amount of time to finish); it's that the former boasts a hugely more complex system than the latter, and therefore one much harder to master — this being part of the logic of things: as everyone knows, complexity gives rise to depth, and depth requires skill in order to be mastered.
   The complexity here stems from the fiendishly tortuous control scheme of the jetpack strapped to the back of your character, and how subtly Smilebit has intertwined its functioning with every other aspect of the game's system. The idea — driven home by the expert replays shown in the game's attract mode (no doubt placed there to convince prospective players that it's actually humanly possible to accomplish it) — is to clear the whole stage, or at any rate as much of it as possible, without your feet ever touching the ground. This makes sense in the context of the game, seeing as the ground is often swarming with hordes of rampaging alien bugs. What's more, the bug-spawning "mother" aliens, which you'll need to dispatch asap in order to clear the stages (not to mention survive long enough to have a chance to do that), are often perched on cave ceilings or hillsides, making them very hard — and occasionally impossible — to reach without adequate aerial maneuvering skills.
   Aerial action is thus the name of the game in Gunvalkyrie, and (as of this writing) you won't be able to find a more sophisticated and rewarding such system anywhere else. The MechWarrior and Armored Core games offer far different, coarser experiences, and as for EDF 2 — don't make me laugh. Gunvalkyrie's protagonists can jump, rotate and twist their bodies to fire in one direction while heading in another; they can perform snap 90- and 180-degree turns; they can boost-jump and boost-dash in all directions (including sideways and backwards), both on the ground and in the air, or they can hover in the air for short periods; and on top of all that they can even acquire a so-called plasma hook that can be used in certain areas much like Wayne's grappling hook in Lost Planet or Link's hookshot in Toki no Ocarina. All the above means the precision of movement that can be achieved here is unmatched by any other 3D action game, and that's a good thing since you'll be needing it. While in most such games you're merely required to walk up to a bunch of enemies and simply shoot them, in Gunvalkyrie you'll have to do this while hovering over — and jumping between — small platforms suspended high above pools of burning acid, or while climbing up and flinging yourself off high ledges, then boost-dashing in the air like a madman, in a desperate effort to keep out of the clacking mandibles of scores of frenzied, blood-thirsty bugs.
   Boost comboing, incidentally, is the genius part of Gunvalkyrie: a deviously-designed set of rules that gathers all different aspects of the game (boosting, shooting, weapon upgrading, scoring and survival) and ties them inextricably together. In theory, it's simple: By performing multiple successive boosts while airborne you raise your so-called boost gauge, and thus partly replenish your jetpack's limited fuel supply (which is necessary to stay aloft), as well as power-up your shots. Hit twenty-five consecutive boosts and you enter the Mobius state, which for a few seconds maxes out your firepower and grants you invincibility. The catch, however, is that boost comboing is only possible when near enemies — i.e. when it's extremely dangerous for you to do so. The second catch is that boosting in the same direction twice does not increase the combo counter, meaning you'll have to keep dashing around in ever-changing directions, yet without getting too far away from the enemies, nor bumping into them, and while of course still avoiding their fire. The third catch is that the gauge resets to zero if you touch the ground, or simply freefall for too long, or get hit in any way, or use the jetpack's hover function, or shoot the grappling hook on a grappling hook target, or even so much as fucking sneeze. The fourth catch is that while comboing you take double damage. The fifth catch is that — hold on, I think that's it. Did you catch all that?
   Why all these restrictions, one might reasonably ask? And what kind of jetpack is this whose fuel supply is replenished by depleting it — but only when its user is flying near enemies? This shit don't make sense, G!
   Well, yeah, maybe it doesn't, but then again this is a videogame we are talking about, not plasma physics: and anyway it wouldn't exactly be that hard to come up with some kind of "explanation" consistent with the game's bizarre electro-steampunk setting, where obviously anything is possible. Perhaps such an explanation already exists! — though I never got round to reading the manual, which I presume is where it'd be elaborated.
   Yet if the jetpack's functioning makes bollock all sense in terms of real-world physics, it makes perfect sense in game terms. Kevin Reems, one of two Westerners I know of besides me who can play this game the way it was designed to be played (the other is Eric McLester), has expressed this quite eloquently:

"This game does not center around getting high combos. I mean the goal is not to combo up to kill stuff. It's more like the other way around. Like when you are in "The Zone" while playing a game or a sport. This game captures that moment through the use of combos. If you are playing this game and you get in the zone you'll find that your character also does so... at least that's what I think Smilebit intended. My point is, you should just play the game. Focus on your mission and blasting past the enemies. If you are doing things right you'll be reaching Mobius all the time and the GV Fuel will be flowing like water. I say all this because I think people worry too much about comboing and not playing the game. Early screenshots show that the boost gauge was not even on-screen in earlier versions (there was a radar there). I personally wish they'd left it that way."

   The reason Gunvalkyrie's jetpack is not some all-powerful contraption that just basically allows you to fly, is that it's more fun working within — and against — the restrictions of a limited device. (In his strategy guide, Kevin goes on to say that "Kelly-3", the final form of the titular Gunvalkyrie, which you unlock long after you've pretty much mastered the game, "can practically fly. In fact I'm a bit disappointed in this feature because it kind of takes the fun out of the game.") There is thus a lot to learn, which is why each stage is designed to teach you something, and the next one to prove how well you've learned your lesson: from the mindless slaughter of the initial stages, to a series of punishing boss fights in the end, culminating in the showdown with Ivaldi, one of the toughest and most fascinating bosses in videogame history, of whom Kevin says, "He'll be the judge if you've really mastered anything."
   It would be pointless to try and describe here the control scheme; suffice it to say the game uses every single button on the Xbox controller bar one, including the ones integrated into the left and right analog sticks, which I suspect most gamers do not even realize exist, because hardly any games use them — and certainly none (at least that I am aware of) for vital functions. In Gunvalkyrie, however, they suddenly become THE most important buttons, as the boosting motion requires you to click-in the left stick and then push it in the required direction (or push first then click; either way works fine). This motion must be repeated for every single boost, putting tremendous pressure on your thumb, which only gets intensified the better you become at comboing (the right-stick button meanwhile is used for quick turning; also quite important).
   To give another example of the intricacy of the controls, consider hovering, which is achieved by "cancelling" a boost dash. This is done by pressing (not clicking) in the opposite direction from that in which you are currently dashing. I.e. you click-up to dash forward, then press down to hover. Or when you want to hop from one platform to another, what you have to do is boost-jump up, dash forward, then begin hovering as soon as you are over the platform. Then as you descend, you look down and try to pinpoint your landing. All of this would be tricky enough even without any enemies around!
   I think it says something that none of these controls can be changed (you can't even un-invert the y-axis controls). One question that has always troubled me about this game, and still does, is whether it would perhaps be possible to achieve the same degree of flexibility of movement in a 3D action game with a simpler control scheme, and whether the game would still be as fun to master... or perhaps more? — In the second case the difficulty would have to be ramped up accordingly to compensate for the loss of challenge. One thing's for sure though: Smilebit was originally planning something even more intricate. Gunvalkyrie began development on the Dreamcast, and would have employed an unheard-of lightgun/controller combo scheme about which nothing is known (as well as, by the way, cell-shaded characters). Few console-game developers have ever equalled Smilebit in terms of originality and sheer creativity, as well as flair and technical expertise: Gunvalkyrie, like both the company's other Xbox games, is not merely stylish as all hell, but also a technical marvel: a showpiece of how far ahead of its competitors the Xbox was at the time.
   One thing that remains to be pointed out is the unmistakable arcade influence in Gunvalkyrie's design, evident throughout: from the fighting-game-inspired boost cancelling, to the proximity-based boost comboing at the heart of the game, which is the 3D action equivalent of grazing for power-ups in shooters such as Shikigami no Shiro or Psyvariar (which were all the rage in Japan's arcades around the time of Gunvalkyrie's release). Think of how the game would have played if you could boost up to Mobius even when safely far from enemies — it'd be a cakewalk, like practically all other 3D action games ever, including Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry 3, which for some reason that still escapes me people seem to consider difficult (one of my theories is that they fail to find the "block" button; another that the left analog stick on their controllers is busted).
   But the arcade influence is not welcome in every respect. The game is brief (though admittedly brutal), and compensates for that by expecting you to go back and replay it (there's a "number of times cleared" counter), or try to S-rank every stage with both characters. And while I have no problem with the idea of replaying individual stages for score, I do have a problem with the idea of replaying such a lengthy game (by arcade standards, anyway) in its entirety. Because if the game failed to hold me back the first time, how much less so the second or third times, with all my acquired expertise and powered-up characters. It takes the whole length of Gunvalkyrie to become really proficient in its controls, but once you do that what you want is to employ them to overcome a tougher challenge... A new set of stages and boss fights, in other words, designed no longer for learners, but for experts.
   Well, I guess that's what the sequel's for!
   "What sequel? The game sold even less than JSRF, which sold abysmally. Who would bother with a sequel? Besides, Smilebit, the only ones with the balls and expertise to make it, is gone."
   Oh, right.