#46: Gunstar Heroes
Designed for: Sega Genesis
Developed by: Treasure
Published by: Sega
Year Released: 1993
Yes, it’s another Genesis platformer. Sick of hearing about them yet? Well, this isn’t even the last one, so get used to it. My stable of old Sega games holds a very special place in my heart, but individually, they can’t really stack up to the heavy hitters and all ended up pooling near the bottom of the Top #50 list. At least we’re getting them out of the way early. But you know, Gunstar Heroes is at least half shooter, so whatever.
Anyway, here it is—Treasure’s celebrated first game that deftly set the tone for their whole frenzied, boss-heavy, detail-laden, tightly-balanced oeuvre. It’s basically a cartoony Contra, although that’s probably a bit unfair as Gunstar Heroes packs more personality into its first five minutes than Contra has managed in its whole twenty-something year history.
If I remember right, I got the game pretty late into my Genesis years, long after it had originally been released. Despite having mastered pretty much every platformer on the system at that point, it really blew my hair back.
The first thing you notice after playing about a level and a half is just how much variety there is. I honestly can’t think of any other platformer that tries this hard to keep itself interesting. Top-down spaceship shooting, a maniacal boardgame where the players are the pieces, surprise hand-to-hand combat, timed survival minigames—most of the level designs and concepts they throw at you en masse could sustain much longer areas, or even whole games if Treasure really wanted to push it…but of course, they didn’t. That’s kind of their thing, after all. Treasure’s disinclination to whore out their ideas is pretty much what they’ve built their reputation on, and Gunstar Heroes seems to prove that they were of that mindset from the very start. Commendable.
But let’s back up. Gunstar Heroes’ most important differences from its contemporaries are clear right from the character select screen. Starting the game, you’re given the choice of which of the two Gunstar Heroes you play as, Red or Blue. Aside from their name/color, the two compatriots have an important difference which will fundamentally change the way you play: Red can fire his gun while running, and Blue cannot, but can shoot in more directions to make up for it. It may seem trivial on paper, but greatly changes the experience in practice. As Blue, you’ll have to play a little conservatively, clearing a screen before moving and picking your positions carefully as you’ll be playing chicken with rampaging enemies and their projectiles. Red, on the other hand is forced to move around constantly because not only can you fire while running, but you kind of have to because ‘run in x direction’ and ‘point gun in x direction’ are the same thing. Red’s gameplay, as a result, will be more frantic and explosive as you plow through the levels headlong, dodging bullets acrobatically while literally never letting up on the fire button.
A nice touch of customization for you right off the bat, but then they give you real choice: What’s your character’s starting weapon? Gunstar Heroes arsenal consists of four blaster types: Rapid-fire, Laser, Flame, and Seeker. Each obviously has its strengths and drawbacks, and your choice will—again—greatly impact the game you’re about to start. If you don’t like your starting pick though, you’ll be able to grab another one soon, and it’s at that moment when the game’s armaments show their true depth. Your hero can hold up to two gun types at once and either swap between them on the fly or use a new weapon combined from the two. This even works for two of the same type, bringing the total gun count to fourteen, which is pretty darn good for a 16-bit side-scrolling shooter.
No matter which two blaster types you choose to mix and match, you’re probably in for something interesting. Flame/Laser will deal the most damage to any enemy, but only projects a short, focused welding-torch-like beam and you have to get in dangerously close to be effective with it. Combine seeker and laser instead and you’ll get a gun that fires out a single large but weak bolt that cascades around the screen, zipping straight to the nearest enemy no matter your orientation. The bolt then sticks on the enemy, whittling their health away ever so slowly without needing the player to do anything else but hold down the fire button. If you’re playing as Red (and can fire while running), using this build almost turns the game into a bullet hell shooter where all you need to do is dodge the enemies long enough for your gun to do the work for you.
Even the less dynamic options are distinct in subtle, important ways. Intuitively, a single Rapid-fire gets you a fairly weak, easy to handle stream of bullets. Double up and the bullets become huge, widening your area of attack, but your aim becomes a little erratic and the stream wavers up and down. Swap out one of the Rapid-Fires for a Laser and you’ll get a weaker, thin flow of firepower, but it’ll go through enemies and will cascade as you switch firing angles, allowing you to hit enemies between where you can aim, which neither of the previous options allowed.
So you begin to see where things can get interesting. While some combos definitely work better than others in some situations, the enemies don’t really have affinities or immunities or anything like that, so even if you’re not completely optimized with your favorite blasters, you should be able to muddle through until you get what you want. The gun powerups themselves are plentiful throughout the levels too, and when you grab one up, the old one you abandon will drop out and stick around, letting you pick it back up or experiment a bit before making your final choice.
With all frantic action and diverse firepower flying around, you’d think the enemies and the backgrounds would be incidental but Treasure put just as much (if not more) time into crafting a charming, compelling and interactive world to blast through as they did into balancing the gunplay. The art is anime-inspired, but not aggressively so, and it has a fun and colorful look and style that wouldn’t be out of place on any western Saturday morning cartoon.
The standard enemy is a silly little bumbler of a robot guy who runs around frantically trying to get a piece of you. They slide on their stomachs, wind up for big comical punches and even cower and run away at times. They’re pretty emotive, and when paired with their Red-Baron-looking Commander (a frequently recurring boss who touts his seeming invincibility) they have some pretty funny moments.
There’s anywhere between three and eleven (!!!) bosses per level, and they are all over the place conceptually, but are uniformly fun. You’ve got your old shooter standbys like the one that’s a giant flying worm zig-zagging around the screen, a whole room filled with turrets to destroy and plenty of your standard mechs with human villains driving them. But then there’s the giant, living, malicious game of Qix you need to fight, or say, a little tiny version of the standard enemy soldier who can throw you across the room for a surprising amount of damage. You’ll also find yourself up against a boss made out of curry and rice, a giant face who doesn’t attack you until after he dies (?), an immobile tree-thing that births enormous larva out of falling pods and a musclebound General who alternates attacks between high-flying suplexes and a concussive fart assault. But they’re not all either obligatory or silly. Many fights, like the infamous transforming Seven Force are fun and challenging battles that keep you guessing and are well-integrated into the levels they inhabit. That particular multi-form battle would have been sufficiently epic even if it wasn’t ending the level where you pilot a gravity-flipping minecart at high speeds on a track that frequently switches to a vertical orientation…but it is, and boy is it awesome.
As I mentioned in reference to bosses, Gunstar Heroes does feature some common elements for games of this type, but for each cliché it employs, it sidesteps another effectively. There are just as many boss battles with normal sized but powerful human characters as there are with huge monsters or robots and the final boss himself manages to be a comparatively small humanoid that is, nevertheless, quite intimidating. The final level itself effectively turns another old trope on its head, being of a gauntlet of battles with the big boss characters you’ve already defeated. Rather than lazily rehashing their previous fights, though, Treasure designed all new forms for each of the baddies, with many calling back to or even riffing off of their prior appearances. If that’s not enough, the whole level is seen from the perspective of the villains as they haughtily watch the player’s progress on an enormous security monitor, each leaving the room in turn to do battle. When the player defeats them all and reaches the final door, he bursts through into—oh yes—that selfsame surveillance room, ready face his final opponent. Awesome.
Overall, it’s a solid experience that’s easy to get into but maintains a consistent challenge throughout. It just feels right, and there are a million little smart design choices that contribute to that. The animation is uniformly strong and very expressive, but each individual character is well defined and their hitboxes are spot-on, which is crucial. You have unlimited lives/continues, being penalized only by half your score upon death and being placed at the level’s start. If there are two players and one dies, you can get back in by taking half your partner’s HP. And oh, yeah…you HAVE HP. That’s right, no bullshit one-hit kills here. You actually have a pretty generous lifebar so you can play more than five seconds into a stage without getting vaporized by some nobody.
And so on.
Gunstar Heroes is certainly one of Treasure’s most accessible non-licensed games (perhaps due to their first-timer status) but even if it was designed to be a little more broadly appealing than, say, Dynamite Headdy, it’s still an incredibly creative and distinctive game that holds up perfectly today.
IF THEY MADE THIS GAME TODAY: It would definitely be a downloadable-only game. Still a side-scroller but it’d have 3D graphics which would, of course, mean shitty controls, bullshit hitboxes and floaty platforming. Maybe there would be a map and they’d half-assedly throw some Metroidvania-style progression in there which would completely ruin the flow of the gunplay. Downloadable weapon DLC, too.
(Note: That end bit there will be in all of my Top 50 write-ups from now on. Wouldn’t want to bore you with too much positivity, would I? I’ve also updated the previous entries with this feature.)