Light gun games are ingrained in my head as peak “video gamey” video games. My first introduction to them was like many others in the arcades. Big cabinets like Area 51 and Time Crisis blared their intros for all to hear, hoping to eat up your quarters for a few minutes of action. Unlike other games in the arcades though, these games utilized the aforementioned gun peripheral to interact with the screen and play the game. Very quickly the on-rails shooter became something I associated with pizza joints, arcade fun times, and video games.
In the 90s, home consoles rarely emulated anything to the scale an arcade cabinet could offer. It made sense too: the Super Nintendo, as mighty as it was, just didn’t have the hardware to handle Capcom’s CPS II games like Street Fighter Alpha 2 as well as a full-fledged arcade cabinet would. The same would be true for these unique shooting games. Not only did the Super Nintendo struggle to compete with big ol’ arcade machines in terms of hardware, it also needed to get a way to emulate the gun-in-hand arcade experience at home by using a modified light gun. Without getting too deep into the logistics of owning the console, a light gun (or two if you wanted to play co-op), a game that supported it, and a television that could play it, needless to say the barrier of entry was high.
Thankfully that started to change a bit as home console technology began to improve. The advent of the Sony Playstation brought compact discs to the forefront as game medium, and this made porting over arcade games a bit easier. This also made bringing light gun games like Area 51 and Time Crisis, among many others, a much simpler task. Perhaps greater still during this time was the birth of what would become the default light gun to use on home consoles: Namco’s GunCon.
Light gun history lesson over, so now let’s talk about Elemental Gearbolt.
We’ve gone over many, many Playstation RPGs here before. Typically the standout ones have something they do really well. Final Fantasy IX for example has a wonderful story, characters, combat system, use of color, soundtrack, and more. Suikoden is known for it’s extensive playable characters. Parasite Eve are Square’s horror-themed turned based shooter RPGs. The list goes on and on. Doing something unique and fresh makes you stand out among your peers, and if you haven’t pieced it together already, that is precisely what made Alfa System’s Elemental Gearbolt one of a kind: a light gun RPG.
Melding together the high fantasy seen in most RPGs at the time and the edginess of wielding a gun, Elemental Gearbolt was a strange combination. The story, told through at the same time good looking and horribly done anime cutscenes, is full of your standard RPG affair: a tyrannical ruler, a group (I think?) out to stop them, and bad guys everywhere along the way trying to thwart your plans to save the world. But instead of navigating menus and traversing an open world, you’re aiming down the sights of your gun and moving mission to mission. The game took the core mechanics of two wildly different genres and somehow made a competent game. There’s elemental advantages, multiple bullet types to use, levels to gain, hidden objects to shoot, epic boss battles bookending each stage, and more. If it’s a basic trope of either genre, chances are its in there.
While I would easily say the game is worth a look, I would hesitate to say it’s a must-play. Reason being the exact cause for the game’s notoriety in the first place: the light gun. Elemental Gearbolt is playable without a gun controller using a regular PS1 pad, but it is painfully clear the game is designed to be played with a light gun in hand. Enemies move relatively quickly around the stage, and aiming by moving a cursor via a D-Pad is near impossible. Switching between bullets/elements is also a struggle on a pad, and done much easier with a tap of a well placed button on the GunCon. The North American release of the game was also notorious for being inexplicably more challenging than the Japanese release, making the game that much more unforgiving for controller players.
Though unique, and something special you won’t see anywhere else on the original Playstation, Elemental Gearbolt is as niche as a game can get. At the time of release the barrier for entry was steep, and that has grown even steeper in today’s gaming landscape thanks to changes in televisions, the game seeing zero ports, and retro gaming being crazy with used prices sometimes (the game is currently averaging about $200 complete). All of this to say the game is solid, superbly so! Just as long as you can get together the rig to play it.