(Review archived from April 6, 2018)
Over the years I’ve seen The Guardian Legend referred to in various places as a ‘hidden gem’ on the NES. And I think that’s an apt assessment. It’s not what I’d necessarily call an extraordinary game, but it is a good game, and one that deserves to be recognized for its merits.
What we have here is an action/adventure setup taking place inside an alien infested planet (meteor?) which is hurling toward Earth and will undoubtedly wreak large scale havoc and destruction should it reach its intended target. You play the role of a lone cybernetic super-soldier sent to infiltrate the planet/meteor and prevent this catastrophe from happening. This really sets up some nice atmosphere reminiscent of Metroid in a way, e.g. the loneliness of space, the harshness of your environs, and the unrelenting firepower you unleash upon the alien hordes. Your cybernetic enhancements grant you the ability to transform between human form and a weaponized spacecraft capable of high speeds and aerial maneuvers. Accordingly gameplay is divided fairly equally between on-foot overhead shooting sections and top down shmup (shoot ’em up) sections. This division between on-foot and in-vehicle play style is also a bit reminiscent of Blaster Master, particularly so for the on-foot sections.
Basically there’s a single ‘overworld’ which is broken down into areas of various difficulty. All on-foot gameplay takes place in this overworld which primarily serves as a means of traversal to reach myriad ‘corridor entrances’. These corridors serve as the shmup ‘levels’ in the game. In this way a comparison can also be made to The Legend of Zelda in which you travel across an overworld in order to reach various dungeon entrances which serve here as entrances to shmup levels instead. The overworld sections are a bit rote to be honest. The gameplay is quite good, but the enemy variation is lacking and despite the fact that the overworld is broken up into 10 different areas, none of them are very visually distinct save for some various palette swaps. I mentioned that these areas are quite reminiscent of Blaster Master and I think that comparison has merit. You’ll see similar enemy patterns, similar destructible blocks, similar weapon upgrades, etc. I might give a slight advantage to Blaster Master for gameplay and visual variety, but it’s worth pointing out that The Guardian Legend does some things better in this capacity, notably it controls much more crisply (on-foot sections in Blaster Master have always felt rather drifty to me).
I feel like it’s the shmup sections that are the highlight of this game. In the same ways that the overworld lacks a lot of variation, the shmup levels have it in spades. Each corridor has a specific theme and the enemies you face are generally identifiable as being part of that theme. Furthermore I’d call the shmup bosses the crown jewels of the game. Some of them can be a bit bullet-spongy, but I feel like several of them present a nice challenge as well as some much needed variation.
In some ways I wish that the on-foot sections had the same level of polish and challenge as the shmup sections. As it is The Guardian Legend feels a little bit lopsided, almost like you’re playing two different games; a mediocre-to-good on-foot shooter, and a good-to-great shmup. If these elements had been evened out a bit, I think we’d look back on this not necessarily as a ‘hidden gem’ but one of the best games on the system. The Guardian Legend is still quite a good game and it deserves to be experienced, but this unevenness does occasionally leave you wishing that the on-foot sections were more than just a means of travelling from one shmup section to the next. Recommended for 8-bit shmup fans and for those seeking to tap into the large reserves of ‘hidden’ quality available on the NES.