Speed Power Gunbike is one of the most challenging games to come around in a long time. OK, forget about it, the thing is impossible. It looks great. It may be the closest thing to a true anime-style mech game to ever hit the PlayStation console. It offers huge maze levels and boss arenas that are utterly mammoth. It's also incredibly tough to play. On the one hand, it will be weeks before anyone gets to the end of this one, which is a good thing. On the other hand, the average Joe is going to play this for an hour, never get over the steep learning curve, the sometimes awkward camera angles, or the individual shortcomings of each of the mech modes, and throw the disc out the window in a fit of rage.
It's 100 years in the future. You're on a team of three different, playable mechs, each having different stats for each of its three forms: bike, rally, and robot. The bike is the fastest and the most vulnerable - get hit once while riding and you'll fly off and spend almost ten seconds getting back to your hog. The rally mode is essentially a slower and more stable three-wheeler with a faster recovery time from spills. The robot mode is where the real action is. You can take a lot of hits without falling, and you can take out enemies with either an actual gun (which proves oddly ineffectual against most enemies) or with the powerful dash button, which propels you forward at high speeds - right through your enemies, leaving broken pieces of tanks and enemy robots littering the roadway. Speed Power Gunbike fully realizes the potential for transformation as a violent act. You don't just change into a robot, you burst into a death machine and surge forward into your enemies. In short, the game is true to its anime inspirations. The forms are all switchable on the fly, and you don't even have to slow down to transform. This is good because the entire game is a race against the clock. This is what makes Speed Power Gunbike so cool. Whether you're duking it out with a mega-mech boss or speeding through an industrial maze of warehouses, every level is ruled by a meter showing your mech's "Anergy." The meter slowly ticks down from 99 (as in percent of full power), and when it hits zero, your game is over. In a novel approach to game design, all damage is taken as a loss in time, whether that be the time taken to get up and run back to your bike or actual points deducted from the meter. Sometimes these are pretty brutal, like the Sunday drivers' giant mech in level six, whose deadly rockets take off around 30 percent of your life at a pop. And some of the mazes are so huge, if it weren't for the bonus time cubes that are hidden throughout the levels, you wouldn't stand a chance.
The three modes, and their orchestration, are so tough to master that Inti built an enormous tutorial program into the game, which takes about an hour to complete. It teaches you everything from transformation patterns, to bike steering, to dashing with the mech (the most effective means of taking out enemies and the toughest to master), and more. Plan on playing it all the way through - especially if you're a non-Japanese speaker playing the import version, since you'll probably experience more than a little difficulty with the manual.
The tutorial is invaluable, but even with its indispensable aid, plan on getting a few gray hairs before you master Speed Power Gunbike's frustrating controls. The robot is the most unwieldy. Unfortunately, it's also the most useful mode, so get used to it. It's so slow that getting anywhere (even turned around!) without dashing is almost impossible. L1 and R1 serve as useful rotating dash controls that spin you 180 degrees in a flash, but you can't get too dependent on them since dashing generates a surfeit of heat in your engine; after just a few seconds you overheat and are temporarily immobile and vulnerable to attack. The bike isn't much better, because it's so hard to steer. Slow banks are the rule here. There are powerslide buttons (L1 & R1 again), which work great for a sudden 90-degree turn in open space, but are real tough to use accurately once you're inside the close confines of the indoor maze levels, so plan on missing a lot of turns and crashing into plenty of walls. Neither the bike nor the rally has any real offensive capabilities to speak of, save for a few temporary power-ups, so near-constant transformation is the rule of the day.
The game looks great, but some of the camera work leaves much to be desired. The level designs are all very inspired, from grassy knolls where you get to "play" in the sun with your teammates, to the lightning-filled urban night sky of the techno-beholder boss, to futuristic highways that rival Mad Max's. Mech animation is fairly solid, although it's tough to tell whether vibrating exhaust pipes are an effect or a bug. Horizon pop-up is average, but there's little polygon dropout. The only true graphical flaw in the game is in the camera positioning, which is sluggish and awkward. It's a colossal pain in the ass to be fighting some of these juggernaut bosses and lose because you're looking the wrong way. Like a lot of third-person 3D shooters, heavy emphasis on rotation often leaves you staring at yourself in the face, rather than the direction in which you're travelling. Speed Power Gunbike seems to pull itself out of such predicaments with alarming lethargy.
Radio transmissions from your compatriots mean near-constant voice acting, which will obviously be of little use to non-Japanese speakers. It does manage to impart a sense of urgency to the game, but maybe just because bombardment with a foreign language does little to assuage your anxiety when you're racing against the clock. And Speed Power Gunbike is certainly anxiety-provoking. The question is at what point to draw the line between fun, creative difficulties - tough bosses, treacherous mazes, and white-knuckle races against the clock - and the irritating effects of poor design - slow camera response, stiff control - that so often pass themselves off as legitimate challenges. Speed Power Gunbike has plenty of both, so be warned, but any serious mech fan will want to at least pay this one a visit, especially if it arrives, translated, on these shores.