Rolling In The Deep

HIGH Rich shooting and scoring mechanics, fantastic level design, smart UI.

LOW Bland ship and environments, the premise is cliché.

WTF How can a bullet-hell shooter this good have no online leaderboard?

Far too often, conversations about indie game devs focus on North America even though there’s a long and storied tradition of dojin, or hobbyist Japanese developers.

In the case of the incredibly small team behind the Rolling Gunner, the conversation begins with former Cave alumnus Daisuke Koizumi, a long-time scrolling shooter veteran whose previous credits include genre staples like DoDonPachi SaiDaiOuJou and Akai Katana. Accompanied by former Zuntata wingman Hirokazu Koshio (credited as Cosio) on music and sound design, Koizumi’s dojin crew have set out to create a world-class scrolling shooter on a platform that has become surprisingly friendly to them.

Given the pedigree involved in its development, it’s not surprising that Rolling Gunner is entrenched in the traditions of the genre. Like so many scrolling shooters of the past, its premise has a singular goal — to get the player into a heavily-armed spaceship and take on an endless horde of heavily-armed spaceships. There’s a perfunctory narrative here, though genre aficionados likely won’t care as it doesn’t take long for it to quickly recede into a cacophonous horizon of weapons fire. Thankfully, the gameplay in Rolling Gunner runs deeper than its shallow script.

The shooting mechanics provide a basic, but solid foundation — there’s a standard rapid-fire mode that unleashes a steady stream of bullets directly ahead of the player’s ship, as well as a focused fire mode that turns that stream into a gushing torrent of destruction. Like many Cave shooters, this focused-fire mode couples higher damage output with slower ship speed, which both imbues the blast with a satisfying sense of weight while also enabling the player to steer the ship between those elaborate waves of bullets with the added precision of more controlled movement.

The first twist comes with the titular Rolling Gun, which is a satellite or wingman-style ship that flies in a fixed circle around the player’s ship and interacts with the two firing modes in clever ways.

Whenever the player moves their ship while in rapid-fire mode, the rolling gun satellite pivots around and redirects its fire in the opposite direction of the ship’s movement, providing a bit of cover for evasive maneuvers. For movement in focused-fire mode, the Rolling Gun locks in place relative to the ship, enabling the player to carefully pinpoint their aim at specific angles to take out enemies anywhere on the screen.

Armed with knowledge of these mechanics, a new player can fire up the game’s Novice Mode and have a fighting chance at a good time. The elaborate waves of enemies and bullets that are typical of bullet-hell shooters are toned down enough so that it becomes easier to appreciate their beauty in motion, like watching a marching band glide seamlessly from shape to shape on a football field at halftime.

More importantly, it provides a practical introduction to Rolling Gunner‘s remarkable UI, which conveys a fantastic amount of info with minimal effort. The ship’s hitbox is always visible onscreen (though purists can toggle it off) and there are numerous cues that are incredibly helpful, like quick flashes of color on the sides of the screen to warn about incoming groups of enemies.

To truly wring the most enjoyment out of Rolling Gunner, though, players will need to master more advanced mechanics, and that’s where Daisuke Koizumi’s design really shines through.

Expert-level play centers on bonuses which come from falling medals that must be collected from destroyed enemies. There are four different sizes of medals and the conditions for earning larger (and more valuable) ones are based on many factors including type of shot used, whether the enemy is a moving ship or a stationary weapons placement, and the distance between the player’s ship and the enemy when destroyed.

The score values from the medals accumulate in a number at the bottom-left of the screen, and when that number reaches 1000, the player can activate a burst mode where the ship’s bullets have increased damage for a limited time. Interestingly, a stronger burst mode can be activated while the ship is in the first burst mode, providing maximum firepower.

All of this leads to a fascinating set of dynamics where players must find the right moments to build up and trigger the burst modes to maximize their scoring opportunities and have a better chance against gnarly end-level bosses. The timed windows for the burst mode provide a satisfying strategic payoff , and the end result is a deep system that I’m looking forward to studying further, even after this review is published.

Though there’s a surprisingly large field of competitors on the platform, Rolling Gunner ends up as the best scrolling shooter available on the Switch. While it clearly embraces the traditions of its arcade-oriented predecessors, Koizumi’s work serves as both as a solid introduction to the genre as well as a satisfying deep-dive for veterans.

Rating: 8 out of 10

— Steve Gillham

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Mebius.It is currently available on Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed multiple times (single-credit clears for novice and casual mode, credit-fed clears for original and expert mode). There are no dedicated multiplayer modes or online leaderboards.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10+ due to Mild Violence. There is no official description available on the ESRB website, but there are numerous explosions and weapons fire in a militarized setting. Also, in some of the ending cutscenes for some of the endings, a humanoid character is shown sacrificing themselves in what appears to be a fatal ship crash.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes, though players can configure the “hitpoint” indicator or hitbox on their ship to be green, blue, red, or invisible.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no required sound cues for gameplay – there are brief sound cues that indicate when the burst meters are about to expire, but there’s also a circular meter around the ship that serves as a visual cue for the same information. There are no options to resize or recolor text.

Remappable Controls: All action buttons are fully remappable, but movement is locked to the left analog stick.

Steve Gillham
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