You know what the Megadrive had plenty of? Horizontally-scrolling shoot-em-ups. Here's another one! It's Masaya's 1991 winged-avenger-em-up Gynoug, also known as Wings of Wor.
First things first - how do you pronounce that title? Guy-noog? Jinnog? The Japanese characters transliterate as something like "Jinougu", so should it sound like "Jinoog"? Who knows, and indeed who cares? It's not important, because as far as I can see the word "Gynoug" has no connection to the game whatsoever and might well be six tiles plucked from a Scrabble bag. It's how they named Q*Bert, after all.
You're not told the plot, either, at least not by the game itself. One minute you're looking at a muscular winged warrior in skintight blue leggings and then bang, you're playing the game and facing off against... whatever these things are.
Experiments have proven that you can cross-breed garden gnomes and bicycle handlebars, but the resulting offspring are disturbing at best. Perhaps someone at Masaya misinterpreted the phrase "Star of David" - that does rather look like the face of British naturalist David Bellamy.
That pointy weirdo might have tipped you off as to why I'm talking about Gynoug in the first place. Like I said, the Megadrive / Genesis has plenty of scrolling shooters, and Gynoug isn't exactly packed with innovation. What it does have is weirdness, with plenty of enemies and bosses that are very different from the usual spaceships and mecha, and really that's all I'm interested in for today.
I mean, look at this guy. He's the first stage's mid-boss and already the biology of your opponents has become completely unfathomable. I think there's a bit of turtle DNA in there somewhere. Also some rocks. Rock-turtles are hardly an uncommon enemy type in videogames, but this one has the added touch of a face that'd give the Cenobites nightmares. Look at all those holes! Who knows what could be lurking in there? I doubt it's puppies. Or, like, they're puppies but with insect legs where their eyes should be and their fluffy little tails constantly secrete a corrosive slime.
I know I'm focusing on the art design, but don't get me wrong - Gynoug's gameplay is more than up to scratch, it's just not very original. You fly through the stages, shooting everything that moves and collecting power-ups to help you shoot said moving things. The weapon system is probably the most unique aspect of Gynoug's gameplay. Our hero fires blue energy pellets, and this main weapon rather unusually has two separate power bars. Collecting red gems increases the power of your shots, while each blue gem you gather increases the spread and therefore screen-coverage of your attacks. One hit is, as per bloody usual, all it takes for you to lose a life but unlike games such as Gradius you don't revert back to your painfully-weak starting state when you die- instead you lose a red and a blue orb. The power level of your weapon is indicated by the blue and red bars at the top of the screen.
You can also pick up magic scrolls to equip you with a limited-use sub-weapon. In the picture above, our hero is using the Energy Ball. It's not really a ball, but it can be extremely useful because it negates the enemy's bullets / plasma orbs / caustic bodily fluids / whatever it is they're supposed to be firing at you.
Weapon system aside, Gynoug is very straightforward. Luckily, it's still a lot of fun to play thanks to sharp controls and a difficulty curve that starts at "challenging" and ends up in the region of "may God have mercy on your soul" but does so in a smooth, balanced manner. Enough about that, though, and back to the madness. Here's the boss of the first stage!
Clive Barker's re-imagining of Thomas the Tank Engine really is something. You've got to fight a train with the face of a man, or possibly a man with the body of a train, and the whole thing raises some disturbing questions. Questions like "is it sentient?" and "why would you build that, it seems terribly impractical and I fail to see how it improves on existing locomotive designs." It rather reminds me of the work of British artist John Blanche, who you might be familiar with through the art he produced for Games Workshop.
Stage two throws you something of a curveball, because those are just seagulls, right? I mean, obviously they're seagulls with the ability to fire some kind of deadly projectile from an unidentified orifice, but they're still just seagulls. Disappointing. The second part of the stage takes place beneath the ocean waves which means we must be in for some real oddities - after all, the sea is where all the truly weird-looking creatures live.
Coelacanth? Pretty cool, but hardly a soul-rending, utterly alien horror from the stygian depths. Even the mid-boss is only a giant whelk. Has Gynoug lost its way already, its creative juices spent after the first stage? Well, why don't we ask the end-of-stage boss?
It's a pirate ship with a human face that vomits deadly orbs at you. That's better! See, I know Gynoug was just holding out on us... Wait, there's more?
Turns out it wasn't a pirate ship with human face, it was just a hat belonging to an even bigger head. My mistake! You might have noticed by now that a lot of the enemies in this game are faces. Floating faces, faces attached to vehicles, faces that live under the sea and wear galleons as hats: it all rather makes you wonder about the art designer's personal issues. A former mask salesman, possibly? Maybe they just really hate faces, which seems like it'd be a condition that'd really impede your day-to-day life, as well as setting up the gimmick for some Batman-style villainy.
The next stage sees us firmly back into the realms of the bizarre as our winged avatar heads through a castle filled with coffins that dispense slime-mummies, bunches of floating skulls and the creatures pictured above. I think they're brains that hop around on a single leg, which not only makes an interesting enemy for a shoot-em-up but would also be my top pick to be introduced into the next generation of Pokemon.
Here's one of the slime-mummies now. Aren't they adorable? Like humanoid blobs of semi-solidified barbeque sauce. Our hero cares not for adorability though, and he blasts them back to whatever hellish condiment-dimension they came from. Why he does so is something of a mystery - the game itself certainly doesn't contain any plot. According to the manual for the US version, you're playing as Wor, a "winged battle master" whose home planet of Iccus has been corrupted by a virus that creates hideous mutants... although these mutants also have a leader, known as The Destroyer. So was this virus all part of Destroyer's plan? Or did he just notice that a ready-made army of face-shaped mutant warriors had appeared and thought "hang on a minute, I could use this rag-tag bunch of grisly abominations to take over the planet"? None of this is ever explained, although I have my doubts that this is the way the story originally went.
Enough about the nonsensical story! It's time to fight another man-faced train! This one's got a flame-thrower for a tongue, and it actually one of the hardest parts of the entire game. I forgot to get a screenshot, but the man-train here likes nothing more than filling the screen with bullets and then producing his volcanic tongue, giving you very little room to manoeuvre. Your job is made harder still by the fact you can only hurt him when his mouth is open. Luckily Wor is quite nippy and easy to control so dodging his attacks never feels impossible, but it's a long, difficult fight that feels claustrophobically frustrating.
Another boss that's a vehicle with a human face. I'm predicting it now: the next boss will be Budgie the Little Helicopter and The Destroyer is actually Brum.
Stage four starts with a change of pace, as you have to steer Wor through the narrow corridors of an industrial area, all while blasting away at the obstacles in your path and the occasional hovering wizard.
Of course, touching the floor or the ceiling or pretty much anything will cause you to explode and die. Don't forget that Wor is the "battle master" of this planet. Iccus is not a planet of great champions.
I like that the stages are getting more and more visually interesting as the game progresses. I'd have hated to have been stuck in those dreary caves that made up the first stage for the whole adventure, and it also gives you something to look forward to. What strange landscape will we happen upon next? Well, you'll have to beat the stage four boss to find out.
When steampunk costuming goes horribly wrong! Hang on, this guy isn't vehicle with a face. In fact, his face only makes up a completely reasonable percentage of his total area! I can't feel too hard done-by, though: this monster is still so tough he uses a steam boiler as a Walkman. He also attacks by firing red blood cells at you, which doesn't make any sense - they should be white blood cells. Also he's a floating torso with his heart on the outside fighting against a hawk-man. His external heart points to his possible origin as a collaboration between Umbrella and British Gas - an attempt to produce a self-maintaining boiler, maybe (and bio-weaponry, of course). It's also his weak spot, unsurprisingly.
In all seriousness, this boss is great. It looks fantastic, a combination of an interesting design with excellent graphics, and the fight itself is fun. He's got the same tendency to fill the screen with projectiles as the previous boss, but there's more space to move around in and as a result the battle feels more tense and exciting than tedious and frustrating.
For stage five, Wor takes a detour and ends up in Salamander. We're supposed to be saving the planet Iccus, right? I can see why Iccus would have caves and oceans and industrial districts, but organic meat-tunnels? It must be that virus' doing, and the virus also filled the place with floating skulls, monocular space-limpets and vicious amoeba towers.
Also faces. "One face is not enough," said Masaya, "so here's a monster made of loads of faces stuck together." I particularly like the upside-down face at the top, who must be hoping that the seagulls from stage two don't reappear and drop their "payload" into his upturned nostrils.
As for the mid-boss, well, he's just a naked man floating around in a sitting position, occasional sneezing out deadly blue pellets that spilt into several smaller yet equally deadly blue pellets. As far as Gynoug goes, this seems almost quaintly pedestrian. Not so much with the end-of-stage boss.
I tried several times, but there's no way I can talk about this boss without mentioning that his entire lower half appears to be an enormous, bleeding, ventricle-covered alien penis. How did that one slip by the censors? "What do you mean 'It looks like a penis'? That's just his mutated leg. If you're seeing dicks everywhere that's your problem, pal." Thankfully, he doesn't fire from the tip of his, erm, lower appendage. Just everywhere else.
This seems like a good time to mention that Masaya also developed the infamous Cho Aniki series, a series best known for its homoerotic depictions of bodybuilders, vehicles with faces and generally bizarre (and sexual) tone. It would seem that the same graphic designer worked on both Gynoug and Cho Aniki: this does not come as a huge surprise.
Once the mutant wang-beast is defeated, Wor arrives at the final stage of the game.
First things first: check out that parallax scrolling. That's a really lovely touch in a game that acquits itself well in the graphics department. It has the occasional mis-step - it can be difficult to see what's going on amidst stage five's veiny bio-nightmare, for example - but on the whole it makes excellent use of a muted color palette, unusual art design and some nice effects like the rotating caverns and these clouds. Sadly, the clouds are the only positive in this stage, and that's because it's a boss rush.
Yawn. Over the time I've been writing these articles, I've come to possess a substantial pool of hatred for boss rush levels and the unimaginative tedium that they bring. I'm fine with having a recurring boss, or a boss rush as a separate game mode, or even including the boss rush as a post-game bonus stage like in Konami's Crime Fighters series. It's just that when it takes up an entire stage - essentially reducing an already short game from six stages to five - it seems like a lazy and ultimately disappointing way of padding out the game.
Speaking of disappointing, here's the final boss. His actual physical form isn't so bad. I can get behind a demonic caterpillar foetus as a final boss, even if he is sorely lacking in the face department. No, he's a letdown simply because he's so tedious to fight. His only attack is to unleash a swarm of what I think are mint imperials into the air. These things float around aimlessly, getting in your way and acting like a slow-moving obstacle course. You can only hurt the boss by shooting him in the eye, and that's fine - the eye is a staple weakpoint of shooter videogames. If you're looking at him and thinking "but he doesn't have any eyes", that's because his eye is that brown sphere in his stomach. You can't hurt it when it's closed, but every five seconds or so it opens for a split-second (and I do mean a split-second) so you can get a hit in. That'd be a difficult enough set of defences to break through, but his hovering golf balls block your shots and they sure do like to congregate around his eye.
His orbs aren't really all that difficult to avoid, so the epic final conflict between good and evil becomes a rather dull war of attrition, with the Destroyer's plan apparently being to bore you so thoroughly that you lose concentration and fly into an orb. It's a real shame, because Gynoug had been a very enjoyable game up until the final stage.
If you have the patience you'll eventually get enough hits in to finish him off and the planet Iccus will be saved, because destroying the Destroyer also removes all trace of the terrible virus. Somehow.
The short ending shows Wor returning to his pedestal and turning into a statue. See, this is where my suspicions that the story presented in the American manual does not correspond to the original Japanese version. I wouldn't be surprised if Wor is actually an angel, summoned out of statue-based storage to fight a demonic evil, hence the final stage taking place in a rather heavenly setting and the hellish tone of the enemies. Of course, this might all be rubbish and the truth is that Wor's reward for saving Iccus is to be turned into a roosting spot for the local pigeons.
Despite the final stage, Gynoug / Wings of Wor has to go down as a good game. I'm by no means an expert on what constitutes a good shoot-em-up amongst the hardcore fans of the genre, but I can say that I enjoyed playing it. It's not just the graphics and the weird artistic stylings, although that certainly helps - it's just a fun and simple game that controls well and is very challenging but never treats you with outright contempt. If you like shooting things in the face, you should get professional help, but in the meantime this might tide you over. Plus, that guy was totally wearing a pirate ship as a hat.
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