I squared my shoulders as I watched the bird of thunder burst into flames, howling at my failure to keep him out of the way of enemy fire. I was ready to hunker down and really tear the game apart, now. That’s when GAME OVER popped up in the middle of the screen, and I remembered whose game I was playing. Locomalito (maker of Maldita Castilla) has once again brought his love of classic games and brutal difficulty to bear; this time creating a new shmup, Gaurodan — inspired by the arcade games of the eighties. Gaurodan is tight and satisfying, something you can pick up when you’ve only got ten minutes to play with. Just don’t expect to get too far past the third level on your first try. Or your fifth. Or your fiftieth. Like in all of his other games, progress must be earned through practice and skill. With only one life, you’ll have your work cut out for you.
This isn’t just some ship shooter. You play as Gaurodan, a pterodactyl-looking creature that breathes lightning. You can breathe it downward at an angle, or breathe it straight out in front of you. Beyond that your character is always moving forward, but he can turn on a dime and fly in any direction. Constant movement is nothing new for most shmup players, but being able to go left or right does add a bit of challenge since enemies can come from either direction (and can fire while still a little ways off-screen). The arc of your weapon doesn’t seem like it’s too hard to deal with either, until you start seeing inspirations from another game factoring in: Rampage.
All along the bottom of the screen, there are buildings and other structures that you can blow up with your lightning. It seems like just simple fun, but those buildings start to become a nuisance when the tanks start rolling around, using the tall rooftops to block your shots. The simple solution seems to be to rip those buildings apart as fast as you can, but you soon have helicopters and other aircraft coming for you that you’ll need to deal with as well. They start off relatively simple, only taking a single shot of lightning to take down, but soon you’ll be facing tougher planes that fire in multiple directions or can take many hits.
Balancing your attention between the air and ground doesn’t seem especially hard at first, but it doesn’t take that many enemies shooting at you before the sky is filled with gunfire. Luckily, Gaurodan can maneuver extremely well, so you can dodge around the shots with ease so long as you pay careful attention to each bullet that is heading your way. It doesn’t reach bullet-hell proportions, but keep in mind that you only have a single life to get through the entire game. You can take ten or so hits before going down, but once your health is gone it’s all over. Don’t expect the game to restore that health between stages, either. You need to make your life bar last, so while it might seem a little easy at first, every single mistake at the beginning has serious repercussions for how you’ll be able to do in the end.
You can regain a bit of health by blowing up buildings. There are health pickups buried inside the walls of some structures, granting you a single sliver of life back if you free them from the building and grab them while they float up into the air. There are also bonus points and a lightning power up — the latter doubling your shot and allowing you to do some heavy damage for a short amount of time. They’re very appealing to go after, but focusing on digging them out usually means you’re not paying as much attention to the combat as you should be. The blocks they’re in take multiple hits to break, and they tend to be several levels down in any given building, so you have to hit the building quite a few times to free them. I often traded a hit or two just to gain one chunk of health back and felt like an idiot for it.
My response after my first failure was to play more defensively on my second run, ensuring that I focused on avoiding getting hit at the cost of damaging the enemies. By the fourth level, I hit a serious problem with that strategy, as the game has a countdown going on in each level. It’s fairly generous if you’re attacking aggressively, but it’s not much time at all if you’re being too careful or spending too much time digging power-ups out of buildings. Once the countdown ends, you’re warned of a missile lock on you. You can dodge the missile as it chases after you with some careful flying, but a single screw-up means the missile hits you and kills you instantly. I was extremely proud of how well I was doing on my defensive run, having only taken two hits in the first few levels. When that countdown ended and the missile ripped me apart, I felt my spirit get crushed a little bit.
I just started the game right back up again when I died. It’s short, especially during those initial runs with the game. The levels are concise, pushing you to kill a set amount of military craft within the time limit, and it doesn’t take very long before you’re in the next stage. You have a minute or two to beat each stage, tops, and there are only eleven stages in the whole game. Given that you have to build up a high level of skill in order to see your way through the half-hour it will take to complete the game, it’s still unlikely that you’ll be anywhere near completing it within a few hours. I’ve spent more time with this game than many Triple A games I’ve played lately, and still have a long way to go before I can hope to see the ending.
The game starts you right off with that ‘last life’ feeling. Players of older games will know what I’m talking about. This sense of tension and dread settles over you in games with a set number of lives once you hit that last life, and that anxious feeling soon shifts into this almost zen-like trance. I find that I knuckle down and give the game my all during runs where I’m on my last life and realize that I’ll have to start the game all over if I die. Gaurodan starts the player off in that state, and it gave me this incredible ability to focus on it right from the start. It cuts out the extra lives to keep me from screwing around and getting lazy — cutting out the fluff of the game and forcing me to bring all of my skill to bear as soon as I hit start.
It probably should be frustrating, but with Gaurodan’s manoeuvrability and the slow movement of the bullets and enemies, it always felt like it was completely my fault that I got hit or died. The only thing I’d ever get annoyed at was myself, and given that I knew exactly why I’d died, I wanted to get right back in and try the game again. The brevity of the games also means that I never died all that far from the start, so it felt like I could get right back to where I was within a few minutes. It’s very easy to want to jump back into the game, and I did so without thinking for several hours without even meaning to. I only wanted to see if the game had downloaded all right, so I booted it up to give it one quick spin before I played another game I needed to review. It was about three hours later before I could manage to make myself put the game down.
It’s a very simple game at its core, only requiring that you move and shoot, but the high tension of the single life combined with the time limit and constantly changing enemies meant the game never let up. The only time I wasn’t concentrating on the game completely was during the scant few seconds between levels, and even then I’d only take time to adjust my grip on the controller before I was right back in the action again. The game goes out of its way to keep you focused on its combat and managing everything going on, and it’s extremely enjoyable the whole time because of it.
It may not appear to be that tense just from looking at screenshots. The game was purposely done with the aesthetic of an eighties shmup, so it might not look all that exciting at first glance. It’s a bit simple compared to Locomalito’s earlier work on Maldita Castilla, but I found the simplicity endearing and appealing. I liked the silly sprite for Gaurodan, and found it kind of funny to have the events in the game be so serious during the opening when the game looks this way. Things don’t always look so simple, though, as the boss fight against the giant crab holding the battleship to protect itself was awesome and had some fantastic detail to it. Even better was the moment when Gaurodan first opens his wings in a short scene. It’s looks completely awesome, showing you this powerful monstrous creature right before you transition into a tiny little thing on-screen during the regular game. It’s a reminder of the dual nature of old games; of the feeling that you were powerful soldiers or hulking monsters when the game’s graphics should have made the whole endeavor feel silly.
The music is pure arcade, as Gryzor87 has put together another solid soundtrack. There’s a surprising amount of music for such a short game, and it has some good complexity to it. I didn’t pay it as much attention as I wanted to given how much I was focusing on the combat itself, but it was a nice backdrop to the action. It’s relaxing and motivating at the same time, and worked wonders for keeping me calm when I screwed up. The real champ is the sound in the game, though; especially Gaurodan’s cry. It’s all got a very early-eighties feel to it, but something about all the explosions and music comes together to create a great package that makes the game more fun.
If you’re somehow just blasting your way through the game without any difficulty, then Locomalito has left one more little secret for you. There is something called the ‘Banana Ending’ in the game, and it’s unlocked by finding bananas throughout the game. I have no idea what the criteria is for making a banana appear, as I have only ever seen one appear in the second level when I blew up the last tile on a building (and it didn’t appear there on future play-throughs, so I don’t even know how I unlocked that one). If you become an expert at this game, there’s still that little challenge to keep players busy. It’s nice to have ways to make a hard game even harder, isn’t it?
It may have only come out last week, but Gaurodan feels like something that people played back in the heyday of the arcade. That seems to be the special magic that its developers weaved into it, a skill that Locomalito and Gryzor87 manage to put into all of their games. They feel as if they were taken out of the times that inspired them, showing a focus on fun and challenging gameplay. While this game didn’t floor me as much as Maldita Castilla, it did provide me with a great time and surprisingly addictive gameplay. Again, it’s completely free, so if you’re willing to download some crap game onto your phone just because it’s free, why don’t you get something great instead?
Gaurodan is available for free from the developer’s site.