Saturday, January 12, 2013

Gunstar Heroes For Sega Genesis

About 20 years ago, a group of developers at Konami got sick of cranking out run-and-gun Contra sequels, and left to form their own game company. Their freshman effort, Gunstar Heroes, is, well, another run-and-gun shooter. But this one happens to be a fantastic example of the genre, and an all-around great game.

The Gunstar family has served as guardians of the distant planet Gunstar-9 for generations, free to name their children after primary colors in relative peace. That peace was shattered when Smash Daisaku, an evil dictator with a suspicious resemblance to M. Bison and a fondness for interpretive dance, mind-controls Gunstar brother Green and forces him to steal four Magic McGuffin Gems. The remaining Gunstar brothers, Red and Blue, set out to free Green, defeat Smash, recover the gems and prevent the return of evil robotic uber-baddy, Golden Silver. Also Brown, Orange, Yellow, Pink, Grey, and Black.

From the get-go, Gunstar Heroes sets itself apart from the typical shooter by offering the player loads of choice. You can select the order in which you play through the first few levels, and pick the weapon you're equipped with at the beginning of each level. You can also choose from two different control styles: Free Shot and Fixed Shot. Free Shot is very similar to Contra's controls in that you can move freely but only shoot in the general direction in which you're facing. Fixed Shot plants your feet while shooting, but allows you to quickly aim in any direction. That may sound like a liability, but when enemies are swarming on you from all sides, the ability to Death Blossom yourself can be a life-saver. Your character has a few useful melee moves as well, like a surprisingly effective belly flop and foot slide. You can grab hapless minions who gets too close and launch them over your head, or dangle from ledges with one hand while spraying lead in any direction. You can even lob bombs back at the enemies who threw them. Smooth controls have often been a weak spot of run-and-gun games, but Gunstar Heroes has no such problem. The Gunstars' jump arcs are smooth and controllable in mid-air; they run at a brisk pace, and their more acrobatic melee moves are easy enough to pull off that they're actually useful. Useful melee attacks in a shooter... who'da thunk it?

Weapons are handled in a unique manner, too. There are powerful short-ranged flamethrowers, lasers that punch through multiple baddies, homing guns, and deadly high-speed ping pong ball launchers. At the beginning of each level, you can select any one of them to occupy your first weapons slot. This feature is pretty handy by itself, as anyone who's ever lost the Contra spread gun at a critical moment can attest. However, when you pick up another weapon in the level and add it to the second slot, you can use both weapons' effects at once. For example, combining the laser with the homing gun nets you a powerful penetrating weapon with homing ability, while mixing the flamethrower with the ping pong machinegun grants you a fireball launcher with a very high rate of fire. You can even pick up two weapons of the same type to make them much more powerful; picking up two flamethrowers doubles its range, for example. Experimenting with the different weapon combinations is a brilliant way for Treasure to extend the replay value of Gunstar Heroes. 

Gunstar Heroes breaks with tradition in another way: You only have one life, but you can take multiple hits. Your hit points, or 'vitality', is represented by a numerical value on the top of the screen; the game ends when it hits zero, but you have unlimited continues. Again, this is a brilliant design choice given the amount of carnage that most levels throws at the player. Not having to sweat instant death by a stray bullet or collision with an enemy makes the levels flow much more smoothly, and it encourages risk-taking, like soaking up a few hits to reach a boss' weak spot.

Speaking of bosses, Gunstar Heroes is full of them. Sub-bosses and main bosses abound; each more bizarre than the last. For example, the very first one you encounter is a gigantic asparagus stalk named Papaya Dance. Most bosses are made up of a complex assemblage of sprites that scale and rotate to give them an amazing 3D look. Nowhere is this effect put to better use than near the end of the game when a gigantic robot runs around a circular room, smoothly shifting from the background to the foreground in an effect that would look impressive on the Neo Geo.

Getting to the boss battles is just as much fun. There's not a lot of variation in the type of minions you run across, but they're nicely detailed; drawn in an cartoonish style reminiscent of the Metal Gear games, and, as I've mentioned before, loads of them attack at you at once. The typical left-to-right runs on foot are broken up by battles on magnetic mining carts, ascents on gigantic airships in flight, battles in space and, in one particularly memorable level, a series of mini-games played on a life-size board game. The levels tend to be short and intense, and there aren't many more beyond the initial four. On the easier difficulty settings, Gunstar Heroes can be completed in about an hour, though the harder difficulties make it much more challenging and two player mode certainly extends its play value. Gunstar Heroes' brevity may be its only significant failing, but really that's not such a bad problem for a video game to have. There are games I've never finished at all, and there are games I couldn't wait to be over, but Gunstar Heroes kept me riveted,  and left me begging for more. No padding, no backtracking, and no impossible levels; just a pure, intense gaming experience from start to finish.

Being a somewhat poor seller in its day, Gunstar Heroes has flown under the radar of mainstream gaming for a long time, earning only one direct sequel on the Game Boy Advance. However, the fans have spoken, and faithful recreations of this Genesis classic have finally turned up on the Playstation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, the Wii Virtual Console and on iOS devices. Gunstar Heroes is a perfect mix of amazing graphics, tight controls, intense gameplay and a quirky sense of humor. It's one of the best 16-bit titles ever released, and it absolutely should not be missed.

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