It’s been eleven years since Gridrunner++ was released for PC and, in all that time, it’s yet to be topped for pure arcade shooting goodness. Loads of Cave shooters, Treasure re-releasing Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun, and even an actual sequel in Gridrunner Revolution have all failed to top the pixelicious chaos of Gridrunner++. And today, as happens to all Llamasoft games once they’ve gotten far enough away from their release date, it’s turned into freeware.
Gridrunner++ was originally designed for the Pocket PC, which was some kind of strange pre-smartphone Windows system. Games for the system had the advantage of being easy to bring to PC, though, so a port followed quickly. It only runs in a window, and going windowed full-screen stretches everything wide, but other than those legacy issues from Gridrunner++’s original platform it’s an absolutely perfect, pure arcade shooter.
The Gridrunner series has always been Jeff Minter’s version of Centipede. Enemies pour onto the screen in a line and, as you shoot them down, they clutter up the playing field with bombs. Gridrunner++ is a bit more agile than its predecessors, though, so instead of the bombs just dropping straight down when they go off, they explode in a plus shape, which isn’t all that big a deal until you have 10 go off in a line. Because of that gameplay turns into a balance of shooting and dodging enemies and running cleanup on their remains. It gets a lot easier once you’ve collected a few sheepies, though.
The powerup in Gridrunner++ is, of course, a sheepie. It not only increases the score multiplier but also gives you a ghost ship that fires vertically both up and down. Its shots aren’t as strong as the main ship’s, but seeing as the ghost doesn’t take damage and you can stack up to 9 of them at a time, they quickly become indispensable. There are a few good reasons to hold off getting the sheepie powerup when it first appears, though. Even on the earlier levels, zipping up the screen is a great way to get an enemy in the face, exploding a pixel or two away from your goal. If you do manage to get it just before inevitable doom the ship de-rezes for a second, granting a tiny little window of invulnerability, which is just what you need for a quick flick of the mouse to send you to safety. The final advantage of waiting is the sheepie save, which is needed when all hope is lost and your ship is nothing but shards of pixel-shatter falling to the bottom of the screen. If you can steer the wreckage onto a sheepie, you won’t get the bonus multiplier but it will save your life. High level play means conducting a careful symphony of focused firepower and sheepie management, zipping into danger to grab salvation while strings of enemies swarm the screen and bombs cut the play field into tiny zones of limited safety. Play Gridrunner++ with your favorite mouse or trackball and it’s an instant ticket to The Zone, where your mind gets out of the way of your reflexes and a near-zen state of calm allows you to pull off moves you’d swear simply aren’t possible by mortal man.
As of today the PC version is 100% free. Gridrunner++ plays just as well now as it did in 2002, and its pixel-shatter stylings make it look right at home with today’s indie-retro gaming. Gridrunner++ is 4MB of pure reflex-based gaming perfection, and still holds up as the greatest arcade shooter ever made. Download it here and enjoy the free trip to The Zone.