“ Developer: Treasure / Released: 9th September 1993 „
In gaming terms, Gunstar Heroes on the Sega Megadrive is an OAP of a game. It's also one of those titles that that has a certain aura about it. Mention it to anyone who has ever played it and they will instantly start to tell you how good it is. Until recently, I'd never had the opportunity to try it, but have now rectified this and can confirm it is fully deserving of its "classic" status.
Made by renowned developer Treasure, Gunstar Heroes is one of the finest examples of the run and gun genre. Your objective is simple: make your way from left to right, destroying anything that gets in your way until you reach the end of a level. Various boss battles are also thrown into the mix just to make your life even tougher.
The graphics (which were hugely impressive at the time of their release) now look a little blocky and dated. Although they look quite cute and appealing, the Manga style no longer feels as fresh as it once did and the animation on characters is a little limited (your main character runs as though he has a stick stuck up his backside). However, they do show a lot of imagination. Enemies are many and varied with lots of character. Thanks to the setting of the various levels they also break free of the spaceships and aliens that characterised most 90s shoot 'em ups. The different setting and look of each level also helps provide a genuine sense of progression.
What really impresses about the graphics, though, is the sheer amount of activity. Enemy soldiers are relentless in their attack and if you hang around or fail to kill them quickly enough, the screen rapidly fills with people who mean you harm. This means that the game constantly has a seriously frantic feel, a breathless pace where there is rarely time to stop and think. If you want to survive, then your options boil down to two simple things: run like hell and shoot anything that moves.
No matter how busy the screen gets, there is rarely any slowdown. This was a common problem with 16 bit games, as the developer's ambitions often surpassed the abilities of the hardware they were working with. Not so Treasure, who were past masters at getting the most out of the Megadrive. Their mastery of the system is shown here in the fluid, smooth graphics, which look good but never slow down. This really adds to the frantic pacing of the game and means that the action is not ruined by pauses as it all becomes too much for the poor old Megadrive.
Where the busy screens can be a problem is that the sheer amount of activity can make it tricky to keep track of your character. There have been plenty of times when I've only had the very vaguest idea where I was in the melee of on-screen sprites. This can impact a little on gameplay as at such times you simply have to rely on a combination of luck and button mashing to survive without suffering too much damage.
Like the graphics, the sound has aged somewhat. The various tunes that play throughout are OK without being anything special and they are all quite short and loop endlessly, which can become a little repetitive. Sound effects are exactly the sort of thing you would expect: gunfire, explosions and so on. Nothing special, but perfectly suited to the game. The sound effects and music do work well together, though, to create a pulsating atmosphere that matches the game's frantic pace.
Where Treasure have always excelled is in the area of game design. A run and gunner might seem a simple genre to create. After all, you just need an odd bit of scenery and plenty of enemy sprites, don't you? Well, no; not if you want to get it right. The careful positioning of enemies is actually a real skill. Get it wrong one way and the game becomes too easy, lacking in challenge; get it wrong the other way and it becomes frustratingly hard and almost unplayable to all but gaming gods. Get it right and you end up with Gunstar Heroes.
Gunstar is so carefully thought out, it's almost painful. The positioning of enemies might seem entirely random, but every aspect has clearly been carefully designed. They are put in tempting, but slightly tricky locations. That leaves you to decide what your best tactic is. Do you just try and run as fast as you can from one side of the screen to the other, getting the hell out of there as fast as you can? Or do you take a bit more time and try and kill as many soldiers as possible, racking up the points, but risking damage? Similarly, as power-ups are dropped, do you risk going for them (which will make life a little easier) or play it safe and ignore them (but be left with a weaker weapon.) Gunstar Heroes really does have that perfect balance between risk and reward.
With only 4 stages, the game might appear rather short, but like many old school games, it is pretty tricky. The four stages actually have lots of different sections, so it will actually take longer than you think to get through them all. With careful thought, however, progress should be possible since enemies always crop up in the same positions each time so the more you play, the better you will get. Virtually every game you play will see you progress just that little bit further since you know what to expect and can get yourself into the best position on screen to kill enemies before they can get you. Of course, that's not to say it can't be frustrating - dying for the 95th time in almost the same spot is annoying in any game - but it's not so frustrating as to put you off playing.
Normally, predictable enemy patterns limit the long term appeal of a title: after all, once you have beaten the game, there is no further challenge. I suspect, though, that Gunstar Heroes is such a fun game that even when you have beaten it dozens of times, you will still come back for another quick go every so often. The mere fact that people still talk about it and play over 20 years after its first release shows how much long term playability it's got!
Gunstar Heroes might be of pensionable age in gaming terms, but it's still a superb example of how to construct a game. An excellent blend of frantic action, risk and reward gameplay and a perfectly judged difficulty curve, it's hard to see how it could be bettered. There's a part of me that's screaming out for this to be remade using today's technology. The saner part of met hopes that it is left alone. After all look at what happened to another classic - Syndicate - when it was remade. Attempting to remake this would probably be disastrous and soil the memory of one of Treasure's finest moments. Apart from enhancements to the presentation, it's hard to see how a more powerful machine could improve this game and easy to see how modern developers could destroy it. Gunstar Heroes is a (intern)national treasure and should be treated as such.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012