Sega Classics: Gunstar Heroes
Relentlessly innovative and a technical knockout, Gunstar is the real deal for action fans - by BenT
Once in a while, a game comes along that completely shatters our preconceived notions about what is and is not possible on a platform. Mega Man 2. Super Mario Brothers 3. Contra III. Axelay. Space Megaforce. Alien Soldier. Tekken 3. Gran Turismo. Banjo-Kazooie. Radiant Silvergun. Soul Calibur. These and others pushed their respective systems to the limits, astonishing and delighting those who've played them with their smooth gameplay and technological savvy. However, one game rises head and shoulders above the others, earning its place at the head of this elite group: Treasure's Gunstar Heroes. Gunstar came out in 1993, at a time when the Super NES was being touted as the technologically superior alternative to the aging, if popular, Sega Genesis. The SNES had all the right stuff, it seemed: scaling, rotation, a huge color palette, and a sound chip that was second to none. In contrast, the poor Genesis was beginning to look like quite the underdog.
Then Gunstar arrived.
It was a quiet launch, as Sega didn't seem to think the game was much worth promoting. After all, it was only the first game from an unproven new development team formed from ex-Konami employees. It was weird, too, featuring lots of anime influence in the look of the characters, who were named after colors, of all things. The box art that Sega created for the American version was appalling; even if a consumer were potentially interested in the game, the prospect of having
that ugly thing sitting in their collections for an extended period of time must have been daunting. Perhaps sensing this, Sega included a single Fruit Roll-Up with the game to sweeten the deal. Alas, snack-savvy shoppers knew that a much better price could be found on Fruit Roll-Ups at the supermarket, so this didn't really help. Needless to say, with little advertising and horrendous box art, the game didn't exactly fly off the shelves. (But at least it was enriched with Vitamin C, a claim which few games can make.)
There is ALWAYS something blowing up in this game.
That's a pity, because Gunstar Heroes is one of the most amazing platform games ever created, and a worthy successor to the crown once held by the Contra series. What makes it so good?
Simple: action, action, and more action. Gunstar never lets up, with an infinite stream of soldiers attacking you from every possible angle. This onslaught only pauses when you reach a boss, of which there are many. As such, it's a good thing that the control is superb, because you'll need every possible advantage to make it to the end intact. There's more than just running and jumping, though. Your characters can also jump kick, grapple along ceilings, flip downward off of platforms, slide, super slide, and throw the majority of enemies back at their comrades. (Of course, you could always elect to throw your unlucky friend if you're in a 2 player game...) This unprecedented level of control insures that you are always in command, and if your character dies... well, guess whose fault it was?
The weapon system is also noteworthy. It offers four basic guns: vulcan, homing, flame, and laser. Each of these can be used alone in a conventional fashion, but they're the bog-standard basics. The real fun begins when you combine two weapons into one, more powerful gun. So, you can put vulcan and homing together to make (wait for it) a homing vulcan. Laser plus vulcan creates a 360 degree rotating laser. Flame plus laser creates a lightsaber-like device that can be used to block enemy shots, while a double dose of vulcan creates one big freaking gun. There are 16 combinations altogether, and each is unique. A lot of the fun comes in finding the weapons that fit your playing style, as your choices here will greatly affect your strategies when fighting enemies and bosses.
See those bombs? If you're skillful, you can throw 'em back at the enemies... or your buddy! There's nothing like a high-stakes game of catch.
And oh, what bosses they are. Gunstar Heroes set new standards in this area that still hold up to this day. The most famous has to be Seven Force, a floating green platform that actually transforms into seven unique forms, each with their own deadly attacks and patterns. If you're not impressed after seeing Seven Force in action, you're either blind or dead. Of course, the other bosses are worth mentioning too, since they're one of the most original bunches of misfits ever created. Take Curry and Rice, for example. (Yes, its name is Curry and Rice. Treasure definitely has a sense of humor.) You happen to enounter this guy in the game's sole no-firing zone, meaning you need to use your bare fists to take down this menacing tower of malevolent foodstuffs. Original twists like this are the trademark of the game, and each one will delight and amuse in turn.
As hinted at above, the game also excels in the technical arena. Simply put, these were the best graphics ever seen on the Genesis, before or, quite possibly, since. Treasure took the book on standards and threw it in the trash, and the results are stunning. In fact, the very first thing you see upon turning on the game is Treasure's rotating, pseudo-polygonal logo -- beautiful, and unduplicated on the system to this day. Thankfully, it only gets better from there. Gunstar features warping, scaling, rotation, and (best of all) huge, multi-segmented bosses. And of course, there are the gobs of sprites that litter the screen at any one moment. Gunstar is truly a graphical achievement. It's doubtful that the SNES could be coaxed to run this game without some major cuts -- the pace is simply too intense, with movement and action everywhere at once. The two player game features a moderate amount of slowdown, but it's not enough to significantly detract from the game. In fact, you'll find it helpful in avoiding the onslaught of firepower that's headed your way, especially on the harder difficulties. In any case, the game is a technical marvel. It's surprising (and a credit to the programmers) that only a scant few of the Genesis games that followed reached the level of technical proficiency that Treasure achieved in their first outing.
The final stage is played on a large monitor, with the bad guys looking on.
So, how can one go about getting a Gunstar fix? Despite its relatively poor sales, the game is not overly difficult to find in second hand game stores and venues like eBay (name search). It was also ported to Sega's Game Gear handheld, but this version is obviously scaled down quite a bit compared to the real thing (for one, it's only single player). The Game Gear version is harder to find, but not impossible. You could also go the emulation route, but I can't help you there. Besides, there's nothing like the real thing, and Gunstar Heroes is one game that's definitely worth owning.
Next: Gunstar Screenshot Gallery