Is there anything left that hasn’t been said about Gunstar Heroes? It’s only the game that really put Treasure on the map and is largely responsible for their hallowed reputation today, although they further cemented it with subsequent releases. No one could really accuse them of resting on their laurels, especially considering their supposed “no sequels” policy that survived until the release of Advance Guardian Heroes for GBA.
While Gunstar Heroes was Treasure’s first released game, it wasn’t the first in development, that honor going to McDonald’s Treasure Land. Gunstar Heroes, however, is by far the superior work.
Given the last title that the Konami refugees worked on was Contra III: The Alien Wars, it makes perfect sense that they would do another run-and-gun shooter, as it was what they were experienced with. And while Contra III is pure action, with incredible set-pieces, graphical wizardry, and unbridled machismo, Gunstar Heroes takes a different approach, and the one that Treasure typically took in its games: a much more cartoony and “fun” take on the genre.
One thing the Contra series is known for is its punishing difficulty. And while Gunstar Heroes is no cakewalk, it’s significantly easier than the games in that series. Perhaps owing to that, the game is quite a bit more accessible. Even for that, the game does not lack for frenetic gameplay.
The game’s tone matches well with the fun-but-frenetic mentality. Bosses are sometimes difficult, sometimes hilarious, and the game never, ever takes itself too seriously. One of the stages is a board game where you roll a dice to determine what enemies you fight in the stage (or which bonuses you may obtain). The macho boss (Orange) actually attacks you with, among other things, a blast from his butt. The entire last stage sees the final boss sending henchman after henchman to try to stop you one last time, with less-than-stellar results. And the game features one of the coolest bosses in shooter history, Seven Force: A mechanized assault robot piloted by your friend-turned-enemy, Green. And it morphs into, you guessed it, seven different forms during the battle (Soldier, Tails, Tiger, Eagle, Blaster, Urchin, and Crab). And this epic battle may be the highlight of the game, screaming along in a magnetic rail cart in which you can flip from the floor to the ceiling (or from wall to wall). It’s seriously amazing stuff.
There are tons of goofy sub-bosses to encounter as well. One recurrent boss is “Smash Daisaku,” who is the primary villain’s henchman. Looking every bit like M. Bison from Street Fighter, he constantly comes against our heroes, only to cowardly run away from each failed encounter. Gamers with linkages to Street Fighter will likely find these encounters even more hilarious than most, and perhaps these encounters will prove to be some small salve for all the punishment M.Bison has inflicted on them.
Despite all of the humor inherent in the game, though, it never gets too crazy. Some of Treasure’s later games really seem to jump the shark, but Gunstar Heroes offsets its cartoonish sensibilities with just enough seriousness to make it all work within the context of the run-and-gun.
In keeping with other changes, Treasure wasn’t content to simply keep the same mechanics of the Contra series. Your two playable characters, Red and Blue, have different capabilities. The former allows for free firing, which allows moving while shooting. Choosing Blue will force you to stand still while shooting, which is generally less useful, but can be advantageous at points. Both characters have a set of melee moves. Red has a body slam attack for an aerial attack, where Blue jump-kicks and employs a downward kick unavailable to Red. They both get sliding attacks, a tackle move, and the ability to throw certain enemies, which can be very useful.
In addition to this, weapons can be combined. In Contra III, you could pick up two weapons, and swap between the two. In Gunstar, you can go one step further, and either swap back and forth, or combine the two into an even more effective weapon (usually). This is a conceit that will show up in quite a few other Treasure games, weaving its way into games like Light Crusader and Radiant Silvergun. (It should be noted that the homing laser may be the most effective weapon in the game, so if you want to maintain any sort of challenge, you might not want to use it.)
Another divergence from Contra is that one hit will not kill our protagonists. They have a set amount of health, and can pick up the occasional heart power-up scattered through the stages or dropped by mini-bosses. This helps the game feel more fair, especially considering all it throws at you.
It’s actually quite amazing, coming from the NES and SNES architecture, how much Treasure’s programmers were able to squeeze out of the Genesis. There are all sorts of graphical tricks that most developers would never try to pull, and this is (technically) their first game on the system. So while this is the game where Treasure first established its sense of humor, it also proved to be the one that established their trend of trying to push their target platform to its utmost limits. And Gunstar is a tour-de-force, only really usurped by Alien Soldier a few years later.
Even the soundtrack drives the action well. The Genesis would never match the SNES in the sound category in most cases, but deft use of its YM2612 FM synthesizer could still produce some excellent tunes. What is present here certainly fits the hectic, over-the-top action, constantly pushing you forward in your quest for ultimate victory.
Unfortunately, Gunstar Heroes would also begin another trend for Treasure: One in which they would garner much critical acclaim, but not as much commercial success. The biggest strength of their games, the wild creativity and unbridled quirkiness, ultimately ends up being their downfall as well, relegating the majority of their titles to cult-classic status. But at the same time, you get the feeling that Treasure really doesn’t care. Their passion comes through in all their work, and while not everything they try works, you can’t accuse them of not giving it their all.
Really, Gunstar Heroes embodies everything that Treasure is all about. It’s likely their best output on the Genesis, despite being their first (released) game, and every inch of Gunstar Heroes shows it for the labor of love that it is. No run-and-gun fan can claim their life is complete without playing Gunstar Heroes.
Article by Lee Hathcock
GameSpite Journal 12: Gunstar Heroes