Gunstar Heroes is side-scrolling shooting sublimated, chaos synchronized into a bullet symphony that makes the game feel very addictive.
Created by Treasure, a cove of ex-Konami developers who wanted to develop unique games and follow the philosophy of “anything goes,” Heroes covers the adventures of the Gunstars as they fight against an evil organization that wants to resurrect a super powerful robot called the Golden Silver.
“Anything goes” results in some inventive and exhilarating game design. Enemies come in waves, frenetic action intensifies, mechas charge you, and explosions rock the screen like a fiery ballad. The boss battles are epic, sometimes taking on multiple stages, and playing out like an action movie on overdrive. Every scene is jam packed with energy.
From the opening, you play as twin brothers Red and Blue, selecting one of four stages as well as your starting weapon. You can wield two weapons at once, using them in isolation or combining them for different effects that give you fourteen different weapon possibilities. But that’s not the only attack you have.
An indispensable feature Treasure incorporated is that your characters can perform melee actions in case enemies get too close. In many side-scrolling games, like Contra, which some of the developers had worked on, physical contact with the opposition kills your player. This never made sense to me since your characters are supposed to be fighting badasses. In Gunstar, enemies can be thrown if they get too close, attacked with a jump kick, or demolished by a sliding charge. If you play in 2-player mode, you can also throw your partner to inflict damage. It’s comforting to know that the Gunstar family’s fighting prowess isn’t just limited to guns.
The levels are as varied as the weapon combos. In the Flying Battleship stage, you chase the airship as it tries to launch. That’s an autoscrolling climb up a series of platforms and warding off lasers beams from grunts who explode into fiery bursts when you shoot them. The music is awesome, the beats emphasizing the urgency of catching up to General Orange before he makes his escape with his gem. You fight rocket pack soldiers and a gigantic Swapping Reg mecha who hops all over the place before a battle against General Orange above a smaller plane with a rotor while his soldiers cheer him on. If that sounds like a mouthful, imagine playing it. Before each boss battle, the name of your opponent and their set of attacks display on screen in preparation for the pending confrontation.
The Underground Mine is a roller coaster ride on mine carts where you ride the rails on bottom or shift gravity to the top and fight upside down. Depending on which difficulty level you’re playing at, the Seven Force boss can range from nearly impossible, but awesome, to manageable, even if deadly. The Seven Force’s pilot, who happens to be your brother, Green, has a suave and slick introduction. He rides an aerial platform, jumping into the air before a robotic suit surrounds him in a move that would make Tony Stark proud. Many of Green’s forms channel animals, from eagle to urchin and tiger. It’s a savage fight against mechanical beasts.
The Strange Fortress stage is aptly strange. It actually incorporates a board game into the gameplay. You toss a dice that moves you along a board and warps you into a number of fights depending on what you rolled. Sometime, you get lucky and enter an item room. Other times, you’re thrust into a battle where you’re hampered by rules like taking away the use of your weapons. A slew of strange enemies await, like Curry and Rice and a Vortex Base. I’ve never fought Curry and Rice before, but the battle smelled good.
Just when you think you understand the game, it mixes everything up again, though always with style. After you go on a rescue operation to save your sister, you end up having to surrender all the gems you’ve struggled to procure. In the background, the massive space ship takes off with your enemies laughing insidiously and you see a city beyond that’ll be endangered if you don’t do something.
In the next level, you get into a ship of your own to attack with. The gameplay and controls are tight in this space dogfight and honestly, could have been a game in itself. Once you’re able to penetrate the Core Generator, a boss fight ensues with impressive graphics that mimic 3D using sprite scaling. Gunstar Heroes did things on my Genesis I didn’t know the Genesis was capable of.
Treasure, with a development team of only seven members, created a legendary game that took gamers by storm. It’s fascinating to hear that Sega of America had almost universally rejected the game for an American port if it wasn’t for one of their producers, Mac Senour. After playing it for five minutes, he felt it would be “Game of the Year.” His only requested change was that one of the bosses, Hitler, should be turned into another character. Sega of America also requested the game’s original title, Lunatic Gunstar, be changed to Gunstar Heroes, a decision I believe served it well.
While it’s a short game, I appreciated that Gunstar Heroes has difficulty levels that can satisfy all kinds of gamers. Those who just want to get a taste of the action can play in Easy mode, whereas those who welcome laser maelstroms can pick Expert mode (good luck!). Unlimited continues are welcome and like many Genesis games, there was a music and sound effects test mode where you can listen to any of the music (it’s a feature I wish more games still had).
It’s amazing how a development studio, given creative freedom, can push the boundaries of a genre. Even the climax, where your brother, Green, regains control of his mind, is symbolic of Treasure finding independence from their previous shackles. Green performs the ultimate sacrifice to save the world just as Treasure sacrificed stable jobs to give gamers who were seeking something different a mindblowing and, ultimately, heroic experience.