Gunstar Heroes is the best overall action game for the Genesis. That is a lofty statement I realize but one that I fully believe in. But I’m ready to take it a step further than that. In my opinion Gunstar Heroes is one of the greatest action games ever made. From graphics, originality, and play mechanics this is the real deal and probably one of the best debuts from a new developer in the industry. Do not pass this one up.
As great as the game is it came out of nowhere. Developer Treasure was mostly comprised of Konami veterans who had worked on many of their classic series. Initially they entered a long exclusivity period with Sega and released many classics. Too bad the gaming public at large failed to notice. In what seemed to be a running theme Sega of America threw very little marketing support behind Treasure’s releases and while the smart fans who scooped them up extolled their virtues they didn’t reach the level of success they should have. That’s neither here nor there however as I’m here to tell you why this gem is so great.
The game’s story isn’t much to write about but at least there is a plot. There once was an evil robot named Golden Silver that had the power to cause destruction on a galactic scale. Through the efforts of the Gunstar family the four gems that were its power source were taken and hidden. Unfortunately the dictator Colonel Red (who looks suspiciously like M. Bison) brainwashes Green and stolen the gems to reawaken Golden Silver and rule the universe.
Gunstar Heroes has so many mechanics I don’t even know where to start. As either Red or Blue your character is incredibly agile and equipped with many hand to hand attacks. You can double jump, slide, and toss enemies, even in midair. In a similar fashion to Contra III you can scale most surfaces as well. These moves might seem atypical for what is primarily a run and gun action game however they help make the game incredibly varied. The versatility in attack options really elevates this above most similar titles.
I haven’t even gotten to the weapons yet! Your initial choice is between fixed and free shooting. Free shoot allows you to move around while still aiming and attacking. Fixed is so inferior it isn’t even worth mentioning. There are four weapon options available: lightning, a piercing straight shot, chaser, a weak homing attack; force, a powerful rapid fire shot and fire, the strongest weapon that suffers from short range.
It doesn’t sound like much but the genius comes in combining two weapons for a unique effect. With this you have sixteen options and naturally everyone will develop a favorite. For my money the lightning + homing shot is overpowered as it requires little input from you. I also like the fire + lightning combo which basically creates a lightsaber. The range is short but damage is off the charts if you are into risk vs reward style gameplay. Weapon drops are frequent enough that you can play around and if you really want to delve deeper you can try to match a weapon against a particular boss’s weakness such as using a lightning variant to get through bosses shield. But the beauty is that this is never required.
Treasure has developed a reputation for creating insane boss battles to the detriment of the rest of the game. I feel Gunstar Heroes features the right blend of action in between each fight. Beyond the tight play mechanics and weapons Gunstar is incredibly varied in its levels with the Ancient Ruins being the only one you would consider a straight left to right affair. This is followed up by a trip through an underground mine on a modified mine cart, an assault on a flying fortress, and Dice’s Palace. Here you roll through the dice to progress on game board with your rolls leading to power-ups or smaller mini boss battles. It’s extremely cool and totally original. I won’t spoil the last few levels but needless to say it builds up to a satisfying climax.
As great as the level design is however it is the boss fights that make Gunstar Heroes so memorable. There are more bosses in this one lone title than in some entire series and yet each encounter still manages to feel unique. Hell the Dice Palace is almost entirely composed of bosses! Some are wacky like Bravoo Man while others like the Black Beat Stepper feature various stages of attack. They all pale in comparison to Seven Force however. This bad ass assumes seven different forms and depending on the difficulty you’ll have to defeat all of them to progress.
The only complaint I have is that on the normal setting the game is still too easy. Unlike most action games you have a life bar and the game is very generous with health power-ups. It isn’t uncommon to enter a boss battle with over 150 health. That is enough of a buffer that you can make sloppy mistakes and still come out on top. If you use one of the overpowered weapon combos it becomes even simpler. You’ll still need a modicum of skill to defeat the tougher bosses like Seven Force but most won’t have trouble reaching the end. It unfortunately also means you’ll breeze through the seven levels although I can guarantee that you’ll play through this more than once since it is so god damn awesome.
You can’t talk about Gunstar Heroes without mentioning its visuals. The art style is incredibly unique and gives the game a clear visual identity. Although this was their first title Treasure pushed the system harder than anyone, achieving scaling and rotational effects no one thought the Genesis capable of. There are very few moments where the screen isn’t completely chaotic. There is slight flicker but no matter how many explosions and sprites are tossed around it never slows down. The bosses make use of multi-jointed sprites for smooth animation and would become a Treasure staple going forward. It doesn’t stop at the graphics as the soundtrack is similarly incredible, equal parts epic and whimsical when it needs to be. This really is the total package.
It is rare that any game lives up to the insane amount of hype and praise lavished upon it. I’m happy to say this is one of those exceptions. I’ve praised the game from top to bottom and if you are slightly like video games you need this in your life. Games like this don’t come around very often. Truly a classic.