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XP Arcade: Gun Frontier
No, no, not that Gun Frontier. The other one.
This column is “XP Arcade,” in which I’ll focus on a game from the arcades, or one that is clearly inspired by arcade titles, and so on. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.
If you look very closely at the international art for Taito’s shoot-me-up, Gun Frontier, you’ll notice there is just the smallest ampersand allowed by copyright courts in between those two words. It’s actually called Gun & Frontier outside of Japan, and according to the game’s producer, Takatsuna Senba, that was due to copyright issues on two different fronts.
The first was the manga and anime, Gun Frontier, which Taito avoided issues with in Japan and could stick with the original name because, per Senba, “Manga trademarks are handled in a different division, so it didn't attract anyone's attention, and you can't do anything after it's been registered.” Sneaky, but clearly effective. Overseas, though, was a different story: a sewing machine company got in the way. No, really. Taito tried to copyright the game title “Frontier” for its international release, but Brother, the company responsible for the Frontier sewing machine, blocked this move. Making one of the game’s bosses a sewing machine in response would have been pretty funny, but it also would have messed with the very specific motif Gun (&) Frontier was going for, so it’s tough to say if the pettiness would have been worth it. (It would have been.)
That’s how the world ended up with two names for the same game, one of which shares its moniker with a completely unrelated manga/anime that also happens to involve a wild west look. So, yes, the Gun & Frontier that’s now available on the Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4 through the Arcade Archives collection is the same game as Gun Frontier, which has appeared in arcades in Japan, in Taito collections in the past, and as part of the Egret II mini arcade cabinet’s library of classic Taito titles, as well. Why didn’t I put Gun & Frontier in the headline of this Retro XP entry? Because it’s an objectively worse name than Gun Frontier, and nonsensical, too, but hey, no sewing machine companies kept it from happening, at least.
The thing that stuck out the most about Gun Frontier is its look. It’s set in a wild west environment — not the wild west of the 19th century United States, but something similar on another planet colonized by Earthlings. They’re obsessed with the aesthetic of that now-distant past, though, which is how you end up with flying ships armed with lasers and missiles that are shaped like six-shooters and revolvers, or, at the least, have enormous cannons in those shapes on board. Fighting a submarine loaded with cannon-sized revolvers that fire off missile barrages is a visual trip, but one that works.
Any kind of shooting game with a wild west setting tended to be more of a shooting gallery kind of thing, not a shoot-em-up involving ships and military vehicles and such, so Gun Frontier managed to stand out in that moment for that design decision, and still does so today. And while it’s not the most beautiful STG you’ve ever seen, it’s still full of some nifty, memorable flourishes, such as the waterfall you fly over in the second stage, which is paired with an enormous flock of birds and the eventual arrival of the boss ship from beneath it all. Taito wanted that waterfall scene in there so badly that they essentially threatened to put the game on hold if the development team couldn’t figure out how to make it work. Per Senba, who was an artist in addition to his role as producer, designer, and planner:
Management was really insistent that this scene be in the game. They even said that if it wasn’t there, the development would be put on hold. Unfortunately the three frames of hand-drawn animation needed to be put together, and the only person who could do that work was me. But I had no time, and on top of it, I also had to write a report on our new character tool software. I decided to tackle these tasks during my summer vacation time.
As part of a cost-savings scheme, the company wouldn’t turn on the air conditioning if only one employee was working. The new character tool software was running on prototype hardware, so it didn’t have a fan installed, and after about an hour it would overheat. I had to do my work by constantly switching between the old and new character tool hardware, saving my work to floppy every time before it overheated.
I remember how long it took to save a file, noisily clattering away. And there were times when it would overheat in the middle of saving and I’d lose everything. The temperature in that development room was over 40 degrees celsius as I hurriedly did my work. And with no one else there, I decided to strip down to my underwear and wrap a cool towel around my head…
Don’t worry, eventually a security guard saw how Senba was working, and turned the air conditioning on for a few hours per day despite Taito’s orders about keeping it off.
Weird budgetary decisions are at the heart of Gun Frontier. Taito wanted the game, but not at the budget Senba pitched… but they also didn’t want to compromise the pitch itself, only to pay less for it than was proposed. They felt that utilizing their “higher-paid employees” on an STG was a waste of resources — as Senba put it in another interview, Taito’s management told him that “anyone can program [an STG]!” in response to his ask for a veteran, and gave him two relative newbies instead. At the same time, Taito wanted to promote their new arcade hardware, the F2 board, and Senba believed they couldn’t ignore the still-popular shoot-em-up genre while doing so. So, Taito, recognizing the logic of that, approved Gun Frontier’s development, but only on the smaller budget they would have approved had they paid an outside team to make it, with the kicker being that it still had to be of the same quality it would have been had the project had the larger budget of an in-house production. Which Gun Frontier was, but without the resources such a project would normally have. Got all of that?
Senba said yes despite the limitations in place (which included just a four-person team) because it was the first time he was being given a chance to act in this designer/planner role he actually wanted. Which is also why he felt compelled to program the game in his underwear when it was too hot to be working, because that was the only way it was going to jump through the hoops in place. Game development sounds like a nightmare.
Gun Frontier is a solid enough and memorable shooting game (STG) — the last boss fight, which allows you just six shots to hit a boss protected by a spinning barrier before you lose, certainly stands out not just for its uniqueness but also its clear ties to the game’s aesthetic — but it does have its issues. It’s notorious for its difficulty due to the rank system in place, for instance: rank, for those unaware of how STGs with the system work, essentially makes the game more difficult depending on a number of factors, like how often you’re firing, enemies killed, or, as is the case in Gun Frontier, if you’re using autofire instead of pressing the button each time your ship shoots. And it’s pretty brutal in Gun Frontier sometimes, as your ship moves far too slowly, and the weaponry at your disposal too straightforward, to be handling all of the enemies that can appear if you’re doing well.
That being said, Gun Frontier isn’t an impossible STG by any means. It can just come off as a little more annoying and tedious than others that fill the screen to the degree this one does, especially since, if you’re used to playing other shoot-em-ups, the more oblong enemy shots in place of circles and dots can take some adjusting to, which means crashing your ship right into them until you get the timing down more often than you’d like — especially when on-screen traffic is heavy, even if the bullet patterns never quite are.
There are some nifty ideas in Gun Frontier outside of how its world looks, so I fully understand how it ended up praised or beloved in the circles where that occurred. The bomb system is a good one, as it encourages you to continually build up the power of your bomb over time by collecting gold bars defeated enemies leave behind — you can use it before the gauge is completely full, but it won’t have nearly the destructive power or range of a maxed out bomb. It’s wonderful as a balance between people who rely heavily on bombs to get through shoot-em-ups and those who only want to use one in the most dire circumstances, and if you time it right, the bomb will also help you get out of many of the stickier situations a high rank would put you in.
It’s no wonder that the system ended up being utilized in the far more beloved Battle Garegga, which was made by Shinobu Yagawa, an avid fan of Gun Frontier. Yagawa (who was also behind the ambitious Famicom standout STG, Recca) was clearly inspired by the title in his own shoot-em-ups, but as has been noted by others, such as at Hardcore Gaming 101 in their Taito digest, you also probably would rather play the games inspired by Gun Frontier like Battle Garegga rather than Gun Frontier itself, if you’re not in a position to play them all.
If you’re a STG sicko like me, however, it’s worth playing them both. Gun Frontier has enough intriguing bits to be worth a playthrough, or, at least, for you to give it a shot until you get tired of being pummeled to death by its rank system. As said, if you have an Egret II mini cabinet, it’s one of the 40 games on there, so give it a chance if you haven’t already. If you have a console where Arcade Archives releases games for $7.99, Gun & Frontier released on those in August 2022, with the standard quality-of-life and leaderboard addition those games have.
Gun Frontier has seen other console releases in the past, as well, such as in the second volume of Taito Legends collections, released for the Xbox, Playstation 2, and PC in 2006 — it lacks a vertical TATE screen option in this release but is otherwise arcade perfect — and, closer to its original release date of 1990, showed up on the Sega Saturn as part of that system’s Japan-exclusive line of arcade ports, Arcade Gears. That version does have a TATE option — though, if your CRT is big and heavy enough, you’re not going to want to utilize that — but it introduced some glitches on both the audio and visual sides, and differing enemy placement from the arcade original could be a problem for some. Though, it is easier to play, thanks to some balancing. Which I guess could also be a problem for some, depending on who we’re talking about.
You can get the best of both worlds these days, anyway, thanks to Arcade Archives having screen filters, TATE options, and so on, and for $8. So if you want to give Gun Frontier a shot, well, it won’t cost you much outside of a few bucks and some time. Battle Garegga might be superior, but it’s only inspired by Gun Frontier — it isn’t the same game, and purchasing it in the present will run you $35 on Xbox One or Series S|X, anyway, so it’s not really an apt either/or comparison for reasons beyond what’s inside of them.
Gun Frontier has some flaws that could break the game for you, or maybe you won’t mind, but it’s certainly an intriguing piece of Taito’s deep shooter library, and vital if for no other reason than what it ended up inspiring. And no, I don’t mean it’s mistaken relation to the obviously superior Taito and Senba STG Metal Black, so please, let that particular belief rest.
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