Gley Lancer begins on a scene far out in space, with two warring factions primed to face one another in combat. We don’t know who the combatants are or what their stakes in the battle are, and frankly, they’re not important to our understanding of the events at hand. The sturdy military march, the admiration for high level military tactics and machinery (both abstracted away from real situations) – these direct our attention toward action and plot. On this level we see a miscalculation on the heroes’ part result in the enemy abducting a commander with his entire ship. Upon hearing of this, the commander’s daughter (and protagonist of the game) Ensign Lucia Cabrock acts against military authority by commandeering a top secret military weapon to save her father.
Despite how strongly the game emphasizes this narrative premise in the beginning, it’s surprisingly quick to forget it. As soon as the first level begins, the plot is dropped in favor of a more straightforward approach to side-scrolling shooters. That said, I don’t want to disregard what may in look like an insignificant aspect of the game, since this aspect is vital to understanding the influences the team was working with and how exactly they worked with those influences. On the one hand, we have popular anime from the late 70s and throughout the 80s, like Space Battleship Yamato and Macross. On the other hand, there are Gley Lancer’s peers from around the time; most obviously R-Type.
Although the game proudly wears these influences on its sleeve, it’s hardly unique for having them. This is the same sort of “made for the people making it” project that I’ve seen from Silpheed, Android Assault, and Spriggan Powered, and that I’ve more recently discussed with Threads of Fate. Besides the obvious fact that the minds behind these games were either very experienced with a particular kind of game or entered the industry as zealous fans of the media they would later create (often both), the reason games like these are so common is because the method for creating them removes a lot of the creative pressure from the developer while offering up just as much potential. By working with a known property, the developer puts themselves in a position where they can recognize what made these various works resonate so, the various messages they express (and the various methods for doing so), and what elements they can remix for their own purposes. Trusted in the right hands, this approach to game design is capable of accomplishing great things.
I’m not sure this was the case with Gley Lancer. The game takes its enthusiasm for its source material too far, embedding itself so much in its own interests that it can’t stand outside them for long enough to do much of anything with them. So while its awareness of generic conventions rivals that of its peers, that awareness never connects with anything other than the presence of other objects in the media landscape. At best, its accomplishments only hold meaning in the most narrow of contexts, and at worst the game’s insular thought forms a tight bubble that limits both itself and its players to surface appreciation: performance of genre and a fetishization of technology both as a text and as a cultural object.
In this regard, the game isn’t much better than Runbow, although I should clarify that it’s a misleading comparison. Gley Lancer’s problems don’t stem from a slavish devotion to design principles in the vain hope that doing so will give it form. Instead, those problems are rooted in the game’s failure to envision any form for itself beyond the principles it’s given. Again, though, Masaya’s efforts in 1992 are hardly much better than 13AM Games’ in 2015. What the former has left us with is a game that makes more sense as a design exercise or as a demonstration of principles than it does as a coherent play experience.
Perhaps a few specific examples will elucidate the matter. For this, let’s return to the game’s introduction. What stands out here are the intricately detailed anime panels used to communicate Gley Lancer’s narrative. Panels like these were very common for console games at the time, and even putting that aside, it’s hard to say they’re technologically impressive, considering the deceptive amount of detail a limited number of shades can capture. Yet because these scenes communicate a greater amount of clarity than the game that follows, they feel technologically impressive. Part of me wanted to take the game up on its offer, even as another part instinctively resisted. “This spectacle is so enticing. It’s so well defined, so planned out.”, one though said. “But that spectacle only ever relates to itself.”, another thought countered.
In the end, the second thought won out. I recognized Gley Lancer’s aesthetic prowess as a series of pretenses that lack any greater substance. Some of the reasons for that stems from issues I’ve previously discussed. As impressive as the game might look, there’s not much the game can do with what it’s created. Its approach won’t allow for any of the fancy tricks from, say, Silpheed, where the visual/audio mix creates a distinct aesthetic performance. Gley Lancer’s flourishes either lack the context/characterization they’d need for that to apply, or they blend together more obviously and lead to more straightforward action. Other reasons lead us to understand this as a pretense more immediately. For all the music does to feign energy, it’s so subdued that it can only suggest that energy exists. Likewise, despite the backgrounds’ quick movement connoting speed and tense action, the fact that I can adjust my ship’s speed at will ensures that both are incidental to the experience of play. For Gley Lancer, things like this can only be tools in the player’s toolbox.
This suggests that the game is a very technically minded one. To elaborate on that, what features like adjustable speed indicate is a game that thrives on a deep understanding of the esoterica of shooters, pushes those features to their limits, and demands that players approach this game the same way the developers did while making it. This game would ask for highly technical performances from players. Dexterity would be needed, yes, but real play, real appreciation of the game can only take place at a distance through abstract comprehension.
Such an interpretation of Gley Lancer would align well not only with the game’s relationship with design principles, but with observable features of its design. The inventive weapons (balls that ricochet off surfaces, columns with limited range but omnipresent hitboxes), the minute control over speed, the various directions your options face – each of these elements fosters a strategic mindset within the player. By giving the player such finely grained control over how they play the game, Gley Lancer implies various situations where such a wide degree of control will matter.
Perhaps this is true at the higher difficulties, or for those more well versed in shooter sensibilities. For me, at least, the game’s strategic qualities refused to make themselves known. The reason is one I see recurring across many shooters from around this time: your bullets fire so rapidly and occupy so much of the space around you that no other being can challenge your presence. I believe I discussed the same point regarding Android Assault. What separates Gley Lancer, though, is how easily one reaches this state: two options, maybe a change of weapon, and that’s about it. The speed with which one reaches their full potential means that for most the game, raw strength might as well be the default mode of being. Furthermore, it’s a mode of being that clouds out any other possibility: technique, performance, aesthetic enjoyment, etc.
On the one hand, I end up with a surreal, uncomfortable experience of a game. In evacuating so much of itself for me and me alone, Gley Lancer creates and draws attention to this artificial emptiness. On one level the game is imposing, like it’s thrust me into the spotlight while rendering me periphery to the action it’s supposedly embedded me in. On a more immediate level, my relationship with the game is stiff, like I’m simply going through the motions it expects from me. Dodge through this gap; collect this weapon; shoot this wave of enemies. I know that this should assemble into something more than the sum of its part, and sometimes, the game achieves that with a rhythm I can neatly slot into. Unfortunately, such moments are few and far between. With nothing capable of posing a threat to me, there’s nothing to push me or the game to a limit where either of us can realize ourselves. All our current positions can do is trap us on the level of rote mechanical action.
I should clarify that I don’t think games should ultimately reduce to what the player’s relationship with them is. Applied in the wrong way, that argument risks reducing a game to how it enables a player to expand their own being, usually in a material sense. (OneShot falls into this very trap.) That said, I have difficulty finding alternate approaches to Gley Lancer that make any more sense. How does the game relate to itself? How does it relate to a context outside itself? Neither of these questions or any others like them illuminate our understanding of the game. In the end, Gley Lancer is doomed to the realm of theory, unable to transcend it and become anything more definite than that.