(Review archived from October 8, 2018)
Prior to playing Gunstar Heroes I had only a vague familiarity with Treasure’s back catalog of titles. And while Gunstar Heroes isn’t necessarily representative of the entire Treasure oeuvre, I think it does expose some elements of the ‘Treasure philosophy’ of game design.
Gunstar Heroes is a thrill-ride run-n-gun that focuses on fun above all else. In a lot of ways I was reminded of Metal Slug in this capacity, although that’s not necessarily a great comparison due to the fact that Gunstar Heroes predates Metal Slug by three years. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether Gunstar Heroes helped to inform some of the gameplay elements that would later appear in Metal Slug. Namely, the action in Gunstar Heroes is fairly constant. If you’re removing your finger from the trigger for even an instant it probably means that you’re not shooting at some enemy onscreen. If you like your run-n-guns a bit on the frenetic side, this game doesn’t disappoint. Furthermore, Gunstar Heroes has that satisfying feeling of bombast one finds in a Metal Slug game. While it doesn’t focus on the type of spectacle you might find in a Contra title, enemies are typically dispatched in satisfying displays of color and sound. It really needs to be said that Gunstar Heroes is a treat for the senses. Big bold colors and well executed graphics (skewing towards the cartoon-ish) lend themselves to a unique and compelling visual style. It’s not overly complicated and ornate, but nor is it simplistic and childlike. The visuals are executed precisely in such a way as to keep the player focused on the gameplay itself (where arguably it belongs in the first place) and not to serve as a distraction. I’d say the same can be said of the sound design as well.
And once again, the gameplay is a solid experience. Gunstar Heroes is a game that’s easy to pick up and play (a quality I found lacking in Alien Soldier, which is probably its closest comparison in the Treasure stable). At the same time, it’s a game that can be difficult to master. Gunstar Heroes has a surprisingly deep moveset and power-up system, to say nothing of its sudden and unexpected divergences into shmup territory late in the game (more on that in a sec). At any given time in the game you can carry two separate weapon power-ups. What’s interesting about this is that you can combine different power-ups to yield new and different weapon hybrids. So combining the Flame gun with the Chaser gun will yield a Homing Flamethrower for example. With four different base weapon types, this gives the player a total of 10 different possible weapon hybrids to experiment with (since each base weapon can be combined with itself to yield a more powerful version of the base). I’m quite sure that various combinations are more effective in specific situations, but having said that, I completed the game entirely with the same (admittedly boring) combination, Force + Force.
One of the things I’ve learned about Treasure is that they’re a bit well known for their focus on boss fights. And while Gunstar Heroes has some really nice level segments, I would say that it’s still the boss fights which take center stage. The bosses here are inventive and occasionally quite challenging, particularly as you get late in the game. This of course culminates late in the game as a boss rush level prior to fighting the final boss proper. Now I’m not a huge fan of boss rush segments, but the clever boss designs and solid gameplay here does indeed take some of the sting away. Be warned though, the last boss is a toughie! I have to wonder whether a ‘smarter’ weapon combination might have proven more effective against the last boss.
Another gameplay aspect that’s a bit of a mixed bag for me is when a game throws a curve ball and suddenly changes format late in the game. And Gunstar Heroes indulges in this particular aspect. Oh you thought this was a run-n-gun? Well now you’re playing a shmup sucker! And the shmup segment here is … interesting. On one hand it plays surprisingly similar to the run-n-gun segments, at least in so far as directional firing and so forth. On the other hand, this is so drastically different feeling than almost any other shmup I’ve played, that the result for this gamer was a feeling of whiplash (and not to mention a few lost lives) before I was able to acclimate myself. While some would say the ‘board game’ level is the weak point in this title, for me it was this shmup section. Still and all though, we are talking about the same company that would go on to create Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun, so it’s shortsighted to say they didn’t have the chops to pull off some great feeling shmups. I think my feelings on this level can mostly be chalked up to the fact that I just suck at shmups, lol.
At any rate Gunstar Heroes is good, really good in fact. If you’re a fan of run-n-guns, I’d even go so far as to call this required playing. It adds some inventive tweaks to the classic run-n-gun formula which in turn make that formula feel fresh and interesting.
This review is dedicated to the late, great Gunstar Green.