Like Faxanadu, The Guardian Legend was one of those games I unwrapped the night before Christmas at our annual low-key family pre-game affair. The year after Faxanadu, in fact.
Unlike Faxanadu, which I had already played by the time I received it, I had no idea what The Guardian Legend was about. Nintendo Power hadn’t really said much about it, and this was in an era before pervasive information about games. All I knew is it had a super generic name, eerily evocative artwork, and the screenshots gave no guidance for the content of the adventure itself. Was it a top-down action RPG like Zelda? A shoot-em-up? I couldn’t tell.
Turns out it was both! Merry Christmas, me.
I really miss the days when video games could completely come out of nowhere and surprise me. Between my working in the games press and needing to keep tabs on everything coming down the pipeline, the pervasive information available online about upcoming releases (in part because of folks like me), and the fact that genres have largely been staked out at this point and wild off-the-wall innovation is hard to come by… it just doesn’t happen anymore.
When I think back on The Guardian Legend, I think about being stunned by the unexpected. The ephemeral delight of taking a chance on an unknown game and it paying off with a wild, creative work like nothing I’d really played before. When old farts like me reminisce about how great the NES or PlayStation were, this is why: We miss that sense of discovery, of being able to pick a game at random from the 50% off section behind the toy store counter and experience something truly new.
I wouldn’t ever be so bold or foolish as to claim The Guardian Legend is a flawless or even great game. What it was, though, was audacious. Developer Compile took an oddball computer shoot-em-up, Gardic, and created a sidestory that had almost nothing to do with the original game. Gardic was a screen-by-screen shooter, slow-paced and labyrinthine; The Guardian Legend divided out Gardic‘s elements into two different modes of play that each worked a lot better. The screen-by-screen component took the form of that Zelda-esque adventure in which you controlled a robotic girl, acquiring better weapons and armor through discovery and shops. In order to progress, though, you’d need to make use of the shooter component by transforming into a starfighter and blasting through a fast-paced corridor shooter.
Basically, Gardic tried to adapt Compile’s core strengths — shooters and adventures — into a single game with poor results. The Guardian Legend put that design into a centrifuge and let the two elements stand alone while complementing one another, and it worked wonderfully. The top-down portions retained the swift, combative feel of the shooter mode, while the shooter itself allowed you to apply the power-ups you acquired in the course of adventuring to improve your survivability.
All in all, fun and creative stuff all around. Not at all what I expected, but that was the charm of it: I couldn’t have expected it.
Yo, someone out there give me something as surprising as the Guardian Legend was in 2015, OK? Thanks.
6 thoughts on “The 12 games of Christmas #5: The Guardian Legend”
don’t forget that amazing soundtrack!
I completely agree. A sense of discovery has been missing in gaming for a very long time. I have been seriously considering going a year or two with out staying informed at all on gaming news and seeing how that might reflect in my views of what I play.
Admittedly I didn’t first play the game until like 15-20 years after it came out, but I just couldn’t get into the top-down bits in The Guardian Legend. There’s a lot of samey corridors and minibosses that show up out of the blue and tend to be a little overpowered.
I did like the shooter bits, though. It’s great the game has a password to only play those if you want to.
As someone who’s been a lifelong console/handheld gamer, I’ve recently started picking up random PC games from GOG and Steam, and it’s a whole new world. Really does capture that sense of random sense of discovery we had in previous generations. I mean, guys, have you heard of this Baldur’s Gate stuff? It ain’t half bad!
Browsing through retro collections (or rom packs, if you’re so inclined) also can bring some unexpected delights. It was Fatal Labyrinth on Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection (PS3), of all things, that introduced me to one of my now-favorite subgenres, the roguelike.
I played this game when it came out. Nintendo Power eventually did a spread on it and had several of the maps. I loved it then, and completed it several times. I personally consider it a top 10 NES game. I played it this past year to see if it still holds up, and to see if my nostalgia was misplaced or warranted. I can honestly say that this game holds up pretty well. I will always evangelize for this gem to anyone looking for classic games
I had the exact same experience as Parish with this game-I got it for Christmas, knew nothing about it, and was bowled over by the genre mashup. And Shivam is right about the soundtrack. Almost three decades after the fact, I can still recall much of the game’s music.
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