The original release of Azure Striker Gunvolt on the Nintendo 3DS came at an interesting time. Hype was at an all-time high for the development of Mighty No. 9 and it’s creator Keiji Inafune. The original Blue Bomber had returned to the spotlight with the Mega Man Legacy Collection. Amid all this, Inti Creates comes out of a relatively quiet period with a new, suspiciously blue hero that walks and talks like developer’s own Mega Man X? The timing was right, but Gunvolt had big shoes to fill.
Now, long after the dust has begun to settle on Might No. 9 and Mega Man has nestled back into the collective consciousness of gamers old and new, Azure Striker Gunvolt has carved out a substantial place a classic sub-genre. After two well-received releases on the 3DS, the series has made the jump to the Nintendo Switch with the Azure Striker Gunvolt: Striker Pack.
Including the original Gunvolt and it’s sequel, this marks the second time Inti Creates has attempted a port to a much more powerful platform than the 3DS (the original game launched on Steam in 2015.) With some minor (but crucial) tweaks to performance, the Azure Striker Gunvolt: Striker Pack offers players a ton of value for the price and should be an instant go-to for Switch fans hunting Mega Man-style thrills.
What’s in a port?
Inti Creates aims to mark the Striker Pack‘s jump to the Switch with improvements to the core experience for both volumes. It’s not hard to see why: the jump in hardware power gave the team a lot more to work with, and a lot higher fidelity to live up to.
They started with the basics, of course, by ramping both games to 60 fps up from the 30 fps cap on their 3DS versions. The improvement is noticeable as the whole experience is much smoother, and the action a good deal sharper on screen. It may not seem like much in a side-scroller like this, but when the action ramps up it helps sort out the chaos on screen.
The Striker Pack also features enhanced event screens and text, upscaled to higher resolutions on the Switch. The look of these anime-styled events is impressive in both handheld and TV mode, and the text is clear and well balanced. The menus and overall UI layout are adjusted as well, moving things that previously lived on the 3DS’s bottom screen into better view, or reach; some touch-based features are now mapped to button configurations. Overall navigation feels smooth and natural, an the in-game HUD never feels like it’s in the way.
With these visual improvements, it’s disappointing that the core visuals feel a little stretched. Gunvolt‘s aesthetic is built on the high-definition pixel work of earlier games like Mega Man X, and these visuals work well at lower resolutions. There are times, however, that the disparity between the original game and the Switch’s HD screen are all too apparent. Moments that felt crisp and clear on the smaller 3DS screen now feel a tad overblown.
The differences in visual quality are certainly not game-breaking, however, and the games’ looks are still incredibly enjoyable. Inti Creates has found a good balance of HD story boards and pixel sprites, and it blends well with few exceptions.
The Switch version of the Striker Pack also includes all of the DLC and extras from the 3DS version. Extra game modes, additional bosses, and even the amusing (but punishing) Shovel Knight amiibo fight are all included, as are extra Muse songs. It may not surprise many to see these extras brought over, but it just goes to highlight how much there is to be had with this pack, without any added DLC pricing or waiting for content to unlock.
Look and Feel
Inti Creates has a solid history of impressive-looking games, and the Azure Striker Gunvolt is certainly among the most impressive they’ve ever built. Despite the scaling to fit the Switch’s native resolution, the pixel art that comprises most of the game is beautifully crafted, and the animation is wonderfully smooth. Particles and effects are crisp and impressive at 60 fps; Gunvolt’s lightning jumps right off the screen, and Copen’s EX Weapons feel impactful and fierce.
The game feels as if careful attention was paid to every detail, which does make the segments that don’t scale well stand out a bit more than they might otherwise. Still, it’s one of the most attractive indie games on the Switch right now, including Inti Creates’ own Blaster Master Zero. Unlike Blaster Master, though, the Striker Pack opts to keep the action close to the camera, rather than create tiny sprites like the former’s overworld tank combat.
It’s an acceptable trade off, if a little jarring at times. Not unlike the game’s insistence on telling a story over the top f the action. The Striker Pack features a fairly solid story line, told primarily through cutscenes scattered throughout the missions at key times. It’s a solid story that rewards those paying attention, and the inclusion of Japanese voiceover for every character is a welcome detail that gives it a special kind of polish.
The additional story plays throughout each mission, however, and sometimes gets in the way of the action itself. While you can turn off these “Story +” bits in the options, it does feel like you’re missing key worldbuilding details that might be enjoyable if they were presented when things are a little less hectic. On rare occasions, the dialogue windows telling these stories would even get in the way of enemies on the edge of the camera, causing a stutter in the fast-paced action.
The sound design shines brightly, though, a great mix of sci-fi arcade stage music and the “Lumen” character’s own J-pop stylings. Gunvolt‘s tendency to connect its soundtrack to the story through Lumen is a nice addition, and the songs themselves will likely bring back some memories for players who enjoy the music culture surrounding Japanese anime. Having Lumen’s songs pop up without warning when you hit a kudos streak is a great addition, ramping up the intensity as you blaze through stages and your enemies.
Play on the Switch is largely unchanged from the original version. Gunvolt can still tag enemies and shock the bolts off them. Copen is still a dynamic dashing sharpshooter that relies heavily on his variable EX weapon system for big damage. The game feels fluid and precise with the Switch controls, and no matter the configuration (docked joy-con, loose joy-con, pro controller) everything is well mapped and accessible, lending well to the game’s focus on quick reflexes and expert timing.
The original Azure Striker Gunvolt has received some extra balance adjustments, bringing some of its systems more in line with those found in Azure Striker Gunvolt 2. The “kudos” system is now consistent across games, making the whole experience a bit more coherent across titles, and supporting the “speedrun” challenges inherent to the game’s core mechanics. In both games, you’ll build “kudos” for navigating stages and damaging enemies, and lose them if you take damage. Kudos give you special bonuses to your end-of-stage score and change subtle things like the background music to ramp up the intensity.
One of the core strengths of the Gunvolt series has always been the robust equipment system, and that’s certainly in full effect this time around. Gunvolt and Copen both collect weapons as they progress, giving them new abilities and options to attach each progressive stage a different way. Gunvolt’s blasters and Copen’s EX weapons can be switched on the fly, letting you flex your playstyle to suit the enemies in your path.
I can’t help but feel that the combat options become a bit arbitrary after a while. Unlike classic Mega Man games, bosses and enemies don’t’ seem to be any more or less susceptible to any given attach option. Any of Gunvolt’s blasters are simply a device to ramp up damage from his flashshield, and any of Copen’s EX weapons work equally well putting the hurt on bosses. It’s a fun system and gives the game variety, but it feels like there’s unrealized potential there.
Adding to the weapon options are other pieces of equipment that each hero can craft and wear. These items offer additional bonuses, like reduced damage or a double jump ability. Depending on how skilled you are and how well you’ve memorized the levels, these abilities can be a serious boost. Crafting these items requires parts that you collect after missions. Some rare parts are hidden within each stage, and once you complete a stage you can “draw” for other parts a number of times based on your performance.
The bonuses themselves are well balanced and useful, but it can sometimes feel like pulling together the parts you need leaves you woefully under-equipped for the majority of each game’s campaign. Missions can be replayed, with more items rewarded each time, but I found that after completing each campaign once, I barely had enough resources to synth even one item, much less fill out my entire loadout.
It’s the kind of system that seems to expect players to grind through repeat missions to build their preferred loadout, which fits well with the timed missions and damage-based “kudos” system. Still, it calls into question the purpose of crafting items that don’t feel crucial to completing the core game. You rarely need buffs if you can dodge anything thrown at you, and this feels like the kind of mastery the game urges players to achieve by the end.
Despite a few particular visual oddities and some unrealized gameplay features, the Azure Striker Gunvolt: Striker Pack is a worthwhile addition to any Switch owner’s catalog. It’s a hallmark of indie games that Nintendo has helped support since the 3DS, and a fantastic realization of what I suspect was a difficult porting process.
Bringing a game this detailed and precise from the smaller, less demanding handheld to the relative powerhouse that is the Nintendo Switch is the result of a team that knows their genre and its fans well. It’s certainly one of the best indie games to land on the console yet, and with both Gunvolt and Gunvolt 2 on offer with all their DLC add-ons, the value for your dollar can’t be undersold here.
A physical release of the game is planned for later this fall, and collectors hoping to keep something tangible from the series may want to hold out until then. Still, if you’re itching for some high-adrenaline run-and-gun action, the Striker Pack is well worth the trip to the eShop.