For as long as shoot ’em up games have maintained their corner in the video game industry, they’ve almost always been solo affairs. From Space Invaders to Ikaruga and everything between, you rarely have additional players involved in the bullet mayhem. Many of these games experiment with hectic co-operative modes, sure, but it’s slim pickings if you want a bullet hell game where you actually fight another player. NEOGEO classic Twinkle Star Sprites is perhaps the one shining example of competitive, fighting game-esque shoot ’em up. Now, over 20 years later, Rival Megagun has arrived to rekindle that torch of competitive shooter excellence.
Traditionally, scrolling arcade shooters pit one player-controlled ship against an endless assault of AI enemies and their breathless barrages of bullets. Rival Megagun maintains that, but with the twist that there’s a second screen beside yours that’s occupied by a rival ship. The two of you are manoeuvring through identical levels and enemy waves to see who will be the last one standing. You can attack the swarms of mindless enemies as long as you want, but if you really want to win, you’ll need to watch both screens and bring the fight directly to your opponent.
One of the main ways you can do this is through the combo system. As you destroy enemies on your screen, you’ll build a combo meter and deploy drone spawns onto the screen of your rival. When your combo expires, these spawns activate and send a barrage of enemies directly at your opponent, a little like when you drop a wall of blocks on you opponent in head to head Tetris. A smart player will string together high combos, but you’ll also need to be careful not to get too greedy, or you might get hit by a stray bullet and lose your combo entirely.
Destroying enemies and building combos also fuels your power meter, which lets you launch your own bullets directly at the enemy. Doing so requires you to stop firing at enemies in order to charge this attack up, which introduces a huge risk/reward system that I loved balancing on. Firing missiles directly at the enemy might be a good idea, but is it worth letting your own screen fill up with beasts and bullets while you charge it up? The push and pull of managing these different types of attacks was always a palm-drenching challenge.
If you manage to fill your power meter all the way up, you’ll be able to transform into the titular Megagun, a giant bullet-hell boss that occupies the top of your rival’s screen. Not enough shoot ’em ups let you play as the boss, and Rival Megagun nails the power fantasy perfectly. Megaguns have four different types of attacks that fill the screen with a ridiculous amounts of bullets and barriers, and while it may seem daunting to be put up against a Megagun, skilled players will be able to learn the bullet patterns and come out unscathed.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a reward for surviving the onslaught of a Megagun. Managing to defeat your opponent’s Megagun form doesn’t win you the round, get health back or anything of the sort. Considering how powerful these transformations are and how long it takes to be able to use them, it’s strange that there isn’t any punishment or drawback to using one unsuccessfully. Since a player simply returns to their screen after being defeated as a Megagun, the ability is just a no-brainer to use as soon as you can, which ends up squandering the strategic and competitive potential that Megagun transformations have.
Thankfully, the competitive potential of the game is bolstered by the character roster. There are six different characters and each has their own type of bullet-pattern, direct rival attack, and Megagun transformation. One character may send missiles raining down your screen, while the other can fire homing mines from the bottom. They’re different enough to warrant changing the way you manoeuvre your screen and dodge projectiles, but I still wish the characters actually played a bit more differently to each other. There aren’t any fighting game style character advantages here, and there aren’t characters who specialise in a certain style of play. They all just have different version of the same tools, which adds a good amount of variety, but not a great amount.
Rival Megagun lets you battle it out against an AI opponents if you want, but even on Normal, they can be a little unforgiving. Playing against another person is where the game really shines, and where owning it on the Switch is a huge plus. The game supports docked mode or tablet mode, and with the simple controls, playing on individual Joy-Con is a breeze. The tiny screen of the Switch might make it a challenge to play the game in tablet mode, though, so you’re perhaps better off leaving it in the dock.
All of this bullet battling action is rendered in an art style that wears it’s classic arcade inspiration proudly on both sleeves. Levels and ships are drawn with chunky 2D sprites that grab your eye, while enemy and Megagun designs are fun and flashy. Stripped of context and taken off the Switch, this game could easily be on a classic arcade machine with anyone suspecting otherwise. The character designs try to go for a similar 90s action anime flair, but they fail to make an impression and come off a little amateurish compared to the tight sprite art in the rest of the game.
The game also has a single-player arcade mode, but it’s a little rough. Each character has their own story, made up of brief dialogue exchanges that could have used some extra polish in the writing department. It’s nice to get a glimpse into the backstory of the world, but none of the character stories felt like they went deep enough or added enough to the experience. Plus, if you simply want a story-free arcade mode for score hunting, you’ll need to mash through and wait through plenty of dialogue and transition scenes, which can bog down the experience some.
Rival Megagun isn’t a perfect package, but it offers a unique gameplay experience that nobody else is trying to create right now. Shoot ’em ups are blood-pumping adrenaline adventures, and adapting that into a competitive game is a feat that Rival Megagun does impressively well. While some gameplay balance issues and a bland story mode tarnish the final product, Rival Megagun is still an engaging title worth checking out if you and a loved one need a new way to settle your arguments.
Version tested: Switch – also available for PS4, XBO & PC