It’s safe to say that, in its lifetime, the NES spawned more memorable game franchises than any other system in history. Yet, the sheer volume of games in the NES’ library guaranteed that a few gems fell through the cracks and are largely forgotten today. One such game is Guardian Legend, developed by Compile and released in the US in 1989.
Guardian Legend is a unique blend of Zanac-style vertical space shooting and Blaster Master overhead dungeon crawling. This mashup of two very disparate game styles is justified by the titular Guardian being a transformer, who can change from a suspiciously VF-1 Valkyrie-looking space ship to a robotic girl wearing hooker boots. Your mission, as this space fighter cyberlady, is to infiltrate the rogue planetoid Naju and activate its self-destruct before it collides with Earth. To do this, you must locate and disable 10 safeties scattered throughout Naju’s various dungeons. The dungeons are connected by corridors which make up the shooter levels, and can be played through in almost any order. In both game modes, you collect power chips which serve as both currency and ammo for your secondary weapon. Speaking of which, there are tons of secondary weapons! Everything from lightsabers to homing missiles to spread-fire guns can be found, purchased, or looted from defeated bosses. If you get stuck in a particularly difficult level, chances are there’s a weapon tailor-made for it that’s just waiting to be found. This, along with power-ups that expand your life bar and power chip capacity give Guardian Legend the rare distinction of being a space shooter that actually gets easier as it progresses. This isn’t to say Guardian Legend is easy—far from it. Just getting through the approach to Naju in the beginning of the game is a challenge! You will get hit by enemy fire in Guardian Legend, so the key to victory is minimizing those hits, collecting enough power-ups to stay alive, and using the best weapon for the job. If you get frustrated and want to take a break, Guardian Legend lets you save your game… using the longest, most byzantine password system I’ve ever seen! Each password is a huge string of numbers and upper-case, lower-case and even diacritic letters that have to be entered one agonizingly-slow character at a time. If there’s ever been a game that begged for a battery save, it’s Guardian Legend.
It’s clear that most of Compile’s efforts went into developing the shooter levels in Guardian Legend. Where they are fast-paced, challenging and full of unique enemies, the on-foot levels are slower, repetitive, and all filled with the same five or six types of palette-swapped enemies. Though it’s fun at times to explore Naju at a slower pace, collecting power-ups and reading more of the game’s back-story, the on-foot sections ultimately feel like padding to be muddled through on your way to the next exciting space battle. It’s telling that the reward for finishing Guardian Legend is the ability to replay just the shooter levels.
Without a sequel, a remake or even a Virtual Console release, it seems Guardian Legend has been relegated to the dustbins of gaming history, and that’s unfortunate. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s unique and enjoyable enough to have earned its own franchise.
Bonus Review! Since I’m still in a space blastin’ Earth-savin’ mood, I’m moving on to The Dreadnaught Factor for Atari 5200.
The Dreadnaught Factor, developed by Activision in 1983, is another unique vertical shooter. In it, you’re a tiny fighter (presumably sans-hooker boots) sent to destroy a gigantic Star Destroyer-looking ship before it can get close enough to annihilate Earth. Much like Xevious, your fighter has both lasers and bombs which you use to shoot out the dreadnaught’s missiles & gun turrets or bomb its engines & reactor exhaust ports. To destroy a dreadnaught, you knock out all of its exhaust ports to make its reactor go critical. What sets The Dreadnaught Factor apart from a typical space shooter is how you can make multiple passes over each dreadnaught. In one pass, you might take out all of its defenses and save its exhaust ports for another pass. But beware that the dreadnaught moves closer to firing range between each pass, and it moves faster in the higher levels, giving you fewer passes to blow it up. The damage you incur on the dreadnaught actually affects how it performs. For example, if you blow up all of its engines, it approaches much more slowly. If you take out its missile silos, it won’t be able to fire on Earth by the time it reaches orbit and will just sit there, thinking very angry thoughts at you. In the game’s higher levels, the dreadnaught will repair some of the damage it has taken and become a threat once again.
The Dreadnaught Factor is a very good-looking game by 5200 standards, and is not hampered by the 5200’s otherwise gawd-awful joystick. In fact, the analog nature of the 5200’s controller gives your fighter very fast & precise movements, allowing you to deftly dodge & weave between cannon fire to pick off the dreadnaught’s key systems. The difficulty scales nicely too; level 1 is a piece of cake while level 7 is nigh-impossible! I’d say levels 4 or 5 offer the best balance and are the most fun to play. Like most 5200 games, The Dreadnaught Factor was released for Atari’s 8-bit line of computers as well, and can also be found on the Intellivision, where the action is rotated 90 degrees.
Thanks for reading my reviews! Next week, we’re going backpacking and Drac-hunting across Europe in Castlevania: Bloodlines!