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Sky Gunner
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Sky Gunner is one of the most underrated and underexposed games of all time.  It came from Atlus, the team responsible for the RPG hit Nocturne, but Sky Gunner got absolutely zero advertisement and publicity.  I only picked it up because I saw it tucked in a corner somewhere and thought the box art looked neat.  I fired it up, saw the anime opening, and thought "Aww yeah.  I'm going to love this game."  Sky Gunner turned out to be Star Fox with anime trappings.  Which is to say that it completely rocks.  Don't let the cutesy poo anime characters fool you.  Sky Gunner is a serious game.  Not Final Fantasy serious, but the story is serviceable and humorous too, with stellar voice acting in both English and Japanese.  However it's the action that will definitely suck you in.
 
The artistic direction of the game is gorgeous.  The game takes place in a fantasy European town that doesn't exist, where people look like humans with big eyes and cat tails, and where mercenaries for hire fly stylized planes that look like they could've been designed by Miyazaki himself.  But don't let the beauty dazzle you.  There's plenty of shooting to do.  Take control of one of three of these mercenaries, each one representing the game's three difficulty levels, and head into the action.  Sky Gunner offers the players a lot of freedom.  You can choose to control the plane with either a simple arcade style or a more complex airplane style with pitch, yaw, and roll.  The game also offers two settings for sifting through the enemies.  But best of all, Sky Gunner offers a freer sense of flight than Star Fox.  Climb straight up or dive out of the sun.  Your only limits are the stages' edges and the ceiling and floor.

The action is intense and engaging.  No matter which settings you choose, the combat is always stylized and arcadey.  Dodge, barrel roll, weave through streams of fire, take down tiny fighters, or hack apart huge flying fortresses.  Every plane of the game's heroes has different special abilities and different weapons from each other.  The weapons are crazy, too.  The missiles are fireworks.  The bombs are pumpkins.  And the main weapon for taking down capital ships is a huge sword.  But it all adds to the charm of the game.  However the brilliant part of this game lies in how much this 3D shooter takes after its 2D vertical shooter brothers.  The combat system incorporates a brilliant level of depth that must be seen to be believed.  Like Star Fox, Sky Gunner gives you the ability to lock onto and blow away multiple enemies in one shot for extra points.  This time around you can perform up to three lock ons instead of one like in Star Fox.  Sky Gunner also has an intricate combo system where the bonus multiplier goes up higher and higher the faster you dispatch your opponents.  You can also perform cool, and sometimes necessary, chain reactions against the turrets in the game in which the explosion of one busted cannon takes out the next cannon over, and so on in a domino effect.  And of course no shooter is complete without a scoring system, and Sky Gunner has the best I've ever seen.  The true treasure of any good mercernary is money.  Of course you never buy anything in this game.  Money is just a good substitute for points.  But everything affects your cash flow.  Too itchy on the trigger finger?  Every bullet fired and expended secondary weapon costs money to replace.  Lost a transport you were protecting?  Cough up the dough to replace it.  To turn a profit, you have to be a savvy shooter, and the game even grades you after you beat it.

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There are other nice touches here and there in the game.  For instance, unlike other shooting games, the camera doesn't focus on your hero but instead on the enemy you're currently targeting.  This poses slight problems concerning trying to control your plane and watching where you're going.  But for the most part, this camera system works, and thankfully, crashing into a building merely deflects your plane and does no damage.  In fact, in this game you don't even have a health meter.  You have a balance meter that wobbles back and forth each time you get hit.  Get hit too many times and your plane gets thrown off balance and you start to plummet.  However you have a limited time in which you can struggle to regain control of your plane.  Other than this, your time in the game is basically limited by how much fuel your plane has.  This may turn off some hardcore players, but I had no trouble with it.  The replay value of this game is also surprisingly high.  Even though there are only six missions per hero, and most of them are shared by all of them, each hero has a different objective within the missions, and each hero also has his or her own unique solo mission, so you'll definitely want to play all three heroes.
 
Unfortunately, every game has flaws, and Sky Gunner has one big one.  In many spots, when the action gets too heavy and intense, the game suffers terrible slowdown.  It's usually pretty brief and hardly gets in the way of enjoying the game, but it's frustrating.  Thankfully, the developers were kind enough to throw in a code to unlock the game's 30 fps mode.  This gets rid of the slowdown but has the drawback of making the game less pretty.  Ah well.
 
Other than that nuisance, for the life of me I can't see why this game can't very well be one of the best 3D shooters ever made.

Grade: Great

Short game gallery

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Aww nuts

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Zooming past a flying fortress

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Wild Wild West? It's a giant mechanical spider

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