1993 was the year that hardcore Sega Genesis fans could finally, after years of defending their aging 16-bit console against the likes of the fancier Super Nintendo, comfortably brag about a startling powerful line-up of exclusives (or near-exclusives) that finally helped Sega speed past the world’s most popular videogame company for the first (and only) time. The list reads like a veritable who’s-who of the consoles best and more admired classics, including the original (and bloodier) Mortal Kombat, Street Figher II: Special Champion Edition, Flashback, Aladdin, Rocket Knight Adventures, Shinobi III and, the subject of this review, Treasure’s Gunstar Heroes. Thanks to its blistering action and irresistible gameplay, the game’s become a favorite for Sega to port to any format that can handle it, including Apple’s iOS family of devices.
The story behind the creation of Gunstar Heroes has become one of the gaming industry’s most often-told legends over the years, and its worth repeating here. Following the release of 1992’s Contra III: The Alien Wars for the Super Nintendo and dissatisfied with Konami favoring sequels for established franchises over original creations, a number of employees left the developer and formed their own independent development house – Treasure. As this occurred during what would prove to be the tailspin of Nintendo’s virtual monopoly over third-party developers (which would open their development to rival platforms, including Sega’s Genesis), Treasure found an immediate benefactor in Sega, and set forth proving there was still a bit of life left in the console.
Despite their want to create something new, Gunstar Heroes is still a Contra game at heart, albeit the best Contra game ever made. Its major gameplay remains an action-packed 2D side-scrolling platformer, with diversions like riding gravity-defying mine-carts, top-down ships, and even tossing giant dice against a board game of life-and-death. Many elements that would soon become iconic Treasure staples, such as epic boss battles, punishing difficulty, and what seems like a supernatural ability to squeeze every last ounce of power out of whatever console they’re developing for, began here. Indeed, the game’s use of transparency effects, multi-sprite bosses, and 3D polygons all flashing across the screen with little slowdown and at speeds that would melt the technically superior SNES wasn’t just admirable; it was awesome.
More than that, the core gameplay is completely solid, and remains just as fresh today as it was back in 1993. You’ll get to pick from either a free-running or fixed-shot character, and then get to select your ‘main’ weapon from force fire (straight shot), lightning (fires through enemies), chaser (homing attack), and fire (powerful flamethrower). You’ll be able to pick up and discard others along the way, cycling through them as you like. But the real power in Gunstar’s gameplay is how you’ll combine different weapons to create entirely new ones; combine the chaser with lightning and you’ll get a powerful homing laser, or combine two force fires fora devastatingly powerful bullet ball attack. Some combos are better than others, but the real fun is finding just the right one that suits your particular style.
But its not just shooting that gets the job done, as you’ll also be able to perform several melee attacks that are just as – and often more – powerful. Practically every enemy (and even your co-player) can be tossed and used to take out others, double-jumping means drop-kicking or belly flops attacks to make short work of crowds, and pulling off Street Fighter-style moves lets you slide for an extra burst of power. Like Contra, you’ll be able to cling underneath platforms, climb up walls, and even combine melee attacks for even more fun. The real joy is how you’ll get to use all these tricks (and several others) in one of the most explosive action games ever made, and how liberating the whole thing is. Having to navigate an anti-gravity mineshaft while dodging enemies being tossed at you (!) by the laughing M. Bison clone Smash Daisaku, then dodging trains racing vertically (!!) before fending off a giant boss that transforms into seven different forms (!!!) is probably the most imaginative and satisfying action ever seen in a video game.
As the game is an emulated version of the Genesis original, every sprite and pixel that helped make it such an impressive demonstration of the console’s power (see above for gushing) is here, although some lag was noticeable on lower-spec iOS devices (such as iPod Touch 2G and iPhone 3GS).
Likewise, Norio Hanzawa’s outstanding soundtrack remains as thrilling and epic as ever, and I’d recommend playing with a good set of headphones to really appreciate his work here. The underground mineshaft, anti-gravity level Underground Mine (perhaps the game’s most famous, thanks to its seven-type transforming boss) has music that’s become imprinted on my very soul, as has The Ancient Ruins’ heroically urgent and unforgettable opening track. I actually play through the game every so often just to soak it all in. It’s a shame the official Japanese OST is so difficult to find, unlike Hanzawa’s other masterpiece, Guardian Heroes, although an endless supply of ‘tribute’ and ‘arranged’ versions are available online if you don’t mind interpretations of the 16-bit originals.
The one thing that manages to bring down an otherwise excellent port is the one that matters most – the controls. There’s no getting around the lack of buttons, and while Sega has made great progress is adapting the Sega Genesis’ control pad to the touchscreen, an action game with the complexity of Gunstar Heroes needs the immediacy of tactile presses and a solid d-pad to enjoy it to the fullest.
If you’re familiar with previous Genesis emulation efforts on the platform than you’ll recognize the various options available here. The default setup is fullscreen action, with transparent d-pad and A/B/C virtual buttons taking up the right side of the screen; this method is practically useless if you actually want to see anything as your fingers will cover so much of the screen. An option of directional accelerometer control lets you tilt the device to move in that direction, but this only makes things worse and should be avoided at all costs. This leaves playing in the scaled-out view your only real option. Its not ideal but, after some adjusting, I was able to plow through the entire game with relatively few control hiccups.
Playing Gunstar Heroes on button-less platforms like Apple’s iOS devices may not be the best way to experience Treasure’s eternally classic action-epic, but whatever problems you’ll have with the lack of tactile feedback is (almost) made up by the fact that you’re still playing Gunstar Heroes. That may sound like circular logic, but there’s just no denying that Treasure’s take on the Contra series remains one of the very best and most exciting action games ever made, and will probably be around as long as there’s enough electricity to power whatever console Sega has ported it to. There may be no way getting around the lack of buttons, but zoom the screen out, plug in some headphones, and experience one of the very best.