|Title: Gunstar Heroes
Release Date: September 9th, 1993
Genre: Side-Scrolling Shooter / “Run & Gun”
Rating: ESRB E 10+
Back in the mid-nineties, I read more than my fair share of gaming magazines. One of my fondest memories was picking up an issue of Expert Gamer and looking over their “Game Over” section. This was a page or two devoted to screenshots of games’ endings; the goal was to guess which games they were showcasing. I briefly looked over each picture and the caption that offered hints and contexts, until I saw one I knew I recognized. “If you know this one,” the caption read, “you really are an ‘Expert Gamer’.”
I know the ending of Gunstar Heroes all too well. When it first arrived on the scene in 1993, it was truly a niche classic. With the passage of time (and its release on the Wii Virtual Console), it seems to have gained a cult following that even inspired an underrated Gameboy Advance sequel. If the game has still managed to slip past your radar, however, I shall do my best to honor my experiences with the game then and now:
I’ll cover the game’s weaknesses right away, in effort to spend more time highlighting its strengths. For starters: the game’s story is nothing to write home about. The game’s heroes are attempting to collect four mystical gems in order to thwart the revival of an all-powerful entity that can destroy the world. Since you’ve all played games with a plot like this hundreds of times over the past few decades, I imagine it’s easy to see where the plot leads and ultimately how the game ends. The story, like many short but sweet games of the 16-bit era, is merely a fickle and light diversion to give players a light sense of purpose to move from start to finish. And clearly, with a cast of characters whose names are Red, Blue, Yellow, Green and Dr. Brown, it’s easy to see that this game’s plot doesn’t get too deep or philosophical.
Length is another weakness of the game. Veterans of what is often referred to as the “run & gun” genre will have this game’s easy mode cleared in just under an hour. Obviously, as you increase the difficulty, the game becomes harder and harder to complete, but even the highest level of difficulty can be conquered by lunchtime. The game offers enough variance to keep players coming back, so this weakness is conquered by a fair amount of replay value (especially if you have a friend to experience the game with you), but I cannot easily dismiss the shortness of Gunstar Heroes when trying to give it an honest review.
There are two areas in which this game absolutely shines. One of those involves its overall presentation. The game’s soundtrack offers some of the finest examples of music representing a genre filled with games like Contra, and the various sound effects (mostly explosions) compliment it well. Far more impressive are the game’s visuals, which were noteworthy enough to be highlighted in the Art of Videogames exhibit at the Smithsonian. The game’s seven stages take you into forests, underground, on an airship, inside a bizarre board-game fortress, and even into space. Every single one of these levels is eye-candy, and makes for a worthwhile gaming experience. The characters, despite less-inspired names, are also drawn with heart. The sprite-work for both protagonists and the hundreds of enemies they’ll massacre is nothing short of definitive for the Sega Genesis, much less anything the 16-bit era dares to throw at you.
Far more important than even artistry is gameplay though, and that’s where Gunstar Heroes is at its best. I cannot easily describe how much this game throws at you. Handfuls of enemies can fill the screen at one time, and with the power of various weapons, there will be a lot of exploding bits and action. Gunstar Heroes would make Michael Bay absolutely giddy, and is sure to impress fans of the genre who have yet to encounter the title.
My greatest memories of this game involved playing through it with my brother and other close friends. The multiplayer of this game is groundbreaking for its time. Both players can wreak absolute havoc without any lag or slowdown, whether playing on the Sega Genesis or the much more capable next-gen systems. When one player dies, another can split his life to revive his comrade. If one or both players are quite skilled, the two can carry each other for almost the entire game without ever seeing the ‘Continue’ screen!
Players control Red (Free Shot) or Blue (Fixed Shot), the two main Gunstar Heroes. Red can move while he’s firing, but he is restricted to shooting in only one direction. Blue can fire in any direction, but he is unable to move while doing so. I’ve mastered both characters, but Red is definitely preferred of the two. (Note: two players can control the same character, but it may get confusing at times because there’s little variation between sprites.) While in the character select screen, you can also choose your primary weapon. These weapons are: “force”, a weapon with power that fires rapidly, “lightning”, which sort of acts like a laser, “chaser”, which homes in on enemies…and “flame”, which is…just as it sounds.
These primary weapons can be combined to produce devastating and versatile super-weapons. Carriers appear towards the middle or end of the game’s levels to provide additional weapons for combining purposes. My favorite is the lightning plus chaser combination that creates a homing laser that surrounds enemies and tears across the entire stage. As I’ve said previously—Michael Bay would be absolutely giddy. It makes me giddy too.
The game’s bosses are definitely the pinnacle of the whole experience. Most of the time, you’re pitted against giant machines that require skill and prowess to conquer. The game honestly doesn’t require much strategy as you make your way through each level, but the bosses require some wit in addition to…explosive power.
Gunstar Heroes is truly the game that created a legacy for Treasure. It inspired games with a much larger following like Guardian Heroes (Sega Saturn, XBLA), as well as games considered niche, like the two Sin & Punishment games for Nintendo 64 and Wii. Even more noteworthy though: a handful of developers from Gunstar went onto create a game close to the hearts of many members of the Operation Rainfall Staff—a game from ATLUS called Code of Princess.
Gunstar Heroes is available on the Wii Virtual Console, PSN, and XBOX Live. While it made its initial comeback on the Virtual Console, I would highly recommend purchasing it on the other consoles for their trophies / achievements and (more importantly) the fact that they allow online co-op.
There is a history here. Why? Because even when it first arrived on the Sega Genesis, I knew the game was destined to become timeless.
Oprainfall’s Review System:
5= A Nearly Perfect Game. A must buy game. This game is as close to perfect as can possibly be.
4= A Great Game. You should seriously consider buying this game if you own the console.
3= A Good Game. The game will likely appeal to the fans of the genre or series.
2= A Poor Game. The game has some issues. Only the most devoted fans of the genre or series should buy this game.
1= A Dreadful Game. We cannot in good conscience recommend this game to anyone, it is that bad.