I don’t envy the developers of the legions of shooters in the 90s. After Gradius and R-Type revolutionized the genre everyone else was left picking up the scraps. The rare title would come along and innovate but by and large most games in the genre stole liberally. Gley Lancer is one such title. While it does borrow elements from more popular titles it also adds its own flavor, and is a better game than the vast majority of shooters for the Genesis.
Gley Lancer is the rare shooter with an actual plot beyond one lone ship against an armada. In the year 2025 war breaks out between Earth and an unidentified alien fleet. In the midst of battle Federation Navy officer Ken and his ship are warped to an unknown location in the galaxy by an alien weapon. When his daughter Lucia hears of this she commandeers the experimental ship Gley Lancer to pursue him. It isn’t deep and only serves as window dressing but the story is furthered by cutscenes during the game. There are even multiple endings depending on your actions toward the end.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Gley Lancer could pass for a Thunder Force title. It looks similar and has many of the same weapons. The standard lasers, flamethrowers, rebounding lasers, and spread guns are complemented by options, or gunners if you will. But in this case the gunners are far more versatile than in Gradius. These bad boys can be aimed in any direction and fire independently of your ship. You can also lock them in place for focus fire. But it goes a step further than that.
There are six formations you can choose from that govern the behavior of the gunners. Most of these are self-explanatory: reverse fires in the opposite of your movement while shadow is the basic Gradius style. Multi locks each gunner at a set angle for permanent three-way fire. Multi-R is flat out dumb, it adds the reverse function and is useless. Roll is the closest to having a shield as they will rotate around the ship, either firing in a spiral or straight forward.
The best and probably game breaking is search. It does exactly what the name suggests, auto-target the closest enemies. There is a warning that they aren’t accurate but in practice they are aggressive and only rarely ignore close targets. You can even take it a step further and make each gunner seek out their own target! Combine this with a powerful weapon like the laser or spread bomb and you won’t see most enemies before they die.
By and large the difficulty swings based on your chosen formation. The search formation is the most useful but they aren’t perfect. They can still miss an obvious target right in your face. The reverse or multi R formation is probably the most challenging to utilize effectively which ups the difficulty. The game is not shy about its weapon drops but death does send you back to a checkpoint. I found that most of my deaths came from stray bullets lost in the chaos, of which there is plenty. Conversely the boss battles are simple to the point of being anticlimactic. I come from the school of punishing mayors so this came as a welcome surprise.
Gley Lancer is one of the longer shooters in its generation at twelve levels. With that in mind it covers nearly all of the standard tropes, albeit with its own twist. It’s only natural that some are hit or miss in terms of design. The pacing is all over the place at times: stage four is a fast paced trek through a maze of encroaching walls that threaten to flatten you if the enemies don’t first. The next stage is a slow battle in space as you dismantle a large mother ship in pieces. R-Type did it better.
While scattershot that variety is the game’s greatest strength. It doesn’t lean on one particular style too long before moving on. And the levels are short enough that if you aren’t enamored with a given level’s aesthetic or mechanics you’ll move on soon enough. Combined with its elaborate formation system Gley Lancer manages to rise above being a mere copycat.
The presentation in Gley Lancer is very uneven. There are many picturesque moments that are simply beautiful. The dense asteroid field of stage one with the massive planet in the background is one. There’s a fiery battle among the clouds at dawn with multiple layers of scrolling that is incredible. But these are often followed up with drab levels that lack any interesting details. It wouldn’t actually bother me so much if the peaks weren’t so high then dropped so low. I also can’t help but compare it to Lightening Force, which it resembles and was also released around the same time. I realize that is an unfair comparison however.
Gley Lancer is a fantastic game that manages to borrow elements from many titles to create a game that is better than the sum of its parts. The depth in its option system makes it very fun to replay the game multiple times and its variety is second to none. This is one of my favorite shooters on the Genesis and luckily it can be found on multiple platforms. Don’t pass this up.