What a game. What a bloody brilliant game.
But first, let’s talk about how I’m playing it. Back in the day I used to have standalone copy of Gunstar Heroes but it – like many of my old carts, was either traded in or lost to the ravages of time. Now I have it as part of this pretty nifty four-game compilation simply called ‘Classic Collection.’
When I fired this up for the first time I was a confounded by the game select music. See if you can tell what it is:
It’s the Columns music. Weird isn’t it?
Anyway, Classic Collection is certainly a curious package, because it comes with three titles that I would regard as staples of Sega’s 16-bit stock and one oddity. Altered Beast is a fairly risible port of the company’s big arcade smash, Flicky was created by members of Sonic Team and Alex Kidd is widely regarded as one of Sega’s old school mascots, so it makes sense for these games to be included.
But the inclusion of Gunstar Heroes has always puzzled me because it’s far from a mainstream title. It was developed by Treasure, the same team behind Guardian Heroes, Ikaruga, Dynamite Headdy, Alien Soldier and Radiant Silvergun. This is a company that exudes quality and its 16-bit output was nothing short of stunning.
Gunstar Heroes was released at a time when Sega seemed to be losing ground to Nintendo’s SNES console – primarily because of technical feats like Mode7 sprite rotation and Super FX, which was the tech employed to make games like StarFox possible.
But Treasure proved the naysayers dead wrong with its 16-bit titles thanks to some ingenious game design, eye-popping visual tricks, and depth of field techniques that gave the illusion of 3D play. You only need to look at Dynamite Headdy’s notorious tower stage to see what I mean. Back in the day, this level was the bomb.
Thanks DJ MCDO
Gunstar Heroes was both innovative and inventive by design, and it holds up superbly well years after its 1993 launch.
So what’s it about? Well, the plot focuses on an evil robot called Golden Silver that threatens to tear the world a new arse unless the Gunstars ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ can retrieve four gems and shut down his army. Along the way they have to save their partner ‘Yellow’ and face-off against their brainwashed comrade ‘Green’ and his devastating robot Seven Force – which is unquestionably one of the finest boss encounters of the era. More on him later.
It’s a run and gun shooter in the same vein as Contra but with an impressive command list of shooting, melee and acrobatic moves – not bad for a control format that only has three buttons. You can shoot in eight directions, wall-jump, hang on ceilings, flip up on to platforms with a brutal flash kick, frog splash enemies in the air, throw goons like projectiles, slide tackle and much more. Those Gunstars really know how to kick ass in style.
Like Contra the game gives each player two weapon slots that can be filled with four shot types found in each stage. There’s flame, homing, laser and regular ammo variations, but you can combine them to make tailored blasts to suit your playstyle. Two flame types is my favourite, as it produces a really long trail that eats up enemy health while evaporating incoming enemy laser fire.
But why stop there? You can mix a laser and flame type to make a laser-thrower, or homing and regular to make a rapid trail of bullets that never fails to find its mark – albeit with lowered damage output. The balancing here is sublime, because each bonus gained from your shot mix also comes with a slight downside so you’re never really overpowered. It finds the sweet spot perfectly.
Choice is key here, because players can also tackle any one of the game’s first four stages in an order of their choosing. There’s no right or wrong order though, so it’s not quite as innovative as Mega Man’s open progression but it’s still nice to have the option. Beyond those four there are some really innovative levels – such as a scrolling space shooter mission which really foreshadows Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun.
But you haven’t really lived until you’ve experienced stage four, which is home to sunglass-wearing gangster ‘Black.’ The level starts off fairly basic as you run from left to right wiping out goons and chaingun turrets – just like you have been in all the other areas. But then you go through a door to the far right and the backdrop changes to this:
Welcome to the Dice Palace – one of the finest and smartest pieces of stage design I have seen to this day. It’s essentially a board game where each of the squares holds a boss battle or some mini-game that needs to be cleared in order to reach the final showdown with Black himself. You can throw the dice using your melee attack and move between one and three spaces at a time.
Admittedly, most of the bosses are easily-defeated on the lowest difficulty setting, but crank it up and you’re in for a tough and incredibly rewarding challenge. The nature of the bosses are wonderful too, because each of them show some degree of thought and imagination – and often come with their own unique game mechanics too.
Let’s do a quick tour of a few of these baddies:
This guy’s called ‘Melon Bread’ – no really, and he does… well, nothing. He just chatters away with his odd mouth and moves from side to side like he’s begging to die.
Meet ‘Pit’, the killer game of Pong where the paddle and smiley face balls can crush you to death. Nice.
This worm is called ‘Valvalion’ and it lives in the board’s first square. He rushes you with quick melee attacks and can really sap your health if you get stuck in his barbed body.
There are many more fiends waiting to take you down in the Dice Palace, but my favourite has to be ‘Curry and Rice’ who is a man made out of curry and rice. It’s a melee-only battle that is both hilarious and challenging. I won’t spoil it here though. You’ll have to take him on yourself.
All of the bosses in Gunstar Heroes – not just those in the Dice Palace, feel like big events, and that’s exactly what a good boss fight should be. They’re all big showstoppers that show off some great graphical trickery. Take stage one’s mid-boss ‘Bravoo Man’ for example:
You need to see him in motion to fully appreciate the technicality at play here, but he’s essentially made up of several 3D blocks that move convincingly on the screen. This was a big deal at the time, trust me on this one.
I reckon the best boss in the whole game is Seven Force – the big shape-shifting robot I mentioned earlier. It’s a colossal fight that takes place in a perilous tunnel, where Red and Blue are in hot pursuit of a runaway train that holds one of the four gems. The pace on this stage is insane and there’s a lot to take in thanks to the whizzing background and mass of bullets and enemies flying at you.
But then Seven Force appears and things really kick into overdrive. Using their magnetic buggies, the Gunstars can flip between the ceiling and ground during horizontal parts of the tunnel, and left and right during the vertical sections. So not only are you fighting a big boss, you’re doing it on several planes too. It’s mind-blowing stuff.
Each of the robot’s forms is a boss battle in itself and the order is randomised for each playthrough. Here’s his standard and Urchin attack forms:
One minute it’s a giant bipedal robot that spews projectiles, and the next it could be a giant six-shooter, armour-plated crab mech or even a dashing cyborg jaguar. This is some seriously brilliant enemy design, and this encounter absolutely deserves to be played.
The shifting nature of Seven Force is a good place to stop this review, because it’s indicative of Gunstar Heroes as a whole. It isn’t a game that rests on laurels and stops showing you new things about halfway through – instead, it’s a regularly surprising shooter that hurls new mechanics and features at you multiple times in a single stage. That bears celebration, and it certainly wowed critics at its time of release.
If you aren’t convinced to try this game now then you probably won’t be any time soon, and that’s absolutely fine of course. But if you want something that is fresh, funny, challenging and full of explosions and gunplay, then you need look no further than Gunstar Heroes.
Oh and if you do play it, I’d love to know what you think below, or on Twitter.
Thanks for reading guys, until next time!