Nobody seems to mention it anymore, but Gyruss was one of the best shmups of the NES era.
For a good portion of the ‘80s and ‘90s, a major (major!) part of developing for the home console market was wrapped up in translations of arcade games. This is an art that has slowly dwindled over the course of the last decade, as arcades have slowly but surely dwindled in popularity.
For an arcade port to succeed, it must do at least one of two things: It can either be incredibly faithful to the original, à la the console translations of Street Fighter II, which may not have been quite as powerfully in a graphical sense as their arcade counterparts, but actually managed to retain the spirit, the tight control, and the full set of characters and moves from the coin-op. To a point, the Mortal Kombat ports were the same way (at least, the ones that retained the blood), and if you go back to the Atari 2600, Asteroids, Defender, and even Pong were games that were faithfully reproduced to varying extents, but it was truly their similarity to their arcade counterparts that led to their high amounts of commercial success.
In certain cases, however, a strict port of the arcade experience just won’t cut it—Gyruss, one of the more underappreciated NES experiences, is one of those cases. For one thing, the arcade version of Gyruss had been around for a solid five years before the Nintendo version was released. A port had even been released for the 2600 some four years before the NES version. The fact that it was even a candidate for a port is a testament to just how popular the Famicom/NES was at that point in its life, as publishers scrounged up just about any property they had lying around to put out on the uberpopular system. Given its already well established history, then, it made sense that a new version, five years late to the party, would have to be souped up a bit to appeal to an audience that may well already have tried three versions of the thing.
For those who have never seen it or heard of it, Gyruss is a “tube shooter”—think Tempest, or Space Giraffe if you’re a Jeff Minter fan. Basically, you have a 360-degree range of motion, as you fly around in strict circles shooting at whatever shows up. The enemies in Gyruss appear in Galaga-like patterns, swirling onto the screen before taking their spots in the distant center. The point of a tube shooter like Gyruss is that it’s a way to give the player a three-dimensional combat experience using sprites; theoretically, objects closer to the outer circumference of the screen are “closer” to the player, while those in the center are further away. It’s a play mechanic that takes some getting used to as you acquaint yourself to the perspective.
Still, once you do that, the thing’s a blast. HRdK0rE shmup players won’t have too much trouble with it, as it’s probably one of the easiest shooters the NES has to offer, but those just looking for a good time blasting away some spaceships will find much to enjoy.
Thanks to the arcade version’s re-release via the Xbox Live Arcade, I was able to see just how much of the game had changed from the original arcade version. Perhaps most notable are the boss fights—the Nintendo version has bosses that must be tackled before reaching each of the planets of the solar system, bosses that range from stupefyingly easy to oddly random and frustrating. Thankfully, there’s another new addition to the NES Gyruss arsenal, that being the use of super shot bomb things that do a heck of a lot more damage than your typical pea-shooter. There are a few other subtle changes like the order of the stages and the types of sprites used, but mostly, it’s the bosses that set this game apart.
It doesn’t seem like much of a change, really, but it actually does enhance the sense of accomplishment one gets from beating these levels and making it to the various planets. Being able to modify the control scheme is nice, too, and even a little bit ahead of its time.
The NES Gyruss, sadly, has not yet made its way to the Wii’s Virtual Console service, and it’s a shame, as there’s certainly an audience for this sort of game; heck, non-popularity hasn’t stopped them from putting out a metric ton of Turbografx-16 shmups. As such, hidden treasures like Gyruss are why God invented Ebay, and why any connoiseur of retro games needs an actual console in their living room. Gyruss will never get your heart pounding with snazzy graphics or anything approximating true innovation (even for its time), but as far as don’t-blink arcade-style shooter experiences go, it’s one of the best the old-school has to offer.