I’ve always maintained that 1993 was a great year for gaming, this months GOTM selection is just a perfect example of the statement if anything. I’m Olly023 and right now I’m gonna be writing up a legendary run n’ gunner for all you retrobates and one of my most favourite games of the 16-Bit era. A deserved Game of the Month for September 2018 and a long time coming: this is Gunstar Heroes!
Treasure are just one of those developers/studios in the industry that often get placed above others like Simba at Pride Rock. Few outfits out there can get the collective drool of (at least) retrogamers going, with their 90’s output especially being considered one of the best runs anyone ever has produced. Modern (western) equivalents would be the likes of Rockstar or Naughty Dog, where seemingly anything they do get folk hyped. Though every great developing house must start somewhere, and Treasure came out swinging from the start.
Yup, Gunstar Heroes is in fact Treasures very first release. Absolutely mind-blowing when you put it in perspective of how much praise the game continues to get as the years roll on. For a little history, Treasure were a group who broke away from Konami (perhaps sticking a finger up to the arcade giants before it was cool) to realise their own ideas without the major corporate beast breathing down their necks. Proverbially, that is. Whether intended or not, when you look at Treasures output it’s almost as if they were a ragtag bunch of show-offs, considering they went straight at the big boys of the industry, doing their own thing but better. That’s balls and deserves props.
For more lengthy and in-depth history on the creation of Treasure and of course Gunstar Heroes, it’s all been written about and discussed elsewhere. So, feel free to get that ad-blocker ready and have at it. Don’t wanna distract too much, but it’s worth looking into. Goog’s yer friend, nawmean?
If you’re a first time reader who genuinely has no clue to whether or not to give Gunstar Heroes a shot as it’s been 25 years since it hit shelves – well, you’re probably on the wrong site – but its accolades speak for themselves, much in the way it’s constant cycle of re-releases have as well. Indeed, you don’t even need to own a MegaDrive/Genesis to get your hands on GH nowadays! With the Treasure Box (as a part of Sega Ages) on PS2, Virtual Console/Xbox Live/PSN releases, iOS, Steam, the 3D classic release on Nintendo 3DS, etc. It’s almost a level of no excuses, so y’know. No excuse. Heck, even on the original console (which in fact is our preferred method of play, of course) there’s multiple options when you factor in that here in Europe it got top-billing in the “Classics Collection” 4-in-1 release (alongside Altered Beast, Flicky and Alex Kidd’s sole 16-Bit outing). The latter probably being the best bang for buck if you’re not a collector sort and just want the games.
What makes Gunstar Heroes so special to me personally, is that the game took a genre that was tiring and just ramped it back up. It’s not reinvention of the wheel, but it’s the equivalent of having a sexy alloy over one of those ugly space-savers. If anything it marked a point in history where the big boys had to sit up and take notice, as their bread and butter was suddenly in danger by a bunch of upstarts. Making it all the more awesome was the fact it was all done on Sega’s finest system, further negating the need for a SNES because as we all know after all these years, the SNES is poop. I kid. Kinda.
Being a fan of games like Mega Man and Probotector on the NES (as I was one of the very, very few back in the day), Gunstar Heroes just felt like the perfect progression of my tastes as a kid. It’s fast, it’s colourful, it’s responsive but above all else it’s insanely fun and yet rewarding. The kids who recently complained about Crash Bandicoot being tricky may want to stay away, as while I honestly believe the difficulty to be entirely fair, it doesn’t mean you’re just gonna plough through on first sitting unless you’re some kind of wizard.
Practically every moment no matter how fleeting with Gunstar Heroes is memorable. None more so than that of its characters, of whom are all designated colours. The main protagonists being Red and Blue, twins of the Gunstar family and brothers to sister Yellow and elder Green. There’s your Light-stand-in, Professor Brown and enemies such as Pink and General Grey. The story is needlessly complex, yet has its own “Japanese game design” charm, if you will. Basically, recover some gems and smash up the baddies to save the world.
Dipping back to the Mega Man comparisons, the first four stages of the game can be played in any order you fancy. But unlike Mega Man, there’s a much beloved (because ‘dammit we paid for this game give us a chance to play’) numerical counter for your health with unlimited continues, though it is a one life the level if over situation as you’d expect. But the mechanic that sets Gunstar Heroes a part is the awesome weapon situation. You can tag up various shot-styles to form new ones, which really adds both a layer of strategy while also upping the intrigue with a whole “wait, what if I do this and this – HOLY COW THE SHOTS TRAVELLING EVERYWHERE THIS IS AWESOME BEST GAME EVER”.
The fact there’s a multitude means to attack stops it from being too boring or samey, these methods include skidding and taking out the shins of the opposition, throwing goons, etc. In short, there’s a hell of a lot of play to this game that should make rivals in the genre blush, quite frankly. A large part of GH’s appeal and Treasure in general, is the fact there’s no shortcuts, it’s not just a copy-paste formula; it all works in tandem to create a deep and enriching experience not soon forgotten. It’s why when folk say “Gunstar Heroes is my favourite game”, it’s not just a cool, hipstery thing to say.. There’s very valid reasons as to why.
You’d think having EGM’s Best Action Game of 1993 in their library that Treasure would take full advantage and milk the franchise for all its worth. Treasure being Treasure, they didn’t. A part from the quasi-remake/sequel (a rarity from them, that also happened with Guardian Heroes (a former GOTM and my personal fav game of the 32-Bit generation) on the same console: GBA) dubbed Gunstar Super Heroes, there was never an attempt to string it all out. Gunstar Heroes can be seen as a one and done run n’ gun, but when you get things so right the first time around why even bother to contract sequelitis, even when from the era where such a thing was common. To an extent, this adds to the mystique and appeal of Gunstar Heroes. It’s about as close to a perfect game as you’ll find. Bold statement, but truthbomb!
I (very) briefly mentioned earlier about the games graphical appearance in terms of being colourful (and fast). But this glosses over a bit, so I need to just point out how bloody gorgeous this game really is. One of the major appeals then and now (such is the easy aging process of sprite-based video games in comparison to their polygonal brethren; a sexy 2D game will always be a sexy 2D game) is the gorgeous design, a design that often employs tremendous trickery that helped make Treasure stand out as masters of the MegaDrive craft, so to speak.
The sheer fluidity of some of the boss battles to this day remain absolutely jaw dropping. The smart use of scaling and perspective, the cartoon-like expressiveness of the characters – and just to think, all this was initially turned down by Sega due to the main sprite size being considered small! Madness, I tells ya. But GH really is a thing of beauty, that will always be best experienced from the warm glow of a CRT. Soz HDR 4k, but it’s just true. Your eyes wont deceive you, you’re in for a visual treat at every turn.
Speaking of small, the game was scaled down by M2 for the Game Gear in 1995. While attempting to maintain the majority of the core of what made the Gunstar Heroes great, much had to be scaled back for the 8-Bit platform for what was a very much 16-Bit game. Gone is the co-op mode (which I still haven’t touched on yet) and Black Dice’s Maze (which is one of those visual treats spoke about), but inserted is a jetpack level, etc. to “make up for it” and some of the graphical downgrades. Still very playable and an admirable port for sure, but the recommendation here is obviously to go with the original and best version of the game.
Ahh.. Co-op. From the days when couch co-op was a thing, Gunstar Heroes has got to be up there as one of the most insanely fun two-player games you could ever boot up. Seriously, get a mate round and have a blast on GH together and it’s guaranteed good time. It also works in the favour for the fact Red and Blue being the playable characters as twins, in the manner of Mario/Luigi being Bros. – makes a simple palette swap have context. Context being King and all, it’s just an added bonus of the many little details that help make the game so damn good.
Hopefully my brief outlining of Gunstar Heroes at least whets your appetite and gets you interested in playing, or indeed, replaying the game again 25 years on. It really is a masterpiece in every possibly respect and nothing I could write would ever do it justice. But from this man in 2018 and the kid in 1993 (still recovering from the Lex Express in the WWF) all I can honestly do is implore you to go and seek out one of the greatest games to ever grace a console.
It just so happens that thanks to its awesomeness, it’s graced near enough everything now so is fairly easy to go get your hands on it. If you regret it, then perhaps you need a new hobby, as this to many, myself very much included, is video game bliss. Long live Gunstar Heroes, all hail the mighty Treasure!