Guardian Heroes Review
Game: Guardian Heroes
Available on: Xbox LIVE Arcade Only
Back in 1996, when the rest of the gaming world was beginning to get excited about polygons and whizzy 3D stuff on the PlayStation, the Sega Saturn was slipping away, albeit whilst secretly becoming the platform of choice for fans of classic 2D gaming and arcade conversions, a seemingly dying, old school concept. Due to the fact that it was naturally more adept at 2D animation than its Sony rival, Sega’s 32-bit wonder found itself home to a plethora of Capcom and SNK fighting games, an astonishing array of shooters such as Layer Section and DonPachi, and some great platformers like Elevator Action Returns. Never a company to go along with current trends, the Saturn was the perfect place for Treasure to unleash a story-driven, RPG-tinged, side-scrolling beat-em up with wonderful 2D graphics. That game was Guardian Heroes, and until now, it has been associated with those same high prices on auction sites, the same reverential tone in discussions on games forums. To date, there has been no other way to play this game, lest you break open the savings and buy a Saturn and a copy of the game.
Naturally I was a bit excited when I found out that it was arriving on Xbox Live Arcade this autumn. But how does this 2D curio stack up fifteen years down the line?
You know that a game developer is hot stuff when their games, which may have only been released in short, limited runs, or only in Japan, hold not only their financial value, but also their legendary, near-mythical status. Treasure are one such company, a hardcore, iconic band of former Konami employees who, since 1992, have been fashioning original, unforgettable, boss battle-filled titles that, for the past decade, have quite often commanded a king’s ransom on auction sites such as eBay.
Treasure produced Megadrive Run ‘n’ Gun classics such as Gunstar Heroes and Alien Soldier, the latter of which is still one of the most difficult gaming experiences you can find. They brought beauty and class to the arcades, not to mention some thrillingly difficult gameplay mechanics, with two of the most breathtakingly magnificent vertical shooters of our time in the form of Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga. Forgetting your Mario 64’s and your Zelda’s, the guys at Treasure were responsible for one of the finest games the N64 had to offer; the cracking rail shooter Sin & Punishment.
There is something that all of the games I have mentioned have in common, and that is that in the past few years, all of them have received a virtual re-release in downloadable form. This is clearly great news for gamers, as it means that previously potentially expensive items of vintage gaming are readily available at the click of a button. When once upon a time buying Radiant Silvergun would have cost you well into the triple figures, nowadays you can get it for a mere 1,200 MS points.
The twin geek universes of side-scrolling beat ‘em up and action RPG were to collide on more than one occasion during 1996. Capcom threw a +1 die of Coin Guzzling when they gave us their excellent licensed Dungeons & Dragons Shadow Over Mystara arcade game. However, that was cut from very much the same cloth as the plethora of other side-scrolling fighters Capcom had served up in the wake of Final Fight. Partially based on their earlier Megadrive Yu Yu Hakusho beat ‘em up, Treasure’s Guardian Heroes was a very different beast.
Imagine a side-scrolling fighter, with three selectable planes of combat that you can leap in and out of, a bit like in Fatal Fury. Now add combos, Street Fighter-style special moves, and three different attack buttons. Throw in the ability to use different types of magic, a Golem-like undead bad-ass that is at your beck and call, levelling up, and a deceptively deep blocking and counter-attacking system, and you are still nowhere near to finding out all of the reasons why this game is such a charmer.
This particular release gives you the option to play the original version of the game, however, Treasure have done a great job at sprucing it up a bit, applying some filters to the backgrounds, reformatting the action to the 16:9 aspect ratio, and redrawing the character sprites with some lovely pencil shade-style effects. For nostalgia value, the now very much outdated, blocky graphics of the original are great to revisit, but even someone as vehemently loyal to the old stuff such as myself was highly impressed with the makeover. The game is bright and bold, the new sprites look excellent, as do the crisp character select portraits, and logos, that greet you in the front end. Before any of you fellow traditionalists start moaning, the remixed graphics are entirely optional.
The graphics are not the only thing that has been remixed. There is also the option to use a new control scheme, which changes the button layout and gives some new evasive manoeuvres and airborne tomfoolery, all of which work very well. This being 2011, there is an option to play online, co-operatively or in the competitive battle mode, and where the original Saturn game gave the opportunity to play with up to five mates (using an adapter), the Xbox Live version allows a staggering 12 people to get busy online in Battle Mode. The soundtrack, by Yellow Magic Orchestra stalwart Hideki Matsutake, is heavy on cheesy guitars and synths, at times sounding like a collision between a Japanese Manga video and Miami Vice.
With an all-new Arcade mode offering endless survival thrills, the option to post your scores, from all modes of the game, to online leaderboards, and a ton of unlockable artwork to go along with the standard Achievements, there is a lot to do. The main game itself is a difficult, many-layered affair, with branching routes through the levels, a set of very different characters to choose from, and a large number of enemies and bosses; all of which can be unlocked for use in the non-story modes of the game. There are several different endings, and a berserk plot which features some memorable characters and a hilariously dodgy script. Simply completing the game with the nine credits you get at the start will be a challenge to most, until you learn that a tactical approach, and correct use of defensive techniques and magic, as well as using the three-plane set up to your advantage, are key to success. The one thing I can think of to criticise is the fact that an amazing anime video, several minutes long, and watchable from the start of the game from within the menus, is letterboxed to a tiny square in the centre of the screen.
I have all but banished the memory of Treasure’s own dodgy Game Boy Advance sequel, Advance Guardian Heroes, to the same part of my brain as Devil May Cry 2 and Street Fighter: The Movie. Yes, they do release a stinker every now and then, and I was not fond of the 2004 sequel either, which promised much but lacked the same spark and panache of the original. This super re-release will help to keep things that way.
VERDICT: The most surprising thing about playing Guardian Heroes all these years on his just how well it has aged. The action does not feel dated at all. With downloadable games like Castle Crashers, Scott Pilgrim and the recent Bloodrayne: Betrayal showing us that there is still a place for innovative, playable 2D fighters, there may even be some younger gamers who enjoy Guardian Heroes and don’t even realise it came out originally before some of them were even born.
With rumours about that a true sequel is in development, these are exciting times for fans of the genre, and indeed, Treasure’s always-interesting output.