I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to fire up Gunstar Heroes. Granted, I never owned Sega systems growing up and have only been seriously exploring their libraries for the past three years or so. Still, this frenetic side-scrolling run-and-gun has been a mainstay on virtually every “best of the Genesis” list drafted since its release. In addition to being a masterpiece in its own right, it led to a long string of further cult classics by the developers at Treasure. After all, it was the management at Konami’s refusal to greenlight Gunstar Heroes which prompted the small team there who would become Treasure to strike out on their own in the first place. Thankfully, the project eventually attained the backing of no less than Sega themselves, who published it in 1993.
Any gaming history buff would be hard pressed to cite a more confident debut effort. Giving free reign to a group who’d previously worked on the likes of Contra III: The Alien Wars and Super Castlevania IV resulted in an explosion of unbridled creativity with plenty of experience and discipline to back it up. Gunstar Heroes is the rare action game that’s all things to all players: Approachable by those of practically any skill level, simple to pick up yet nuanced enough to reward repeat playthroughs, badass and cute. It’s no exaggeration to say Treasure set a new high water mark for an entire genre here.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The plot of Gunstar Heroes involves a group of elite warriors, the Gunstars, who once saved the planet from a rampaging super robot known as Golden Silver. Unable to destroy Golden Silver permanently, they took the four gems that powered it and hid them throughout the world, leaving the robot’s inert body sealed away on the moon. Years later, an evil empire has set out to gather the gems and revive Golden Silver. These villains have also managed to brainwash one of the Gunstars, Green, to use a pawn against his former comrades. It now falls on the Gunstar twins, Red and Blue, to stave off Armageddon once more with the support of their sister, Yellow, and scientist mentor, Dr. Brown. Why is everyone in this world named after colors? Beats me.
One or both of the twins (depending on whether you’re utilizing the two-player simultaneous mode) will need to blast through seven stages to overthrow the Empire. The first four can be taken in any order you wish, while the final three function as an extended linear finale that sees the Gunstars pursuing the baddies into space. The levels themselves are a healthy mix of traditional run-and-gun platforming and more experimental fare. One of the latter is an auto-scroller where you speed through a series of underground tunnels on a moving platform that can alternate between clinging to the floor or ceiling as needed in a manner reminiscent of the gravity flip mechanic from Irem’s Metal Storm. Another is structured like a board game. Tossing a die on each of your turns moves you a random number of spaces toward the end boss, with each space along the way representing a different mini-boss or opportunity to score some healing and weapon power-ups. The only dud in the bunch is stage six, which is presented as a spaceship shooter with eight-directional movement. It’s far from a great one, however, and drags on far too long. Gradius or Thunder Force this is not.
Complimenting a largely fantastic crop of levels is one of the more interesting weapon systems in any game of the era. At the outset, you’re prompted to select your default shot from a total of four: Force is the typical machine gun type with average power, Lightning is the deadly but slow-firing laser, Chaser is the homing shot with reduced damage, and Fire is the short range, high power option. Fortunately for those of us who hate hard choices, this only affects which one you start the game with. The other three are still obtainable via colored icons scattered throughout the stages.
Four guns based on common shooter archetypes doesn’t seem too impressive…until you begin experimenting with their various combinations. See, you can carry two guns at a time. Swapping between them is possible, but the more interesting option is usually to equip both at once! Want a homing flame shot? Try Chaser with Fire. Machine gun laser? Force and Lightning. You can even combine a weapon with a duplicate of itself to get an enhanced version of its standard shot. If you don’t feel like doing the math yourself, that’s sixteen additional guns to play around with. They’re all effective in their own ways, too. There’s no need to worry about screwing yourself over by picking up the “wrong” weapon.
And there’s more! The Gunstars come with their own repertoire of hand-to-hand combat moves. They can grab and toss foes, block attacks, deliver sliding kicks and flying tackles, you name it. It all makes for one mind-boggling arsenal. The sheer number of meaningful choices open to you from moment to moment is exhilarating.
Boss battles in Treasure games are the stuff of legend. Gunstar Heroes is where that legend took root. Here they began to popularized their signature technique of using multiple small sprites moving in unison to convey the impressive of one massive enemy with silky smooth animation. There are over two dozen of these guys to take down and no two behave remotely alike. Many have multiple distinct phases or forms for you to deal with. The most famous by far (and rightfully so) is Seven Force, the transforming robot piloted by Gunstar Green. True to its name, it can assume seven distinct forms over the course of one marathon battle. My sole regret when it comes to the Seven Force fight is that it happens relatively early on. They should have saved such a tour de force for the final act. It’s no coincidence that the most memorable opponent in Treasure’s later Mega Drive release Alien Soldier was a similar shapeshifting menace called Valkyrie Force.
Perhaps my very favorite part of this formidable package is just how approachable it all is. Gunstar Heroes forsakes the arcade roots of Contra and other pioneering run-and-gun titles by giving its protagonists rather generous health pools to rely on in place of the more common one-hit kills. Factor in the unlimited continues and difficulty modes ranging from Easy to Expert and you have yourself a game that can be enjoyed by almost anyone. As much as I adore Contra, its unforgiving nature means I need to occupy a certain highly focused headspace to get the most out of it. Not so with the casual-friendly Gunstar Heroes. I can throw it on whenever and have a grand time.
Is there anything about it I would change? Well, I already mentioned the mediocre space shooting section. There’s also one slightly disappointing facet of the game’s otherwise flawless control scheme. Whenever you start a new session, you’re required to pick between a free shooting style that lets you literally run and gun and a fixed one that locks you in place while firing, allowing you to better deliver sustained damage to enemy weak points. Ideally, of course, you would be able to toggle between these two settings on the fly. You’re able to do so in the 16-bit Contra games as well as the aforementioned Alien Soldier. As presented here, though, it’s a one time exclusive choice. Bummer.
Apart from that, Gunstar Heroes is a bona fide game for the ages. An interactive master class in 2-D action design, it proved to the world at large that the name Treasure was no idle boast. It’s packed with lighthearted charm, slick visuals, and one of the finest soundtracks ever composed for the system. Is it the best run-and-gun on the Genesis? That’s a toughie. If I were somehow forced to pick one and only one to play for the rest of my life, the shorter, more intense Contra: Hard Corps would probably win out. Barely. Good thing I don’t foresee that happening. So if you’re like me and have been dragging your feet on this one, consider fixing that soon.