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.