Compile’s 1988 action RPG/shooter hybrid The Guardian Legend is the quintessential NES sleeper hit. A brilliantly crafted tour-de-force by any measure, its relative complexity and the sheer audacity of its genre-bending antics prevented its titular robot heroine (also known as Miria in the Japanese release) from attaining household name status alongside the likes of Mario and Mega Man. It never received an official sequel and, given the dissolution of Compile in 2003, it likely never will.
Regardless, this once forgotten title has managed to constantly grow in stature over the years. Like Technōs’ River City Ransom, it gradually transitioned from a niche oddity to a mainstay on many enthusiasts’ top ten lists. It’s certainly an important game for me, seeing as my first playthrough back in 2017 ignited a love affair with old-school shooters that burns brightly to this day. So when I heard there was an unofficial ROM hack of the game available called The Guardian Legend: Secret Edition that includes all-new level layouts, bosses, and other surprises for veteran players, I was instantly intrigued. Better still, it was made by my personal favorite creator of NES fan games, Chris “Optomon” Lincoln, who took his online handle from one of TGL’s boss enemies. This sucker has got to be amazing, right? Well, yes and no.
As the name implies, Secret Edition frames itself as a sort of remixed version of the original game. The plot here is the same as it ever was: Naju, an artificial planetoid loaded with vicious alien life forms, is discovered to be moving through deep space on course to Earth. It falls on a the Guardian, a “highly sophisticated aerobot transformer” in a red bikini, to save Earth by infiltrating Naju and activating a sequence of ten self-destruct fail-safes. And yes, they straight-up called her a Transformer in the manual. Pretty gutsy. Nobody tell Hasbro, eh?
Gameplay is split more or less evenly into two distinct modes. One is a sprawling Legend of Zelda-inspired maze dubbed “the labyrinth” where the Guardian roams about on foot fighting enemies, collecting items, and searching for clues on how to access the various sealed self-destruct mechanisms. The other is a series of 22 vertically scrolling “corridor” sections. The corridors serve the same general purpose as Zelda’s dungeons, except they play out similarly to other Compile-made spaceship shooters of the time. Think Zanac, Gun-Nac, Aleste, etc. Unlike the protagonists of those games, however, the transforming Guardian can serve as her own spaceship!
Now that we all know what Secret Edition is based on, we can consider how well it fares as its own experience. Let’s start out positive. Optomon absolutely delivered everything he set out to. Secret Edition features a completely new labyrinth layout, new enemy arrangements in the corridors, new boss fights, new puzzles, and even a handful of genuine surprise moments. Fighting some formerly corridor-exclusive enemies in the labyrinth, for example. What a trip that was! All these modifications come across as well considered and are undoubtedly well implemented on a technical level.
On to the buzzkill. Despite seemingly checking off every box a quality Guardian Legend ROM hack should, Secret Edition is hobbled by its own overarching design philosophy. To wit, it is oppressively difficult for much of its runtime. Powerful enemies fill the screen at all times, bosses dish out insane damage, and key upgrades to the Guardian’s defense and offense are withheld until much later than usual. This iteration of Naju is basically a madhouse. The fact that I, a guy who regularly whips through the vanilla game in an evening without breaking a sweat, still found Secret Edition’s approach too obnoxiously brutal to enjoy really says it all. Optomon’s intention here was to create “a challenge for those who had mastered the original game.” Mission accomplished, I guess. I was challenged. That doesn’t mean I’ll be back for more. There’s stimulating and then there’s just overbearing.
Hell, this hack wants you dead so badly that it can actually have unintended side-effects. See, The Guardian Legend includes a little-known programming bug that will trigger a crash the instant the player’s score would exceed 9,999,999. Fortunately, it isn’t an exceptionally tough game by NES standards. It’s not exactly easy, mind you, but most players should be able to eventually complete it with a score well under this maximum if they’re patient and willing to put in the practice. Secret Edition is a whole other story. More frequent deaths coupled with an overall increase in high point value foes makes hitting the cap a real possibility for many. If that happens, you’re looking at either reverting to a much earlier password save (assuming you have one recorded) or starting over altogether. Nice.
On the whole, The Guardian Legend: Secret Edition is simply one big missed opportunity. It’s thoughtfully crafted, technically sound, and totally inaccessible to the vast majority of people who might stumble across it. I can only imagine how many more players a work like this could satisfy if it hadn’t been custom tailored for a vanishingly small cadre of shooting game savants. Perhaps saddest of all, it remains the closest thing we have to a true Guardian Legend follow-up on the system. There are no other hacks out there I’m aware of that so much as attempt to rework the game on this scale.
If there’s a silver lining to all this, it would have to be that Optomon clearly learned a lot from this early experiment in ROM hacking. Later notable NES projects he contributed to, such as Castlevania: The Holy Relics, Metroid: Rogue Dawn, and the original homebrew platformer Rollie, all present their players with a much more reasonable challenge and are better for it. After all, if you’re going to channel all that hard work and talent into a piece of entertainment, it should probably be one your audience can stomach.