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.