Gyruss (NES)

I have always loved playing space shooters, or scrolling shooters, or shmups, whatever you want to call them. Classic vertical shooters like Space Invaders and Galaga will always rank among my favorite games ever. And the side scrolling shooter Gradius has engrained itself in gaming history by being the first game to feature the now famous Konami code. Though the industry has changed over the years, the genre still lives on in bullet hell games like the Touhou Project. Still, there is one game that has always captivated me with its rather unique gameplay, and that game is Gyruss.

Gyruss (NES) - 01

Gyruss has made a lasting impression on me mostly because of how different it is from other shooters. If follows the same basic principles as the other games, but with the distinction of being a tube shooter instead of a side scrolling shooter. What this means is that you’re not flying up from the bottom like in Space Invaders, or even flying side to side like in Gradius. Instead, you are flying around the entire outer edge of the screen towards the center, as if you’re in a tube. While I’m sure there are other games out there that use this style, it is such a rarity that Gyruss is the only one I think I’ve ever seen. So join me as we fly through space in this unique shooter.

Gameplay

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It’s the year A.D. 25XX and mankind must rid the universe of Evil. You’d be hard pressed to find a more generic story, but that’s ok. The story doesn’t impact this type of game much anyways. The point is that you’ll be flying from planet to planet trying to destroy all the evil aliens starting from the edge of our solar system and flying all the way into the Sun. Now, I know Pluto is no longer considered a planet, but it was at the time this game came out. Planetary status confusion aside it’s still agreed that it’s farther out in our solar system than Neptune, so it’s a bit confusing why they switched the positions of Pluto and Neptune in this game.

 

Anyway, as mentioned earlier, the gameplay is that of a tube shooter. What that means is that you are free to fly a full 360 degrees around the screen while the enemies generally gather in the center. They don’t start out in the center though, first they do a fly by giving you a nice chance to shoot them when they’re close up rather than waiting for them to shrink to little dots in the distance. Destroy all the enemy ships, and you’ll have completed the first of three warps needed to reach the next planet.

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In addition to the enemy ships, there are also several other obstacles in each stage. The first stages have you avoiding asteroids flying out from the center. These are indestructible and must be avoided completely. The second warps to each planet also include protective covers for the enemies in the center of the stage. These will also have to be destroyed before you can finish the warp to the next planet.

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Death Count: 1

Of course, it’s the final warp that is the most exciting, as it always features a rather difficult boss battle. The first of which is a ship with 4 pods on it that shoot 3 projectiles each at you. As the first boss, it’s not very hard, but it does set you up for what to expect from future bosses. Most notably is the fact that you can only damage the pods when they are open. Of course, when they open is also the moment they fire their own projectiles, placing you constantly in firing range if you wish to defeat it. Destroy all the pods, and you’ll have finally arrived at and protected Neptune.

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After arriving at each of the planets, you’ll be treated to a bonus stage where you can score extra points as well as acquire power ups and bombs. These stages have no threat of dying and are simply there as a reward, so do your best to destroy as many enemies as you can.

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Death Count: 5

And that’s the basic formula that all the stages going forward will follow, all with slight variations. The warps to Pluto feature different ship designs as well as different defensive covers in the second warp. But otherwise everything remains the same.

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The only new element is what I call Space Amoebas. These blue and purple globs will simply drift towards you from the center, causing very little threat on their own. What makes them so annoying though is how much damage they can take. Normal enemies will die after a single hit, but the amoebas can take about a dozen before they finally die. Not only that, but occasionally they’ll even split into multiple amoebas after being shot, which just makes things so much worse.

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Death Count: 9

Survive the warps to Pluto, and you’ll arrive to see our next boss battle. I’m not even sure how to properly describe this one. The main body is a green and white planetoid object that can take no damage and is only there to be annoying. The real threat comes from the cluster of green orbs that fly around. They generally stay together in a cluster, but they move very quickly and randomly, making it rather intimidating to approach. As you shoot them, the orbs will turn from green to purple, and only by changing them all to purple can you destroy them and by extension the boss as a whole.

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Death Count: 11

The trip to Uranus once again changes the design of the enemy ships. These stages also introduce a new enemy type which is hard for me to explain. It looks very similar to a Nautilus with its spiral shell and tentacles. Shooting this creature seems to destroy the shell and reveal the tentacle monster inside. What makes these so difficult it that, at least with the shell free version, it moves very quickly is a wide spiral pattern, making it hard to avoid colliding with, and even harder to shoot and destroy.

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It also has several chains of large orbs that zig zag their way towards you from the center. These move more slowly and predictably, however they take a lot more damage before they are destroyed. You also need to destroy all 4 orbs individually, which can take several passes to accomplish thanks to their high health.

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Death Count: 21

And this brings us to the next boss. This boss is very similar to the first in that it is a large ship with 4 pods shooting projectiles. The difference is what kind of projectiles it’s shooting, and that makes a huge difference in this case. Rather than the simple energy projectiles of the first boss, this one is sending out tiny mines. They move very slowly, however, they will home in on your ship, causing them to take you over by sheer numbers. To make matters worse, they can be hit by your attacks, which is good for getting rid of them, but bad for attacking the boss as they act as tiny little shields. When I got the boss down to a single pod, it was creating these mines in such volume that it was hard to get even a single shot to land on the boss during its limited time of vulnerability.

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With the boss finally destroyed, we start our journey to Saturn which once again introduces a new secondary enemy. This time they take the form of a seemingly metal jellyfish. These enemies can take so much damage that they seem to be indestructible. However, I did manage to destroy them, so they do have a finite amount of health, however high it is. Also it was around this time that I remembered I actually do have a limited supply of power shots which did a great job destroying these new enemies.

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Death Count: 25

Saturn’s boss also starts to up the firepower to the ridiculous levels you will see in later levels. This time the ship has 6 pods, each of which shoots a different projectile. Two of the pods shoot the typical shots the first had, while two more shoot the mines from the last boss. The final two however introduce a larger indestructible shield. These new shields also have some homing capabilities, but thankfully once they lock on to your ship, they move straight towards your location, even after you’ve moved from it. This allows you to lure them away from your target and get your shots in. These were also the first pods I targeted since they were the most annoying. After several deaths on my end, the boss was eventually defeated, and Saturn is once again safe. Well, as safe as life can be on a gas giant like Saturn.

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Death Count: 27

The warps to Jupiter don’t introduce anything new, but they do ramp up the number of asteroids flying at you. They also have select asteroids that will shatter into 4 shards which just makes it a more threatening obstacle. I guess this makes some sense. Jupiter is the first planet in the outer solar system beyond the asteroid belt, so I guess asteroids would be more common in this area.

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Death Count: 29

The boss guarding Jupiter also seems to have incorporated the asteroids into its design as well. This boss moves rather slowly in a simple spiral pattern, all the while launching shards outwards from itself. Each shot chips away at its armor revealing what I feel looks like a giant space raspberry inside.

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Death Count: 31

Once the outer shell is completely destroyed, the space raspberry doesn’t just simply die. Instead, the battle gets much more intense. Once freed, it grows two long tentacles which it swings wildly towards you. It also has become much faster than before making it a very deadly target. Of course, the only way to damage it is to get close to it and be right within striking range of its tentacles. Get some quick shots in while you can, and eventually it will be destroyed. Now the whole outer solar system is safe and we’re half way towards our goal of defeating the evil menace.

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And so we continue our journey into the inner solar system starting with Mars. Once again the design of the ships have changed, this time resembling what I think look like pumpkins. There are also new obstacles in the form of an electrical defense grid. Either avoid it entirely or destroy one of the orbs to break the link.

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Death Count: 33

These warps also introduce a rather annoying enemy. These double barreled ships with teleport out of nowhere right in front of you and shoot you at point blank range. Because of the limited warning time, these guys can be quite difficult to avoid.

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Death Count: 40

The Martian boss looks even more intimidating that the previous ones, having a full 8 pods attached to the main ship. He also has a new attack to watch out for. Half his pods will shoot out a new blue shield which can be devastating if you aren’t prepared for it. These blue shields shoot out in pairs and follow a slow straight path outwards. However, once it reaches the outer edge where your ship flies, they two shields will quickly arc off in opposite directions, covering a 180 degree sweep of the screen, killing you instantly on contact. Thankfully they can be destroyed with a single shot, so try to take them out before they get a chance to take you out.

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Death Count: 43

Finally, we’re on our way to our home planet of Earth. These warps don’t change much from the previous stages. It has the fracturing asteroids we’ve seen before and not much else in terms of obstacles. It does however have a new enemy which is somewhat annoying. There is a small robot that will spin around towards you, and then when it’s right in front of you it will finally open up and try to shoot you point blank. It can’t be damaged until it opens, which can make it hard, but you see it coming unlike the double barrel from the last stages, so it’s not quite as bad.

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Death Count: 51

The boss battle for Earth easily makes up for the warps lack of innovation. For this battle, you’re fighting three separate ships that seem rather similar to your own. Unfortunately for you, they seem to have gotten better firepower than you. The yellow ship has a basic double energy shot, while the pink ship shoots out the mines similar to some of the previous bosses. It’s the blue ship however that gave me the most trouble. He shoots out rather large orbs which are easy enough to dodge. The problem with the blue ship is its speed. It’s easily twice as fast as your ship, so you can’t keep up with it. Then when it’s the only ship left it goes it to a rapid spin in the center which honestly made me feel slightly dizzy and sick from looking at it. You’ll really have to time your shots to hit it as it flies by. But doing so will protect Earth and the human population.

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Even with Earth safe, the evil menace hasn’t been destroyed, so we continue our journey towards the sun and our next planet of Venus. These warps reuse the pumpkin enemies from previous levels as well as a mix of other obstacles like the double barrels and electrical defenses.

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Death Count: 54

This late in the game and it still manages to throw new enemies at you. This time there is a ship that will fly around placing bombs all along the perimeter. Because he’s flying directly in your flight path, it’s hard to find an opportunity to attack it, and the bombs it leaves behind are even worse as they limit your range of motion until you enter collide with them and die or they explode on their own.

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Death Count: 68

This is where the game starts throwing everything at you all at once. With the Venus boss, the ship once again has a full 8 pods, and a variety of all the attacks seen so far. The basic energy shots, the homing mines, the indestructible shields, and the new sweeping shields. You’ll have to destroy all 8 pod, but being strategic about which pods to go after first can make a huge difference in this fight. Also I’ll admit that I keep forgetting I have the power shots that can take out a pod in a single hit. They make these fights much more manageable if you’ve collected any of them.

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We’re nearing the home stretch now as we make our way towards mercury, the first planet in our solar system. Amazingly, the game still has new elements to throw our way. While warping towards mercury you’ll have to dodge clusters of giant indestructible crystals hurdling through space on top of all the other dangers you’ve already faced. At this point I think I have to point out another painfully obvious aspect of the game which is the lag you get in the later stages. With so many sprites on screen at once, the system simply can’t keep up. It made getting pictures rather difficult because everything was so fractured and distorted it looked like it was glitching at this point.

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Death Count: 70

With some luck, you’ll eventually make it to the boss which is a nightmare in design. It looks like a giant brain inside a glass orb. The glass itself is indestructible, but the red bumps around it are not. However, each of the 8 red bumps are guarded by their own tiny planetoid which will shoot out towards you if you get too close. This one all came down to luck as I blindly spiraled around the thing shooting wildly. The occasional hits would one by one destroy the red orbs until I only had to focus in on one of them to destroy the boss.

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Death Count: 73

However, this boss had a second form. Once free of the glass orb, the brain with start wildly shooting lighting out in every direction. Still guarded by the planetoids around it, this made for very little margin of error before you get blasted to bits. Thankfully, without its glass shell, all parts of the brain take damage from being hit, and before long it will be completely destroyed.

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Death Count: 75

Now that all 9 planets have been freed from the evil that tormented them, you would think the evil had been destroyed, but you would be wrong. The final threat to the universe still lives inside the sun, and so we have one last set of warps to make. As would be expected from flying this close to the sun, the biggest new obstacles are large solar flare orbs flying out from the sun.

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In fact, the whole 3rd warp leading into the final boss has no enemies at all. Instead it is a hectic challenge to avoid all the solar flares are you make your final approach to the sun. I was doing really well at first, but I died right towards the end, which lost me my double shot going into the final boss fight.

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Death Count: 81

As the battle begins, you’ll be fighting the actual sun itself. Thinking this was the end, I used up several of my power shots. Even then it took 3 of them before it was destroyed. I can’t really tell how many shots I have left since, if you haven’t noticed, the entire user interface gets hidden during boss fights.

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Death Count: 98

It doesn’t really matter how many shots I have, because that was only the first form. Inside the sun was apparently a giant mechanical eyeball. As you’re fighting, it will constantly be launching smaller eyeballs at you in such a high quantity that I ended up running into them. There simply wasn’t any space to move.

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Death Count: 103

As you deal more and more damage to the massive eye, it does give some subtle indications of how damaged it is. First, it will start shooting lasers at you, which paired with the high quantity of eyeballs already surrounding me was instant death every attack cycle. It also shoots more and more lasers the more damage it takes. Finally, when it’s close to death, it will turn pink instead of purple, and be shooting off the most lasers yet.

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Keep at it, and finally the universe will be saved from evil once and for all. Unfortunately for you, there is only a single simple splash screen saying “The Universe is at Peace.” as a reward for your hard work. It doesn’t even cut to credits after that, instead you’ll be thrown all the way back to the outer edges of the solar system and be allowed to start your journey all over again, like some sick modern version of Sisyphus.

Verdict

Gameplay – 6 / 10

The gameplay is kind of a mixed bag here. On one hand I love the originality of a tube shooter. It’s such a rare game mechanic and it really gives you a sense of flying through space at warp speed. On the other hand, the fact that the enemies are all off in the distance means you’re shooting at tiny little dots, so when they do start approaching it takes a moment to identify if it’s an enemy ship, enemy fire, or some other variety of indestructible obstacle. It makes it hard to avoid things in time after you finally identify what it is coming at you. It also severely limits the play area for the enemies which make them very cluttered leading to slowdown and sprite glitching. Then there are the various bosses. For starters many of them are nearly identical, large ships with pods shooting projectiles. The ones that weren’t just cut and pasted were actually very original and entertaining though. Nearly all of them however suffer from being a bit too difficult. I’m not sure how anyone was expected to beat this game on the 4 lives you’re given.

Graphics – 7 / 10

The graphics suffer a lot of the same problems as the gameplay. The fact that the enemies are regularly in the distance means you’re often shooting at unidentifiable tiny dots. However, I would like to credit the game for having a wide variety of enemies as well as the way the game handled sprites growing larger as they came into view. It really gave a good sense of depth in what is actually a 2d game.

Audio – 9 / 10

The music has always been one of my favorite parts of this game. That’s partly because I’m one of the few people my age that actually enjoys classical music, so the remix of Toccata and Fugue used as the games main soundtrack has always delighted me. Beyond that the music is just so up-tempo that it fits perfectly with the fast pace gameplay present throughout the whole game.

Story – 2 / 10

I said it once already that you’d be hard pressed to find a more generic, mad libs story if you tried. It the year (Year) 25xx and the (Place) Universe is under threat of (Noun) Evil. Only (Noun) A Hero can restore the peace.

Total Playtime – 0h 59m

Considering this is essentially an arcade port, that’s actually a rather long playtime. However, it’s unlikely you’d actually beat the game in a mere hour under normal play, and that’s because of the extreme difficulty of the game.

Total Deaths – 103 Deaths

This is hard. Sometimes intentionally like with the bosses, other times unintentionally with the enemy clutter and graphical glitches. In the end, I have no idea how anyone was ever expected to beat this game under normal play. I used infinite lives and did my very best not to die, and I still ended up with over 100 deaths. Granted I’m not a very skilled player, but by default you only start with 4 lives. You can get more during the bonus rounds, as well as through your score. But that still doesn’t leave you with many lives.

Overall Score – 7 / 10

The fact that this game has an actual story progression, thin as it may be, has always elevated it above the other endless shooters in my mind. Add to that the rather unique tube shooter gameplay, and it has persisted as one of my favorite NES games of all time. However, its extreme difficulty has always left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, and has until now prevented me from ever getting anywhere close to finishing the game. If you’re a fan of shooters, you should definitely give Gyruss a try. However, the casual gamer might be turned off by the difficulty.

Gyruss (NES) - 66

The final Stage, I’ll never see it without cheating.

 

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