The current generation of download-friendly consoles has been very, very good for us Treasure fans, as we’ve experienced the return (and in some cases, arrival) of many of the developer’s best and brightest. From Gunstar Heroes and the original Sin & Punishment on the Wii, to more recent releases like Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun on XBLA, it was only a matter of time before we’d see the return of Guardian Heroes, arguably the best beat ’em up game ever created. Essentially a 32-bit follow-up to their superb Guardian Heroes, it helped make those of us only rocking Sega’s Saturn feel better about our purchase over Sony’s considerably more popular 32-bitter, and helped fulfilled Treasure’s epic promise to deliver entirely new experiences with every new release.
The only problem was timing; given the unpopularity of the Saturn and the changing tastes of the industry at the time of its release, Guardian Heroes had everything going for it – except success. Apart from 2005’s subpar Gameboy Advance version, as well as a constant presence on Ebay, the game has been in hibernation since 1996. But with the interest in side-scrolling brawlers on the rise, thanks in part to the success of games like Castle Crashers, the timing for its revival couldn’t be better. With an unmatched combat system, explosive hand-drawn visuals, frantic online multiplayer battles, and one of the craziest and best soundtracks ever recorded, this may be the greatest re-release of the greatest game you’ve probably never played.
There is something of a story here involving a kingdom in peril, parallel worlds, zombie warriors with giant swords, and the usual assortment of effeminate baddies and plucky – and impossibly cute – princesses. The difference is you’ll get to select from multiple paths to get to one of the game’s multiple endings, much like Sega’s Golden Axe: Revenge of Death Adder or Capcom’s King Arthur, and your choices filtering through a rudimentary karma system that helps determine how tough (or easy) it’ll be. There’s scads of different heroes and enemies to meet along the way, from cowardly soldiers to giant blobs, from robotic sociopaths to evil mushrooms, many of which you’ll see once and never again – the game rarely repeats itself in a single setting. You can skip the zany plot if you want, but keep in mind your choices will directly affect what you’ll see – and what you won’t. Replay value isn’t just an option here; it’s essential.
But like many of Treasure’s best games, narrative takes a backseat to the gameplay, which includes an array of attacks, magic, combos, and nearly endless mixing of all three. Unlike most beat ‘em ups that let you guide your character anywhere you want onscreen, you’re limited to battling across three defined planes: forward, middle, and back (not unlike SNK’s Fatal Fury). You’ll have to alternate between them manually, which adds yet another level of strategy to the fun, as this allows a greater flexibly to employ clever combos of melee and magic attacks to the hordes you’ll be facing.
The controls should be largely familiar to genre fans, and Sega’s upgraded them to work wonderfully on the Xbox 360’s 2D-challenged gamepad. Original mode retains much of the Saturn’s original flavor, while a ‘remix’ mode swaps out the magic button for a stronger new attack, sprinkling in air dashes and recoveries as well. While this may sound like your typical button-masher, it’s not; trying that stunt will quickly spell “Game Over” for you and your unfortunate playing partner. Speaking of partners, you’ll have access to four different characters to take on the multi-arched, arcade-style story mode with up to four fellow humans, including Samuel Han: the prototypical muscular, yet slow, sword-carrying warrior, Ginjirou Ibushi: a lightning-fast and combo-ready ninja warrior, Randy M. Green: a fast – and weak – magician with an adorable little pet rabbit by his side, and Nicole Neil: a clumsy, stereotypical anime girl who balances melee attacks with magic.
Each have their own stable of moves, magic abilities, and combo attacks, some of which recall directional-input moves (much like Guardian Heroes’ aping of Street Fighter moves). There’s also your faithful zombie companion, who can be controlled somewhat via a system of commands to attack and guard, giving another dimension to a combat system that’s already overflowing with goodness. There’s also an RPG-style upgrade system that lets you increase certain attributes of your character, like strength, vitality, luck, and so forth, based on how many skill points earned by thrashing and inflicting as much damage on the previous level.
Once you’ve exhausted the story mode, there’s a Versus mode that lets you and 11 (yes, I said 11) other brawlers duke it out using any one of the game’s 40 different characters, assuming you’ve played through the story mode and unlocked all of them. The original Saturn game was ‘limited’ to a paltry 6, which was chaotic enough as it was, so I’m not sure how anyone but the hardest of hardcore will really get much from taking full advantage of what 12-player online madness has to offer. The same goes for the new Arcade mode, which is basically an expanded game of survival that lets you blast through endless hordes (and hordes) of baddies using any of the unlocked characters to test your mettle. For true Treasure fanatics, it probably doesn’t get much better than having the privilege to die endlessly again and again.
What would an XBLA re-release be without a visual overhaul? Sega’s bumped up the visuals to HD standards, replacing the original 4:3 aspect-ratio with a proper 16:9 widescreen display, which suits the frantic action and character-flooded gameplay well, complete with cinematic cameras that zoom in/out to give a greater view of the action. The soundtrack, a bizarre mix of techno-jazz compositions and orchestrated funk, remains one of the best I’ve ever heard, and it’s 100% complete here for a new generation to fall in love with. Seriously, it’s that great.
The exquisitely rendered anime-style visuals remain intact and are as vibrant as ever, especially in this age of browns and grays. Thankfully, they haven’t been replaced with less-capable artwork, but have been smoothed over with filters that make them sharper than ever, with added hatched shading giving them a slight Flash-style look and feel. For the most part, it’s an adequate compromise to appeal to the HD-obsessed who couldn’t imagine playing a game with chunky sprites, but there are times when some of the filters don’t work as well as they could, especially when layers of filtered parallax backgrounds on top of scads of filtered sprites mix with transparency effects. The results look like someone urinated all over a watercolor painting, with dripping pastels running down over the sides.
My advice: stick with the original artwork, in all its chunky glory, which the magicians at Treasure took great pains back in 1996 to look as beautiful and vibrant as possible; a trait missing from their filtered, HD counterparts. The game just looks better in its natural state, and seems to function better in the heat of battle, too.
Few games have benefited from the remake process as much as Guardian Heroes, which lovingly brings Treasure’s cult-classic into the modern age of high-definition visuals and online multiplayer with the dignity it deserves. The combo-driven combat system is second-to-none, and multi-branching storylines and unlockable characters, including an insane 12-player online battle madness, make for one of the most replayable games ever made. The filtered visuals, which bring the original Saturn sprites kicking and screaming into widescreen HD, are thankfully just an option (to be turned off), while the original jazz-infused techno soundtrack remains as awesome as it ever was. The work of a developer with something to prove, the world needs Guardian Heroes now more than ever.