The overwhelming success of Mighty No. 9‘s Kickstarter last year showed that people still love Mega Man‘s gameplay, even if Capcom is unwilling to do much new with the license. Since then, we’ve seen quite a few re-releases of the Blue Bomber’s adventures on Nintendo platforms, which makes the first of Keiji Inafune’s Mega Man-styled games a natural fit on the 3DS. He teamed up with the creators of the Mega Man Zero series, Inti Games, to make something that played like those games, but has its own twists. Indeed, while a surface-level similarity is there, Azure Striker Gunvolt takes things in directions no Mega Man game has gone before.
Azure Striker Gunvolt‘s storyline holds up nicely compared to something like the Mega Man X franchise. Both have stories that are treated as serious issues and at least attempt to build compelling plotlines out of them. While the X series eventually got bogged down with convoluted plots and an overwhelming amount of characters, Gunvolt’s story is comparably compelling. Both are tales of faction warfare told in different ways. Here, the young Gunvolt has psychic powers, and he’s not well liked by the Psychic Protection group. He joins the resistance group QUILL, and is immediately faced with a tough choice to either kill a girl named Joule or let her live, which his friend Asimov is outraged by. As missions are completed, more plot threads unravel and you can talk to Joule and build a deeper bond with her between stages.
Anyone used to a Mega Man franchise will be able to pick up and play this game instantly. However, there’s a lot different beyond the “use a blaster and jump” similarities. The biggest difference gameplay-wise is that the blaster is merely a side-weapon in the grand scheme of things. It’s available, and the easiest to use, but not the best tool at your disposal at all times. Hitting R or A unleashes this giant electricity ball around Gunvolt that can do damage nearby or further damage to an enemy part if you first shoot that part with your gun. This also allows you to get stuck between two enemies and as long as you’ve hit them each with a blaster shot, you can drain their life with the lighting ball. However, you can’t spam this item — it has a finite amount of energy, and it’s drained fairly quickly. You can regain its charge after a few seconds, and once it goes from red to blue, you can fire off a quick bolt if you need to, or wait and do a longer-term draining.
The risk/reward system on display here is finely-tuned because you need to figure out just the right timing for a buster shot and an electrical charge. Rattling off one and then going for a charge is super-fast, but carries a higher rate of failure since the long-range usage of the charge relies on that single shot getting through. Failing in that attempt can result in taking needless damage, and it can pile up pretty quickly. The default button configuration is logical, and works for every single additional power you put into a slot — you can switch between them on the fly with the 3DS, making this a rare platform game that actually uses the 3DS’s bottom screen fairly well. The controls themselves are responsive and work exactly as they should — if you want to do something, you’ll do it without an issue once you learn the game’s mechanics.
Azure Striker Gunvolt succeeds in areas that the Mega Man Zero and ZX incarnations fell short. Those games felt like games that wanted so desperately to be their own thing, but were hamstrung by the Mega Man license due to expectations. By making a spiritual successor to it, we get a game that does a lot of things differently. This game features new things like walls that shoot at you until you kill them and the platforming equivalent of boost plates that allow you to get to places you otherwise couldn’t, and make the game’s pacing much faster than any of the Zero or ZX games since you’ve got a dash and these to really keep the pace snappy. This is also a far more replayable experience, since it’s got a built-in score attack setup that makes you want to go from a C or a B through to a S ranking once you master the multiplier mechanics.
Visually, Gunvolt sadly doesn’t stray too far from the Mega Man Zero mold. The 3DS is so much more powerful than the GBA was, and yet the hardware isn’t really put through its 2D paces here. It may be paying a homage to the past, but there comes a time when things should simply look better. The PS1-era Mega Man X games were a dramatic improvement over the SNES games, and theoretically, the 3DS should at least be able to push PS1-level 2D graphics. This game falls short of those expectations, but does still deliver a eye-pleasing experience. Every stage looks different and has its own theme, complete with far more enemy variety than other action-platformers. Character animation is quite smooth for both Gunvolt and his wide variety of enemies.
Gunvolt‘s soundtrack succeeds at delivering high-intensity music that is fun to listen to. Much of it sounds like it would be right at home as either an opening or ending theme to an anime series, and that’s not a bad thing. The music is fast and lyrics are sometimes hard to understand due to all of the processing, but will put a smile on your face since they’re so cheery and will have you humming or singing — or fail trying to do so. With a plot that’s so dark, it’s good to have some levity. There are also points where the action speeds up and the music goes along with that. You’ll get a faster tempo, lyrics, and generally have your blood pumping at all times. The sound effect work is somewhat disappointing, with a tinny-sounding buster, but the electricity sounds nice and violent — so it balances out.
Azure Striker Gunvolt does an excellent job of providing Mega Man-style thrills while changing things up enough to make gameplay feel fresh. Gunvolt’s pace is faster than any Mega Man, but veterans of that franchise will feel right at home with a game that challenges and rewards you for learning patterns and from your own mistakes. It plays like a dream, looks good and delivers an addictive soundtrack that will have you humming along. Anyone who loves the Mega Man will enjoy this, and early adopters get more for their money with the inclusion of Mighty Gunvolt as a free extra.