Jet Gunner

A game by Sinclair Strange for PC, originally released in 2014.
Jet Gunner, also known as Jet Force, is a game inspired by 8-bit NES games, so much so that it even includes sprite flicker and some of the edge-of-the-screen oddities caused by the hardware restrictions of the day. In addition to run and gun shooters like Contra, the game is also heavily influenced by the design of Shatterhand with the ability to activate a number of helper robots that float above and behind the protagonist, each offering its own unique weapon type.

In the year 19XX, the major cities of the world have come under attack from the Master Brain that controls all of the robots, as it has apparently gone insane. Per genre conventions – and taking a note from Metroid – the Master Brain is actually a giant brain in a jar that acts as the game’s final boss. Also per conventions, you play the lone human soldier who is able to put a stop to the brain and its army of robots, and save the world in the process.

The hero is able to run and fire to the left or right, as well as duck and fire. He has a mildly variable 2x jump, as well as a jetpack that allows him to fly to any point on the screen. A meter depletes while the jetpack is in use and slowly refills whenever you’re standing on solid ground. It does not refill while jumping, however, so players must be mindful when attempting to use the jetpack during heavy platforming sequences.

Furthermore, the player is unable to fire his weapon while using the jetpack, which makes it very difficult to deal with airborne enemies, as the player must let off of the jetpack for a moment, fire off a couple of shots, and then reengage it before falling back down, potentially into a bottomless pit, which spells instant death.

The hero has an 8-unit life bar, which may be reduced by half-unit increments when hit by a weak attack, or multiple units when hit by a strong attack. While this certainly makes things easier than the 1-hit kill system generally employed by games in this genre, the design of the levels and enemy placement all but assures that players will have their life bars shaved down by unavoidable hits.

As mentioned, airborne enemies are particularly problematic, given that players cannot fly and shoot at the same time. In addition, during platforming sequences, enemies are often placed just at the edge of the platform, so they appear while you are in midair, making it difficult to line up a proper landing without taking damage.

Most games in the genre feature slow-firing enemies that give the player the ability to move or jump to avoid projectiles. Here, enemies fire as quickly as you do, and some of them fire as soon as they enter the screen, virtually inviting the bullets backstage for an up-close appearance with your face. Since regular robot infantry can absorb several shots before being destroyed, this also causes issues with basic ground-based combat, as even the act of standing and shooting may mean that you have to eat a fast projectile before the enemy explodes into nothingness.

Technically this is an authentic portrayal of the state of game development during the NES days, as games often received very little playtesting – or were only tested by the expert developers themselves – before they went to market. As such, it is left to the player to try, die, and repeat in order to get good enough at the game and memorize enemy placements in order to succeed.

Levels are divided into multiple sections, and the player has three lives with which to make it from one end of the stage to the other, defeating enemies, completing platforming challenges, and taking down multiple minibosses and an end level boss in each. Completing a level provides a ranking, offering score bonuses for making it through the level without getting killed and without taking damage, as well as points based on the player’s completion time and remaining health.

Getting killed returns the player to the start of the section, and losing all three lives presents the player with the option to continue from the start of the level with his score reset to zero. Continues are unlimited, and players may also return to the game on a future session and select any previously-visited stage from the main menu. Health restoratives appear with regular frequency, with 1UPs also appearing on occasion.

By default, the player has a fast but weak machine gun. However, there are numerous other weapons that may be activated by grabbing weapon pickups in the environment. Each weapon type has a unique icon, but these drops are random, so you won’t always get the same weapon in the same place. All weapons fire continuously as long as the player holds the button, and each remains in play until the player grabs a new weapon or dies.

Weapons mostly fall in line with the armaments offered by other side scrolling shooters and include a wide spray of fast-firing bullets, a short range flame thrower, strong but slow rockets, a wide but slow curved beam, and a fast-firing weapon that shoots only at upward and downward angles. One odd weapon comes in the form of a 4-sided boomerang that moves outward, spins for a moment, and then returns to the player. It’s a bit difficult to use, and you can only fire two projectiles at a time, but its effect is wide and it can potentially deal a great deal of damage if the player times his tosses properly, making it very useful for stationary targets and certain boss fights.

In addition, players may activate a number of helper robots to aid them in battle. As in Shatterhand, these robots float above and behind the player with only their heads, torsos, and arms present, and each fires a different type of projectile. In Shatterhand, robots could only be activated by collecting a mixture of alpha and beta symbols. In Jet Gunner, robots are also represented by Greek symbols, but the robots are immediately activated by grabbing one, rather than collecting three. As with weapon pickups, the presence of each robot icon is random.

Many of the support robots offer variations on the weapons available to the player, with a fast forward-firing weapon, rockets, and a flamethrower. Some have very specific uses, such as the robot that only fires straight up, making it useful for dealing with aerial enemies and bosses that move around above you… but its random placement means that you can’t necessarily count on it as a strategy. Some weapons are less direct, like the bot that spews out projectiles slowly in multiple directions, and one that drops bouncing bullets on the floor.

Rather than taking damage and being destroyed, helper bots are on a timer that counts down slowly. However, each killed enemy adds one second back to the timer, so players who unleash a steady stream of destruction can count on having an active helper bot throughout most of the game. Certain helper bots can be very useful in boss fights, so players may need to pay attention to the timer to ensure that their bot of choice will make it into battle. Neither weapon pickups nor helper bots transition between levels, and robots also do not fire while you are using your jetpack.

The player must face multiple minibosses and bosses throughout the 6-level journey, and getting killed during a boss fight sends the player back to the start of the section. Given this, players may take damage within the level and find themselves back at the boss without a full health meter, further increasing the difficulty. Oddly, miniboss encounters feature no life bar, and most of them do not change colors or movement patterns to indicate how close they are to death, leaving it to the player’s best guess as to how they are faring in the fight. End level bosses have a life bar at the bottom of the screen that ticks away as the boss takes damage.

In addition to general shootery, there is also quite a lot of platforming to be had. Often, players must jump between narrow platforms and ride moving platforms while making strategic use of the jetpack, and attempting to shoot or avoid flying enemies to prevent being pushed back and falling into a bottomless pit. Some levels have large gaps that require steady use of the jetpack, again intermixed with enemies that require bullet love, and challenging the player to reach the other side before his fuel runs out.

One challenging sequence in the first area has the player running across an exploding bridge while dealing with numerous enemies. If the player falls too far behind, he will need to jetpack forward a bit lest he fall into the pit below. There is also a 1UP along this path, and players wishing to take the risk may purposely fall down as the bridge explodes, engage the jetpack to prevent their death on the bottom of the screen, and then fly forward quickly to catch up to the bridge before their jetpack runs out of fuel.

The second area features a somewhat oddly designed ascent sequence. Throughout the bulk of the game, the player is able to freely move to the left or right to navigate the environment and avoid enemy fire. However, when scrolling upward, the player is not able to fall back down again. As such, the player may jump up from a platform, get knocked back by an enemy, and die by falling off the bottom of the screen instead of falling back down onto the same platform.

While the hero has a life bar, there are many many ways to find yourself instantly killed, including getting pinched between platforms in the game’s requisite elevator ascent, and getting crushed by falling blocks. The fourth area in particular surrounds the player with death as he makes numerous jumps between flying rocket boards that move quickly across the screen and then explode. These sequences are of course filled with flying enemies as well. Later in the same area, the player encounters wind that blows him back, making it more difficult to make horizontal leaps, followed by fans blowing downward that prevent use of the jetpack altogether.

Suffice to say, Jet Gunner is not an easy game. Like the NES games that inspired it, the player’s death is often attributed to unfavorable enemy placement and unavoidable hits. Players wishing to see the game through to the end will need to resurrect the strategies of old… playing and replaying levels, memorizing enemy locations, and trying not to sweat on the controller.

Experts wishing to truly test their mettle may try out the game’s “hardcore” difficulty mode, in which the player character takes more damage with each hit, bosses have more health, the jetpack depletes more quickly, and there are no 1UPs or health pickups. In addition, the game features 25 optional challenge levels that have the player completing short levels under specific conditions, such as beating a level under a time limit, 1-hit deaths, continuously draining health, or the inability to use the jetpack.

Jet Gunner was originally released under the name of Jet Force. The game was developed by UK-based developer Joel Sinclair Chappell, a.k.a. Sinclair Strange. Prior to this release, the developer created numerous Flash games under the name Sinclairian. Healso developed Running VoltGun, Crypt Stalker, Burning Ravager, and Hazard Saviour.