I was first introduced to Gunbird through its sequel, Gunbird 2. Capcom did shmup fans a favor by translating it and releasing it for the Dreamcast here in the U.S. I didn't know all that much about the original at the time, except that it did come out for both the PlayStation and Saturn in Japan. Of course, neither version made it here. As far as I can tell, Gunbird is one of the more sought-after Saturn shmups, although not quite as sought after as Radiant Silvergun or DoDonPachi. I've heard very little about the PlayStation version, but as far as I can tell, the two games are near identical.
Anyway, I lucked out one day while bidding on eBay and scored a copy of the Saturn version of Gunbird for a relatively low price. Upon receiving it, I noticed several things that had been changed between Gunbird and Gunbird 2. For one thing, almost the entire roster of characters in the original game didn't make it into the second. Gunbird also had a great anime opening - something that the sequel lacked (and with the Dreamcast's power, it would have looked so much better than the slightly grainy Saturn opening). Another thing that I noticed - and this annoyed me more than anything else - the powerup level of your character actually decreases over time in Gunbird. Just about every other shooter in existence lets you keep your power level unless you get killed, but not Gunbird.
The characters in Gunbird are certainly an interesting bunch. All of the heroes and the villians have their own interesting personalities. The heroes consist of Marion, a thirteen year old witch that's the only character to resurface in Gunbird 2; Yuan Nang, who looks like some kind of elf chick that flies on a cloud; Ash, an adventurer/explorer type; Tetsu, an old guy that flies around on a pedicopter; and Valnus, a Russian robot. The villians - who were replaced by the Queen Pirates in Gunbird 2 - are Rouge, the beautiful leader of the group that shows a lot of cleavage; Ace, who has hair that would put Wayne Static to shame; and Esu, the fairly silent, musclebound mechanic/pilot. The cutscenes between each levels and before boss fights will give you plenty of info on all of these characters - if you understand Japanese. As a nice touch, all of the dialogue from the cutscenes is spoken and printed onscreen.
Gunbird's overall setup is extremely reminiscent of another famous Psikyo game - Strikers 1945. The same powerups are even used in both games! Needless to say, if you're at home with any of the Strikers games, you'll feel just as at home with Gunbird. Now, for those who have seen the pictures of the game and were expecting a zany, wacky Parodius type of shmup... I'm sorry to disappoint you, but Gunbird isn't anywhere near as wacky as Konami's legendary series. Both Gunbirds have their moments, particularly in the endings, but the rest of the time, there's not a whole heck of a lot of zaniness going on. That doesn't detract from what is a solid shooter, though.
On it's easiest setting, Gunbird is a cakewalk. Jack up the difficulty to anything past midway, and you're in for the fight of your life - which is typical of most Psikyo shmups. The different attacks and specials that the characters have do help out quite a bit, of course, but if you're a shooter novice, I wouldn't recommend trying Gunbird even close to the default difficulty level. Of course, there are those of you out there that love a challenge - so to you, I say don't try Gunbird on any less than it's maximum difficulty setting.
As an interesting side note, apparently at some point before the game's release Atlus and Psikyo ran some kind of "illustrate the Gunbird characters" contest in Japan. All of the winning entries - and every other entry they received - is archived on the disc! They range from absolutely horrible to damned impressive... it's an interesting cross section of Japan's amateur artistic talent. Of course, the professional art gallery is available for viewing as well. It'll take you a while to browse through the entire selection of pictures on the disc, though - I still haven't looked at them all, and I've had the game for the better part of a year now.