As much as I like games that are successful on purpose, I always find games that are accidentally successful infinitely more intriguing. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something rewarding about coming across these kinds of games. They’re like a secret treasure that you feel smart for discovering. Case in point: Speed Power Gunbike. It plays like a hybrid between a racing game and an action game, and it might be based on a licensed property. That would certainly explain the somewhat melodramatic storyline.
Anyway, Gunbike is a more complicated game than it lets on. What at first looks like a fast-paced game slowly turns out to be frantic and disempowering. On some levels, it’s almost scary. It’s a perfect complement to the game’s more overt action, lending Gunbike a sense of depth that it might not otherwise attain.
To the few people who already have exposure to Speed Power Gunbike, that might sound like an odd description. In fact, it’s more tempting to look at this as a typical action game. That’s certainly how Gunbike sells itself in its opening tutorial. Here, you find yourself in a sleek, Tron-esque environment, piloting a machine that can switch between three forms: a robot, and two bikes optimized for speed and maneuverability, respectively. Here, the emphasis is on fast-paced action scenarios, and I have to admit, the game’s pretty good at them. Gunbike might feel simple and saddled down with awkward controls, but oddly, those work in the game’s favor. Simplicity translates into a well-defined, easy to play game. And awkward controls translate into importance weaknesses each form has that the others balance out. Combine all that with the game’s emphasis on quick skill, and you should have a very exciting experience.
Yet I’m not quite sure calling it “an exciting experience” fully captures what’s actually happening with the game. After all, we haven’t even discussed what the game actually is. Look at the levels, for instance. Each one is lonely and threatening. They’re always either some big empty road or some big empty labyrinthine mess. Never once did I look at these environments and think to myself, “This is a place where people live.” Save robots and machines hell-bent on murdering you, these areas are completely barren. And the only response you have isn’t to fight these threats head-on, but to avoid them altogether, hoping you can complete the level in the very short amount of time that you’ve been granted.
In short, navigating this world makes you feel vulnerable, and your only means of interacting with that world force you to confront that vulnerability. This is certainly an interesting mix, taking what are typically horror elements and appending them to an action title. It’s also a mix I’ve seen in countless terrible games, Alone in the Dark being the prime example. Yet unlike that game, Gunbike surprisingly doesn’t end up worse because of this mix. Somehow, it manages to balance the two extremely well.
If I had to point to a single reason why that is, I’d point to where the game’s coming from. When we usually see these kinds of mixes, it’s because some developer decided to add action elements to a horror game. I’m not entirely sure why they continue to do it, because as far as I can tell, it never works out. While I understand the underlying motivation (the thrills that action bring would complement the game’s horror core), I’ve only ever seen it result in clumsy games. Layering action elements on top of a horror game frames that game as being about overcoming threats with power. Given how most horror works, the game now feels clumsy and awkward to manage. Meanwhile, the action elements prevent the encounters from ever truly feeling scary.
Speed Power Gunbike deftly avoids such problems because it never started off as a horror game. It started off with action as its premise. It focuses less on terrifying you, but more on exciting you. (The two emotions are similar, but still distinct.) Because of that, the two approaches finally complement each other the way they should. The “horror” elements (for lack of better phrasing) add a sense of urgency and powerlessness to your time in the game world. And the action elements provide an outlet for that powerlessness without necessarily contradicting it. In the end, Gunbike is a more nuanced game than it might initially let on.
Still, I can’t help but feel that the game’s feelings of vulnerability are far and away its strongest aspects. So you can understand my slight disappointment that the game couches those feelings in the guise of a typical action game. I’m not trying to undermine that approach; I’ve already outlined how well the game can succeed on those merits alone. In fact, the only major faults with the action approach come in the boss encounters, which usually amount to aggressively rubbing up against a robotic baddy until he decides he’s not comfortable with your sudden affection. Other than that, though, Gunbike succeeds on its own terms.
Despite that, I look at a game like this and feel like it’s selling itself short. Here we have a game that managed to pull off what many have written off as an impossible task, and what’s more, pull it off well. Yet Gunbike still presents itself in a more conventional light, hiding away that extra layer of complexity. While I’m fully aware that such a layer is completely accidental to the game’s design, I still appreciate what came about from those accidents.