It seems one of the MegaDrive’s defining games and Treasure’s first title, Gunstar Heroes, was almost never released. You have to wonder whether Sega producer Mac Senour isn’t tooting his own horn a bit, since he is basically taking sole credit for the game’s arrival on shelves. Regardless, it was released, and a few hidden gems later (Dynamite Headdy and Alien Soldier – both good and quirky) Treasure revealed Guardian Heroes, their first game on a 32-bit console, in a generation that would see them rotate between Sega’s, Nintendo’s and Sony’s consoles.
I’ve been holding off on writing these impressions because I found that Guardian Heroes took some time to get used to. I was expecting a traditional style beat ’em up, likely in Treasure fashion one with tons of enemies, and I knew from videos to expect some basic RPG elements such as levelling up. All of these elements were ready and present, but what surprised me was the depth and character of the fighting system. This is a fast paced fighter alright, with blocking, double jumping, combos and magic. This isn’t your slow and clunky Streets of Rage or Final Fight (both of which I hold huge amounts of clunky and slow affection for), instead Guardian Heroes is much closer in feel to Street Fighter, by which I definitely don’t mean the original.
As well as the aforementioned fighting techniques, another wrinkle in the brawler formula is the variety of enemies, which range in size from towering trolls to wolves half your size. Clearly this is a departure from the humanoid yet colourful cast of biker gangs, transvestite punks and shadowy ninjas in the beat ’em ups of lore. Enemies are more or less chuckable depending on their size, with big enemies barely lifting off the ground while small enemies go flying. Juggling enemies is an effective way to dispatch of their health and gain experience for your character, as is casting magic. Magic can be accessed via a menu in game – this quickly becomes frustrating as an attack from an enemy closes the menu – but also handily via quick d-pad inputs, which cover every spell in your arsenal.
There are five characters available for use in the main story mode, all with entirely unique movesets and spells. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses as you might expect, and they are all customisable to some extent via the RPG system. Your characters gain in levels as they fight, and each level gained improves their vital statistics, whilst giving you, the player an additional point to add to the smorgasbord of stats. Most, but not all characters are flexible in their abilities, with a variety of magic spells and a strong physical presence, meaning players can opt to specialise in magic or brute force, or maintain an all-rounder approach.
The game is undeniably hectic. At times it is hard to keep track of where your character is amongst the teeming masses of baddies, flying blades and tentacles. When playing in two player cooperative mode the problem becomes even more pronounced. What’s more, for the vast majority of the game’s main story mode you are accompanied by an invincible, undead sidekick, the Golden Warrior. There is a menu which allows you to change his tactics, but frankly I can’t make any sense of it. There are about 8 options but in practice the only choices seem to be either having the Golden Warrior follow you around like a slavish dog and attack attack attack, or have him piss off and stand in the background looking bored, refusing to attack. I wish there was an option to make him go off a little ways on his own and attack, or even to do away with him altogether when playing with two players cooperatively. He is useful as an undead human shield and an additional attacker, but his attacks are unpredictable, so it’s harder to bash enemies and juggle them as you please. It by no means ruins the experience but it is niggling at times.
Niggles aside, I’m discovering a good deal of depth and potential beneath this game’s highly unique bonnet. Multiple branching paths in the story mode and a decent multiplayer versus mode (up to 6 players with multi-taps) are keeping me coming back for more, and the story mode is good enough that I am doing playthroughs on my own. This alone is far more than I could say for Streets of Rage or Final Fight which offer very little as singleplayer experiences. As a final note, the game looks great. The 2D character sprites are large, colourful, vibrant and sharp, while the backgrounds are atmospheric. The style is comparable to Mischief Makers on the N64, but WAY better executed and with bigger sprites.