When I think of side-scrolling run-and-gun games, three series immediately come to mind: Konami’s Contra, SNK Playmore’s Metal Slug, and Sega’s Gunstar Heroes. Released in 1993, the original Gunstar Heroes for the Genesis/Mega Drive was one of the first games developed by Treasure, the studio that would go on to create other cult-classics like Ikaruga, Sin and Punishment, and Bangai-O.
In Gunstar Heroes, you play as either Red or Blue (or both in two-player mode), and run through a variety of stages filled with enemies trying to kill you. Of course, in any good run-and-gun, you have to get them before they get you. But a number of things set Gunstar Heroes apart from other games of the genre at the time.
First of all, you could choose either “Free” or “Fixed” shooting, meaning that you can either be able to run while shooting, or hold your ground and fire in more directions. Second, you could also play the first four stages in any order you choose. The game also altered other genre conventions, such as the one-hit death. In Gunstar Heroes, you get a vitality counter. Even if you fall into a bottomless pit, you jump right back out as long as you have vitality left, thus eliminating instant deaths altogether. The game even added a variety of melee attacks, such as kicks, slides, lunges, and even grappling and throwing.
As for the actual shooting, the game only gives you four weapons: Force (your standard machine gun-type weapon), Lightning (a laser), Flame (flamethrower), and Seeker (homing bullets). The gimmick here, though, is that you can combine any two weapons together, making for a total of 16 combinations. And while it’s a bit unbalanced, it makes for a great variety to experiment with.
The levels are incredibly diverse, featuring a lot of gimmicks and set pieces that would come to define Treasure’s style, including mine carts, a board game, and even a shmup-style level. Similarly, there are a ton of clever bosses, many of which are huge and made up of multi-segmented sprites. The game was a true technical showcase for the Genesis.
I first played Gunstar Heroes as a rental back in the mid-’90s, and within the first few minutes, I was completely blown away. The flashy set piece-oriented style was something I expected more from arcade games at the time. And while there were some really good home ports of arcade games, Gunstar Heroes was the first time I thought a native console game actually felt like an arcade game.
I waited patiently for a sequel, but Treasure wasn’t the sort of company to create a game simply to milk it as a franchise. As a result, it took 12 years before they returned to the Gunstar Heroes universe with Gunstar Super Heroes on the Game Boy Advance in 2005.
Gunstar Super Heroes bears many similarities to its previous installment, but also a lot of differences. In particular, the gameplay has a distinct feel. It’s still a run-and-gun with melee attacks, but there are just enough tweaks to change things up. Gone are most power-ups, instead allowing each character to switch between three different weapons at any time, and both Red and Blue have slightly different weapon sets. You no longer choose between fixed and free shooting, instead having a combination of both. You can’t grapple opponents anymore, but there are even more melee moves at your disposal. Additionally, there’s a power meter for each weapon that gradually fills up as you use them. This allows you to use a super powerful version of each weapon.
The game also has a bigger emphasis on story, with a lot more dialog and cutscenes than its predecessor. Not only that, but there’s different dialog depending on the different combinations of character and difficulty setting. Between Red and Blue and three difficulties, that’s six different variations of the story. Needless to say, the most revealing versions come from playing on Hard mode. There are also a lot of classic Sega references scattered throughout the game.
One criticism of Gunstar Super Heroes is that it recycles too much from the previous game. True, the level themes are mostly the same, but they’re reinterpreted in new ways. (The “Dice Palace,” for example, is quite a bit different.) That, combined with the new game mechanics, still makes it feel like a unique experience for me. However, the one omission I could agree with is the complete lack of a two-player co-op mode. Gunstar Super Heroes is strictly a single-player game.
I love both games, and I’m not sure if I like one more than the other. To me, they each represent different eras of Treasure’s design style. The original game is more traditional and accessible, but perhaps not quite as deep as what I would expect from Treasure today. The sequel, on the other hand, feels more like “modern” Treasure, with a difficult, complex control scheme, no power-ups, and a weapon power meter. It has a steeper learning curve, but also feels more skill-based and maybe just a bit more replayable. But both games are still tons of fun to play.
The original Gunstar Heroes is a cult classic, and is available in various Sega compilations, as well on Xbox Live Arcade and Wii Virtual Console. Gunster Super Heroes, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as successful. (Probably because it was released on the Game Boy Advance in 2005, well after the Nintendo DS had been released.) The only way to get a hold of it is tracking down the actual cartridge, but that should be fairly easy and cheap.
It’s a shame there hasn’t been a third installment to the series. I respect Treasure’s reluctance to crank out exploitative sequels, but in a way, they almost go too far in the opposite direction. The detailed worlds they create for their games often feel like they could be further explored. Being that Gunstar Heroes represents their roots as a company, it would be nice if they would continue to revisit it from time to time. But as it is, they’re a pair of amazing action games that are definitely worth checking out.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a post prepared this week. I’ve been a bit busy with the holiday and family visiting and all that. I’ll try get back on the ball next week. Until then, enjoy your weekend!
I bought a Wii U recently. Waiting a year after its release made it an overall better value, with its slightly cheaper price tag and more compelling library of games. This is one area that the PS4 and Xbox One will be lagging behind on for the next year until they have their own price cuts and some time for their game catalogs to fill out a bit. But I digress.
What I really wanted to talk about was a strangely wistful feeling I had when I began thinking about doing a system transfer from my Wii to the Wii U. The process will port all of my settings, save data, and digital downloads to the new console, but here’s the catch: it can only go in one direction. Once the transfer is made, it can’t go back to the Wii, nor can the data exists on both consoles simultaneously.
No, this is not actually a complaint about Nintendo’s digital policies, or how they need a universal account system like Sony and Microsoft’s platforms have. Rather, it’s the jarring realization that once the transfer is made, my original Wii will be mostly obsolete. I won’t be using it for playing regular Wii games unless I start completely new save files, and after the hundreds of hours I’ve spent on them, I’d rather not.
But what’s the big deal? I can still play them on my shiny new console, and some people even claim they look better. Well, it’s strange, because this is a situation I’ve never had to deal with before on any previous game console. Usually a new system sits side-by-side with my old system for, perhaps, years to come. I’ve never had a new console so completely replace the old one so quickly that there was no point in keeping the old one set up. Nor will there be much point in ever setting it back up in the future.
Say what you will about the Wii, but mine has been perennially hooked up to my TV for nearly seven years, and I’ve never had to “dust it off” as people seem to be so fond of saying. I’ve played tons of great games on it over the years, and I’ve got plenty of fond memories. Sin & Punishment: Star Successor, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, The House of the Dead: Overkill, Sonic Colors, Xenoblade Chronicles… the list goes on and on. Not to mention the Virtual Console and WiiWare.
And again, none of that’s going away. But the console, itself, is. I guess that’s what it ultimately comes down to. I’m feeling sentimental about that little white box, and I’m not ready to let it go just yet. I can’t help but think of how sad it’ll be to switch it on only to see an almost completely empty menu. No Virtual Console games, no active services, just a bunch of blank channels. All it will really be useful for at that point is playing GameCube games in 480p. (Although, I suppose all I use my actual GameCube for is playing Game Boy games on TV, but if I ever want to plug in a memory card for old time’s sake, the option is there. Not so with the Wii.)
So, I think I’ll hold off on the transfer for a while, and let my Wii and Wii U sit side-by-side. My Wii had a great run, and it deserves some dignity before I put it away, possibly for good.
Just wanted to announce that I am now a contributor to The Punk Effect as a retro gaming news reporter/commentator! Unfortunately, my first post was an obituary, but I look forward to posting happier news in the future. I hope you’ll check it out!
I also intend to continue my weekly posts here on Lark’s Island, as well as my periodical “Hey, look what I found!” posts over at the Lagoon. Hopefully I can keep up on everything!
Using digitized imagery in video games was a pretty big trend in the early ’90s. One of the more notable examples in the pre-Mortal Kombat era was Atari Games’ Pit-Fighter. That is, it was notable for its graphics featuring real actors, and pretty much nothing else.
Pit-Fighter is a an arena fighting game that shares more in common with SNK’s Street Smart or Technos’ Renegade than other more recognizable fighting games. Many people note that the game feels more like a beat’em-up, including three-player co-op and weapons you can pick up off the ground. As one of three playable characters, you fight your way through matches with different opponents until you beat the final boss. After every few levels there’s a bonus round where your object is to knock down your opponent (or the other players) three times. And that’s about it.
I’m not gonna beat around bush: the game is not very good. There’s no real skill or strategy involved. You simply mash buttons, and sometimes you hit your opponent and sometimes he/she hits you. It is the very definition of a quarter-muncher.
And yet, it’s also hilarious! The designs of the characters and their animations are so ridiculous that it’s hard to imagine that they were meant to be serious. Their walking look like bad dancing. One guy looks like he’s wearing a diaper! (“Totally Studly,” indeed!) The whole thing is just so late-’80s kitsch that it’s hard not to find it amusing on some level.
Yeah, I admit I kinda like it. I’m not sure the term “guilty pleasure” really applies, but whenever I pop in the Midway Arcade Treasures 2 compilation, I usually have to play at least one game of Pit-Fighter. It’s just so goofy, I always get a good laugh from it. Well, for a minute or two, at least, and then I move on to a better game. I recall seeing it quite often in arcades back in the day, and similarly, it was interesting to drop a quarter into it for the novelty, but it just didn’t have any long-lasting appeal.
Maybe I’m grasping for things here, but I do actually like the attract mode with the images of the main characters training. That’s about the coolest part, and it didn’t cost anything to see it.
The game was ported to several home platforms, including the SNES, Genesis/Mega Drive and Game Boy, and all of them are considered even worse than the arcade version. It was also on a few compilations, like the aforementioned Midway Arcade Treasures 2. A sequel was planned for the Genesis, but it was never released. In 1992, there was sort of a spiritual follow-up in the arcade called Guardians of the Hood that was an actual beat’em-up, but it’s even more obscure.
Is it “so bad, it’s good?” Maybe. It’s not really a fun game, but it’s good for a few laughs. And then move on to something better.
Hardcore Gaming 101: Pre-Street Fighter II Fighting Games