Gunhound EX

A game by Dracue Software for PC and PSP, released in the US in 2014.
Gunhound EX, also known as Armored Hunter Gunhound EX, falls into the small subgenre of mech-based action shooters inhabited largely by the Assault Suits series – which includes Target Earth and Cybernator in the U.S. – as well as a few one-off titles like Metal Warriors. Gunhound EX features a large lumbering mech smashing and shooting its way through five sizeable environments and facing off against numerous military targets and several huge bosses.

As is typical of the genre, the mech’s movement is slow and deliberate, and the controls are complex. The mech comes loaded with heavy firepower in the form of four distinct weapon types, each with different effects, and each is assigned to a separate button or button combination. In addition, the mech has a long slow jump, and it is stunned for a moment when hitting the ground from any great height unless the player uses his boosters just before hitting the ground.

The booster function allows the mech to sustain a jump for a bit longer, cross gaps, and even reach higher elevations, but it too is slowed by the incredible weight of the mech. Aside from a couple of instances where the player is given an unlimited booster, its power will drain as you use it, but it recharges quickly while disengaged.

For fast movement across the ground, the mech comes equipped with a dash maneuver which may be initiated with a button press or by double-tapping left or right. This also causes the mech to hunch over slightly, making it somewhat more difficult to hit.

Since the huge mech doesn’t occupy a significantly larger portion of the screen than any other 2D action hero, much of the size and weight of the machine is relayed to the player by the design. Movement is slow with metal clomping sounds accompanying each footstep, loud clangs when running into objects, and a screen shaking effect when falling hard onto the ground. While most of the enemy units you face come in the form of tanks, turrets, and other mechanical beasties, there are a handful of human enemies as well, which are dwarfed by your great height. Many of them will run from you in panic, flailing their arms as they go. And yes, you may shoot them if you like, although there is no reward for doing so.

Also typical of the genre is independent movement and firing, which is where many of the control complexities come into play. Pressing UP or DOWN causes your weapon to move up or down, and you are free to aim in any direction. Moving forward will cause your weapon to return to a horizontal position to aim directly in front of you, but you have a couple of options that allow you to move and aim independently.

By default, your mech will continue facing in one direction as long as you fire your weapon, allowing you to shoot and walk backward without the need for any additional button presses. This feature may be disabled in the menu for players wishing to immediately change directions when pressing away from their heading, in which case they will need to employ the second method.

The second aim control is manual, and it allows the player to hold down a button to lock his aim direction and move about freely. This not only locks you in one direction but also keeps your gun aimed at the angle selected when the control was activated. This adds complexity by forcing players to hold one or two buttons to shoot, plus the aim lock, all the while jumping, dashing, and punching to dodge enemy fire. It also allows for much more technical shooting, and mastery of this technique is absolutely required to take down many of the game’s tough bosses. This feature may also be changed in the menu to lock your aim while firing, rather than requiring a second button press, but this setting is switched off by default, bringing it in line with traditional mech control schemes.

The player has four weapon types at his disposal, all of which have unlimited ammo, but each of them has a cooldown period between uses. The default machine gun fires a steady stream of bullets, which twist and turn in the air while the weapon ejects a satisfying spray of spent shells. As you fire, a meter drains, and when it is empty, you have to wait a moment for it to refill so you can fire again. There is no way to manually reload, so you may want to spend a few extra shots to purposely drain the meter, particularly if you’re waiting for a narrow attack window during a boss fight. Players also have a melee attack in the form of a powerful punch, and his punch can also be used to absorb enemy fire, making it vital during sequences where you find yourself under heavy enemy fire with no time to get out of the way.

A second set of weapons appears as an alternate fire type, requiring a second button press to activate, and while they’re specifically labeled as air-based, they may be used against ground targets as well. By default, you have a powerful blast that follows your weapon’s aim, and you have a secondary set of four missiles that can be fired after locking onto enemies. Players do not have direct control of the lock on, but can swing the targeting reticule in the general direction of most enemies to achieve a lock. Missiles are able to hit enemies on the far side of walls and other obstructions, making them very useful in confined areas.

As the player reaches certain score thresholds, these default weapons may be swapped out for new ones, allowing you to customize your ordinance. You may opt to ditch the machine gun in favor of a powerful short range weapon that works more like a shotgun. The punch may be swapped for claws or even a shield, and air-based weapons may be swapped out for new types as well, such as a lower stock of missiles that can be more easily locked onto targets.

Dying and continuing at any point resets your score to zero. As such, much of the replayability comes from getting better at the game and making a successful run from the first mission. In addition, each level has a timer in the upper right. When it reaches zero, you stop receiving a score for any defeated enemies, further enforcing effective use of your abilities, as well as a bit of memorization based on repeated gameplay.

Checkpoints appear with reasonable frequency, so players may still make narrative progress even if they’re not racking up a huge score in the process. Pressing forward for the first time is still challenging, however, particularly if you’re not accustomed to the intricacies of mech-based combat. There are also numerous instances where you may meet a quick death if you’re not prepared for a certain enemy attack, further enforcing the need for repeat playthroughs. For those having a tough time of it, the game also features an Easy mode, hidden away in the Options menu.

A neat aspect of the design is the “jettison armor” function. In most mech games, you either have your given set of armor, or you pick up additional armor as an upgrade, as in Metal Storm, which is then destroyed as you take damage. Here, you start every mission with a mech frame and its armor, and you have the option to jettison the armor at any time. This has two effects. First, and most importantly, it gives you a new life bar. As such, players are very much encouraged to pay attention to their remaining health and cast off their armor when the meter reaches its last sliver. Secondly, the armor-less mech is actually much faster and more maneuverable, but the tradeoff is that it takes damage more quickly. Some missions feature mid-level supply drops that will restore most of your health, so it’s best to try to hold onto your armor until this point.

A training area is available via the main menu, which slowly introduces each of the core mechanics, from moving, jumping, and boosting, to moving and shooting simultaneously, locking your aim, and even navigating in zero gravity environments where the controls get particularly complex. Players may also access any previously-visited mission from the main menu, giving them an opportunity to practice a tough area and find the best way to rack up a respectable score.

The main story mode features lengthy briefings and loads of dialogue. Introductory briefings and cutscenes are skippable, but many missions feature mid-level cutscenes that cannot be skipped (although you can tap a button to speed through the dialogue more quickly), making it particularly bothersome on repeat playthroughs. In addition, there is near-constant chatter going on during missions, coming from your commander and another mech pilot who sometimes fight alongside you, as well as your own pilot and mission control.

All dialogue is voiced in Japanese with English subtitles, which is fine for introductions and cutscenes where the action is paused, but it can be difficult to read potentially important communications from your team while you’re busy injecting everything you see with heavy doses of hot lead. On the other hand, repeated play makes this less of an issue, and there is a linear radar across the bottom of the screen that does a good job of announcing incoming threats.

There is a fair amount of gameplay variety offered over the course of the game’s five missions. You start out fighting your way through a jungle to eventually infiltrate an enemy base. The next mission sees you escorting a cargo ship down a river with slow forced scrolling and enemies coming in from offscreen. Then you’ll find yourself sliding down a rocky slope shooting down waves of enemies shmup-style.

The game occasionally intersperses other challenging sequences, such as allowing you to hover with an infinite booster pack, or flying around in zero gravity while you use your aim lock to prevent your mech from spinning uncontrollably as you move. There’s even a scramble mission where you get one chance to chase down a series of enemy cargo helicopters, with no way to replay the mission if you miss any of them.

One of the most impressive encounters is the fourth mission which features a multi-phase battle against a gigantic hovering land ship. The ship starts out in the background, firing at you while you dodge, but it eventually moves into the foreground, taking up multiple screens with its impressive size. From here, you spend the mission slowly dismantling the ship piece by piece, taking out its weapons and engines, and eventually engaging in a dialogue sequence with the ship’s commander who offers to surrender before things take an unexpected turn.

Gunhound (a.k.a. Kisou Ryouhei Gunhound) was developed by doujin studio Dracue Software, based in Osaka, Japan and founded in 2006. The game originally began its life as a Japan-exclusive boxed PC release in 2009. Over the next several years, the developer overhauled the game and made changes to the story and characters, eventually releasing the game as Gunhound EX on the PSP in 2013, hitting very late in the console’s life. The PSP version was also exclusive to Japan and was published by G.Rev, known for their work on numerous shmups, including Ikaruga, Gradius V, Border Down, Under Defeat, and the Senko no Ronde series.

In 2014, the game finally saw a US release, courtesy of publisher Active Gaming Media, with a port of the title from the enhanced PSP version. Active Gaming Media also published Kero Blaster, Pink Hour, Pink Heaven, Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight, Hakoniwa Explorer Plus, Touhou Luna Nights, Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth, Mighty Goose, some versions of La-Mulana, and La-Mulana 2.

Inspiration for Gunhound was drawn heavily from the Assault Suits series from NCS / Masaya, with a basic control configuration that is nearly identical to that of Target Earth and Cybernator, offering 360 degree aiming, slow boost assisted jumps, a speedy dash move, and primary weapons with a secondary punch.

Following this game’s release, Dracue developed a full remake of Assault Suit Leynos, originally released in the US as Target Earth. The game includes a Classic mode that plays very similarly to the original Genesis version, as well as an Arcade mode which offers a somewhat more balanced experience and also adds cinematics and fully-voiced dialogue (in Japanese). As in the original, players pilot a lumbering mech against other mechs and huge enemy ships in order to protect Earth from invading cybernetically-enhanced clones. As the game unfolds, the player slowly unlocks dozens of weapons, six of which may be equipped before each mission, allowing for some additional strategy as players customize the mech to meet the threats ahead. For more details, check our coverage here.