Gather round the glowing Gameboy, my friends, for the next chapter in a tale of triumph has been written this month on its aging screen – a rather long-winded tale, to be sure, but being a dozen years in the making, you could spare me your eyes for a minute or ten. Although most anyone reading about our feature game at this point is probably steeped in the lore spurred by the original title all those years ago, it deserves mention once again for its own sake, if only to join the few but fervent tributes, reviews, and cult monuments to the game that pepper cyberspace. For you see, explaining its legacy in turn explains that of its maker, the group of renegade Konami developers who split from a dictatorship of unending sequels – the best of which they had a large hand in making – to form a small but mighty development powerhouse. It also played a small part in the reversal of the Genesis’ fortune, for the game that put the ‘Treasure’ on the map came at a time of great change and excitement in the game industry. And hey, you might learn something.
After a mere half-year in the making by a mere half-dozen people, the frenzied 2-player firefight that was Treasure Games’ first-ever title came out for the Genesis in the spring of 1993. It was, of course, Gunstar Heroes, a name that would echo through the years and never be forgotten by its ardent fans. But, under-promoted and under-appreciated in its time, little did anyone suspect that it had already set the bar for all action titles that would follow (not that many of them could ever match it, hence why it would appear in many a ‘Top Games of All Time’ list). Although its merits should have been obvious to anyone with eyes and working knowledge of a controller, publisher Sega couldn’t have truly predicted this; some initial reviews were even surprisingly lukewarm. Yes, the writers were idiots, but it was enough to convince Sega that an appropriate investment risk would be to package Gunstar Heroes with a Fruit Roll-Up and leave it to its own devices. In hindsight, this truly was a marketing travesty, folks, but it was learning experience, and Sega has (mostly) done better by Treasure ever since.
But now, after over a decade’s long wait, from a company that had never borne a sequel, and had left Konami to never do so again, a big miracle in a small package has arrived on our GBA’s – Gunstar Super Heroes is here, glory glory hallelujah!
However… is the Gunstar name a help, or a hindrance? Gunstar Heroes wore big shoes that were never really again filled, even by Treasure’s stellar follow-up releases, but those were not sequels of any sort, either. Which leaves fans everywhere who haven’t picked up the game with two nagging questions on their minds – was it worth the wait, and how does it (gulp) … compare?
It seems Treasure was fully aware of the weight of fan expectations, that the reputation of the first Gunstar was to us a sacred thing. Thus, as will be obvious to any GH devotee, the game is first and foremost a tribute to our memories. Level designs, bosses, music, weapons, characters – many have returned more or less unchanged from their first appearance, so much so in fact that this outing seems at times more a retelling of the first than its sequel. Whether this is good or bad depends largely on your point of view – originality is not absent from GSH, but it shares the stage equally with reused elements from the first game. To those who haven’t played before, prepare for a treat for all the senses. For those of us who have plunked endless hours into our Gennys via that unmitigatedly avant-guarde cart, this new game seems at times a little too familiar. It’s a delicate balance Treasure sought to maintain, and they do so admirably; however, for all its fan service, it is not without flaws.
The story flows akin to, and sometimes identically to, that of Heroes – after the events of its predecessor, the moon was blown apart and formed four new satellites to ‘Earth’. On these moons, the gems have fallen into the possession of General Gray’s minions, Pink, Green, Orange, and Black, and along with Colonel Red, they plan to use them to resurrect an ancient weapon to dominate the world of Gunstar. Only the twins, dutiful, puffy-pants-wearing Red and bandana-clad, cocky Blue, with the recon help of their gal pal Yellow, have a chance of defending their world once again from total war. There is more to it, as is revealed in the dialogue scenes of the two storylines on each difficulty, but you’ll have to see for yourself by picking up a copy. And yes, as you are about to see, it is worth it.
What newness we find with GSH comes largely in two forms – graphics and gameplay. A technical triumph in its time, Gunstar Heroes is likened to Neo Geo games due to its sheer graphical prowess more often than those on its native, less-powerful console, even fellow Treasure productions. Multi-sprite bosses gave the illusion of SNES Mode 7-style graphics and offered insane attack patterns, and countless animations and vibrant colors brought the unrelenting, gun-blazing action to life with no processing hiccups to be seen. In GSH, we bear witness yet again to the maximized potential of wavering hardware – never, ever again will there be a GBA game that looks like this. To pull it off, the two player mode had to be cut, but in exchange, the scaling and rotation powers of the handheld are played-up here, with entire stages at times at your command. In Moon 1, you are the gunner atop the barrel-rolling transporter ship, you are the ball in the rotating maze; in Moon 4, you are the hamster in the wheel, with the crab-like boss controlled by Don Jon (a.k.a. Black) in hot pursuit; in the outer-space stage, you’re the familiar ship in an unfamiliarly rotatable world. You might have to play to really get my drift, because stuff like this simply isn’t done every day. Everything else has been beauteously realized – explosions of liquid flame, sprite manipulation, endless parallax backdrops, etc. – but the aspect of rotation begets the most innovative gameplay aspects of GSH (even if they are throwbacks to yesteryear’s Sega productions, they’re literally a new spin on them), and the whole thing happens with nary a second’s slowdown.
Other than that, the second most important design aspect is the character control. There have been a lot of changes, some of which are improvements, on the control scheme from the first venture, but there is a bit of a void left by some of the eliminated moves. The introduction of a more acrobatic, melee-based combat style shifts the primary focus away from weapons, creating more of a need to use the returning slide and air kicks, and newly-added uppercut and dropkick. Gone is the grapple of old, which will be missed by most, replaced by a knife reminiscent of Metal Slug (albeit more of a machete). Also thrown out of the mix are the lesser-used block and turnaround skid. The knife is damaging, but without a means of hurling bombs at people and people at people, and the inability to wall jump from the screen edge lest there be a physical wall in place, some of the chaotic nature of traditional Gunstar action has been lost.
With the new balance of mobility versus firepower, the weapons system has been somewhat simplified, now with three weapons for Red and Blue respectively, one of which is unique to that character. They’re modelled in varying degrees after the weapons from the original – Chaser, Lightning, Fire, and Force – and, while they are no longer customizable through combining two weapons, there is now a gauge that, when filled by inflicting damage on enemies or collecting green star power-ups, will fire your selected weapon from a bazooka rather than the piddling normal gun. It’s a nice addition, but it can make certain parts of the game shamefully easy if you know what to do – and no, I’m not telling which.
Which brings us to a very pertinent and personal point about Gunstar Super Heroes – the difficulty. In truth no more than a medium-length affair, Heroes 1 was made longer and highly replayable by difficulty, and comparisons on this front us inevitable between the 16-MEG original and the 64-MEG successor. Yes, it is hard, but not in keeping with the steady curve we witnessed in its ancestor. Although suggesting that it may have required more time in development is a preposterous-sounding proposition given the 3 years it took to make, not to mention the gargantuan gap between Gunstar 1 and 2, GSH could have used a few more months to smooth out the difficulty curve from a rollercoaster ride to something more gradual. There doesn’t appear to be any particular order attached to the stage numbers, so to tackle Moon 2-1 is near instant death on normal, while Moon 3 is fairly short and simple (minus the fight with Seven Force, one of the few truly trying stage bosses). This means lots of replay value, but much of it breeding frustration. It is also short; while an allowance should be made for its portable nature, the first game has it beat hands-down in terms of length.
Sound. I may be giving it last billing, but in just the same manner as they rewrote the manual on Genesis graphics programming, Treasure turned its sound processor inside out with Gunstar Heroes. The same should be expected of their GBA effort, and while it is indeed fairly good, the source material is again very familiar to mine ears. The original soundtrack receives an injection of electronica/techno/house that doesn’t always keep the pace too frantic, but provides just the right nostalgic throwback to the Gunstar of yore. The sound effects are also more plentiful, with more voices present than ever before, but it’s pretty much the weakest point of the game’s aesthetic.
World Outlook: You can pick up an import version of Gunstar Super Heroes or the US version, which was just released.
+ Pros: Players old and young can pick this game up for a short gaming sprint, and find enjoyment in its simple, yet engaging gameplay. A worthy successor? Yes.
– Cons: Those very same players may find endless frustration or a cakewalk depending on their previous Gunstar heritage.
Overall: Now that I’ve utterly deconstructed the game, I can only hope you’re still interested – because the beating heart of GSH is one of awing action and great craftsmanship, one in the same as its parent’s. It may be jaded posturing from an over-analytical critic, but nothing will eclipse the original Gunstar Heroes. That comparison isn’t everything, though, and as far as handheld action games go, nothing will eclipse Gunstar Super Heroes.
Written by Katie Montminy.