Gunstar Heroes Review
Part of me wanted to explore one of those older Sega Genesis/Mega Drive games that I’d never finished, so my first thought was to go back and try Light Crusader. While looking up details about it online, however, I started reading up on other games made by developer Treasure and veered toward Gunstar Heroes instead. I had a Genesis growing up, but had never played this game before I picked it up in the same pack of games I got Landstalker in, and it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea when I first tried it; my first experience with this game was trying the third stage—one that scrolls upward in the very beginning—with no idea about the game’s weapon combination system. As a result, I quickly got frustrated and decided that it wasn’t for me. When I started actually reading about it, though, I thought that having a bunch of different weapon combinations was an interesting idea, so I read up on which ones would be the best for someone not very good at this run-and-gun type of game and jumped right in.
And it was definitely better this time
The number of different ways you can play this game is impressive, and doubly so when you consider its age. When you first start the game, you choose between a character who can move and shoot at the same time and another character who stops to shoot. I chose being able to move while shooting, mostly because I opted to play through the game with the weapon combination that gives you a homing laser, which meant that I could run around and watch as enemies were automatically taken down around me. For awhile I wondered what the possible benefit of standing still while shooting could possibly be, but then I stumbled onto a speedrun for the game where the runner used a weapon combination that gave them a wall of fire that they could control. Since their character didn’t move when they moved the wall of fire, it allowed them to use it as both a shield and a weapon, which was actually a lot of fun to watch. As for the weapons, you choose one of the game’s four weapons at the very beginning and then pick up new weapons (or don’t, if you’re happy with what you have) that drop as you play. Once you have two weapons, you can use either individually or both in combination, and these combinations range from homing lasers to huge projectiles and even something vaguely lightsaber-ish.
Of course, since I was playing as part of the Sega Classics pack or whatever, I had access to save states. It’s hard to say if I could have beaten the game without them, because while stages are typically easy enough, bosses range from “why did you even bother showing up” levels of easy to “please stop murderizing me” degrees of difficult. Apparently this was considered one of the easier games of this type back when it released, but I’ve never been any good at them in the first place, and even the easier games tended to require replaying over and over again until you learned their patterns. I’m sure it becomes more friendly once you know to watch out for this attack or that attack, but a first playthrough is full of all kinds of unexpected surprises.
There’s plenty to love about Gunstar Heroes, though, especially toward the beginning of the game. The first stage is fairly straightforward, but the second stage takes place in a mining cart that’s immune to gravity for some reason, allowing you to jump from the floor to the ceiling (and from wall to wall during those times when the mine goes straight down or up for some inexplicable reason). Even the third stage manages to be enjoyable despite it being the one that initially turned me off of the game, and it ends with two separate boss fights on top of a helicopter. The entire game has that kind of lighthearted action-hero-excess vibe to it, too. There’s a ton of personality.
And then things start to go downhill
The fourth stage starts ordinarily enough, but has a quirky little “dice palace” that you quickly reach. This plays out kind of like a game of Mario Party where your fate is largely in the hands of the random number generator because the challenges/enemies you face are determined by where you land on the little board, and where you land is determined by what you roll on the die. Sometimes you find yourself in a boss fight. Other times you might end up in a room with powerups and some health. It’s just as likely that you’ll end up in one of the timed rooms, which are basically little minigames that run the gamut from inoffensive to painfully gimmicky. The latter is the case with the one I found myself hitting most frequently whenever I’d play through the stage, that being one where you have to punch switches to get through a little maze. Problem is, whenever I’d try to jump after landing on a ledge, I’d instead end up doing a diving attack move, end up hitting a switch, and find myself irritated that the room is designed to make this so frustratingly easy to do. I can’t help but think it was designed that way on purpose in order to be as annoying as possible.
The level after that is better, but the boss fight at its end is misleading because once you finish off his health, he just gets more health and fights you with new moves. Why not double his initial health bar and have him switch his moves when he’s at half health? At least then you’d know when the fight actually ends. This isn’t too bad in the grand scheme of things, but the space shooter level afterward is. I got to wondering why this is, especially since Freedom Planet has something similar that didn’t bother me in a similar way, and I think it comes down to difficulty. I mean, I’m terrible at space shooters, but I could get through Freedom Planet’s level pretty easily, unlike the one in, say, Megaman V. Gunstar Heroes’ space stage isn’t easy, though, because there are bullets and enemies all over, and some enemies even teleport in to surround you before attacking you all at once.
And two levels after that is the final stage, a boss rush where something became painfully apparent: you were supposed to piece together how everything works already. This is highlighted midway through the stage when a boss uses a giant laser weapon that spins and that there’s no way to get away from. Instead, you have to have figured out by this point that your diving attack grants you invincibility frames, which is a weird thing to require exploiting for the first time in the final stage of the game. Boss rushes in general aren’t my favorite thing in the world to begin with, but the possibility of having to re-fight the handful of bosses that precede this guy because you didn’t figure out something that wasn’t used until that point had a way of making this even worse for me. To be fair, bosses here are all pretty entertaining and you’re given unlimited continues (something that was unheard of in 1993), and playing now means having the option of using save states, but that laser weapon is just unforgivable. You don’t make something necessary for the first time in the game in the final 10-15 minutes. Doing so is just unimaginably dumb design.
It has a non-story and lots of flashing
I usually start these reviews by talking about the story, but the way the story is set up in-game makes no sense whatsoever. I don’t know if there’s a game manual filled with back story tying everything together somewhere out there, but nothing like that came with the Sega pack of games I got, so I have to judge it for what’s there, and what’s there is incoherent gibberish. There are a bunch of gems, an evil emperor-type villain, something about a creator, and none of it makes any sense.
Gunstar Heroes is also prone to going off like a strobe light, flashing colors back and forth to indicate that something totally radical is happening, because apparently you wouldn’t be able to figure that out on your own. This quickly gets to be overkill and gave me a serious migraine, and I’d imagine that anyone with a medical condition that involves light sensitivity or sensitivity to flashing lights should steer as far away from this game as is humanly possible.
It looks and sounds great, though
Despite my problems with the game, there’s no denying that its graphics and music haven’t aged as much as you’d probably expect. The colorful art style gives the game a kind of timeless look that wouldn’t look out of place in one of the modern games that tries to follow in an older game’s footsteps (Freedom Planet, Shovel Knight, Volgarr the Viking, etcetera), and everything has so much personality that it’s hard not to fall in love with the game’s completely unique look. The music fares similarly, and while being on the Genesis/Mega Drive’s older hardware limits the soundtrack quite a bit, it’s so insufferably catchy that I found several themes stuck in my head for days on end.