March 16, 2017

In RETROspect: Gunstar Heroes

Erm… so this was supposed to be published back in December 2015 when the club played it, and when my website went haywire and I went rogue. By the time I got everything sorted out I was little turned off by the fact that everyone else had posted their two cents, and they all closely resembled mine. So I decided to stow this away for a rainy day when everyone has forgotten the game instead, and today is that day.

I love it when the Cartridge Club chooses a Genesis title for game of the month, because the Genesis is awesome. Also I have a fuckton of experience with it and I love all these games! For December 2015, the club and I dove into the face-paced (it was supposed to say "fast-paced" but screw it, "face-paced" is more epic) run-and-gun action film wannabe that is Gunstar Heroes. This gem was developed by Treasure and released for the Sega Genesis (slash Mega Drive) in 1993, and I brought it home shortly thereafter and fell in love. And that kinda says something… I'm not the biggest fan of shooters and repetitive games don't normally stay with me (see River City Ransom) but Gunstar has that certain somethin' special… something between solid gameplay and charm, and it just keeps bringing me back for another round. I've played GH numerous times now - too many to count - which is surely testimony of my first impression. I have to say, the game has aged pretty well and reigns supreme as not only one of the best Genesis titles, but one the best shooters of all time. I don't normally need an excuse to whip out GH but since the Cartridge Club rarely reaches out to my beloved Genny, here's your article, guys!
The business: you know the drill. These games are old. Spoilers are on you.

I reckon Gunstar Heroes is a pretty straight forward game. There are definitely a few parameters to be tinkered with, but I've actually put this game into the hands of several newcomers and while typically bad at retro games in general, they've all sorted out GH fairly quickly. It doesn't hurt to have an old pro (i.e. me) in tow, but a manual is not exactly a requirement. The one thing I do recommend is a player 2. GH is a whole lotta fun no matter how you play, but in my 20+ years of experience, it's just way more fun with a friend. Upon my thousandth replay, it took me no time at all to discern what's what and made quick work of my selections process.

The fine folks at Treasure did away with the boring tradition of names, and went the Dr. Seuss route when it came to identifying the characters. Your playable characters are Red and Blue. Red is the run and gunner, while Blue is a fixed shot, however Blue can fire in all directions while Red is limited. Choose wisely.
Then we have our plot device, Green, who's been kidnapped by the empire and brainwashed into working against his comrades;
Yellow, our token chick, a.k.a. the smart one;
Brown, our personal mad scientist. He basically just points at the sky;
M. Bison, er… Smash Daisaku is the empire's henchmen who never leaves you the hell alone;
Black, Pink and Orange are his lackeys;
and finally Emperor… Gray? Red? Rainbow? is the head honcho. There was a whole bunch of shit lost in translation regarding names so I try not to think about it much...

Do you smell that? That smells like… A RETRO VIDEO:
Them tunes, though… Okay! Here's the deal. There are four levels for you to conquer: Strange Fortress, Flying Battleship, Ancient Ruins and Underground Mine. Each has their own unique design and corresponding difficulties. I'd argue that - depending on your difficulty mode - the Ruins are the easiest, while Fortress is the big scary board game level that everyone's always fretting about. Which I don't get. This level has some of the coolest bosses so it's totally worth it to roll only ones!
Do I need to explain this? Alright, alright. Since I didn't put it in the demo...
So basically, once you reach this part of the level, the "dice maze" if you will, a die will fall from the sky and you'll have to roll it… or throw it. Tomato, tomahto. Whatever you roll (one. Always one*.), you'll move that many spaces and take on whatever awaits you. The challenges range from time attacks to puzzles, to time attack puzzles. It's really not as scary as it looks. In the happy item room you can choose/change up your guns or add to your health - much appreciated! It pays to play the whole board because - as I said - it has the coolest bosses, and you'll get a bigger score bonus at the end. For the record, the final boss for this level, Black, is so much fun!

*I think the number you roll might depend on your difficulty. On expert mode, you'll only roll ones. The max you can roll is three.

It's up to you to decide which is the best weapon for each level, it really just depends on your play style.
In the video I show you the Ancient Ruins. I'm pretty sure those baddies at the beginning just keep on comin', so you best move along, cowboy. You'll also notice a little cheat I performed on the other side of the pyramid there. Obviously you don't improve your score this way, but if you just want to get through it - recording footage for a website, perhaps - you can hide up in the top there and avoid detection.
One of the slightly more unique elements of GH is the health meter… well, it's not a meter at all it's a vitality number. Seen up at the top of your screen there, it will take many hits to bring down Red or Blue, but a death is a death, which means it's back to the beginning (or checkpoint) for you, or game over! The good news is there are unlimited continues, and if you're playing with a pal, you won't lose your progress in the level, but you will lose half the living brother's health. In turn, boss's HP is also depicted in numbers, so you know exactly where you stand.
Admittedly, the second half of the game is not as fun as the first. You don't get to choose the levels, the bosses get repetitive and even predictable in some cases, and I'm not just saying that 'cause I've played this so many times. Like most games of the era, it kind of drags on in the end, finding excuses to send you to space and whatnot. But hey, going to space is pretty fun.
In addition to taking down the bad guys, your secondary objective is to do better than your opponent, even if your opponent is yourself. You rack up the good stuff by doing away with bad dudes yourself! Your score will appear above your 'Vitality' and grants you major bragging rights when playing with your friends.
Apart from the selection menu at the beginning, there is no additional menu or meters to be concerned with. Just watch your HP - which flashes when you're nearing the grave - and have a blast!

Right. Let's get to the good stuff: weapons! Which I affectionately refer to as red stuff, blue stuff, green stuff and fire. In order:
Force - fast, power shot.
Lighting - slower, but goes through enemies!
Chaser - homing, but slow and fairly weak.
Flame - blow shit up! Scratch that. Blow NEARBY shit up!
But wait there's more! You can combine two gun types together (later, in level) to create an entirely new monster weapon. Sexy. You'll notice in the video I chose one gun before even starting the level... pick your favorite, because if you die, this is all you'll come back with. I almost always choose fire because I'm a tank and I like to move in and mow my enemies down like an angry child whose dad is getting picked on. For the record, your weapon(s) appear at the top, next to your score and vitality. The "dead" one will be grayed out if you don't have it activated. The slot will be empty if you've yet to pick up a second gun.

Bosses in GH are so... boss. Yeah, I said it. There are quite a few of them, some easier than others, but regardless, you'll be notified every time you're about to begin a boss fight. You get the boss's name as well as a list of their attacks, though I'm not entirely sure the latter is actually useful, except for Black. Then it's useful. Beyond that, it's up to you to find the appropriate strategy… mine is always "get in there and burn the bastard". I really appreciate the creativity in bosses in GH. They are genuinely fun, and probably the best part of the game. It's part shooter, part pattern recognition.

I've been told that the plot of GH varies slightly depending on region. I'm in North America, and we got the simple version: the empire plans to take over the entire planet, but to do so, they need all the gems! The first half of the game requires the Gunstar Heroes to retrieve all the gems from the colorful jerks. But then! The empire kidnaps Yellow! Oh no! She's the only good-guy female in the game, so we have to save her! To do that, we have to bring all the gems we've just collected to the empire… alive. Meh, shooting guns is what we do best. It's at this point that you begin the non-selectable levels.

Can we just take a moment to appreciate these totally badass, sci-fi, industrial, metal, techno tunes?! Yeah, I really can't pin down a genre here but the music really does suit the game, almost as much as the sound effects. There's a very space-y vibe to the effects in GH but they're very unique, sharp and fitting for the genre. You shan't complain about the sound accompaniment for this game.

The controls for GH are very tight and fluid. They feel great on the Genny. Of course your D-pad moves you across the screen, this is a side-scroller so if you don't know how to do this, I'm giving up on you. You can also play Duck, Duck, Goose, if you're so inclined (not to be confused with down+shoot which picks up items), by pressing down. The magical Genesis controller typically comes with three buttons:
A - weapon select. You can choose either of your guns or both when applicable!
B - goose! shoot!
C - jump.
Then you can combine any of these glorious buttons to do an onslaught of other awesome things, for example, pressing B and a direction will throw your nearby enemy! You can also slide by pressing down and C, or power slide by rolling the bottom D-pad and pressing C. It takes a few tries but you'll get it. If you want to dangle from a cliff - y'know, to get that "money shot" - press down and C while you're at one. If you're feeling really ballsy, you can belly flop your enemies by essentially double jumping. Fun comes at a cost, fellas, keep that in mind. There are honestly a number of other things you can do, but I mostly do them by accident while button mashing and have never really nailed down the timing.

There are four difficulty modes: easy, normal, hard, expert. I'm sure you can already predict the mode changes damage, enemy count and the bosses will be faster, the higher you go. I've played on all difficulties, and the boss speed is the most notable change for me.

There are three or four more levels after the mandatory selection levels, so the game is still pretty short. What's more is it's fairly fast-paced - no, wait, face-paced! - so I'd be pretty shocked if you could get more than a couple'a hours outta GH. That time can vary depending on your play style: take your time, or power trip. I can put this game away in about an hour, perhaps less with a second player.

Wrote this early on: So I've only just begun writing this article and I'm already so excited and fulfilled that I'm finally writing about Gunstar Heroes. I regret not playing this for you sooner. (update: hahaha!) It's rare that I enjoy writing this much, but damn! You need to play this game!
Back to the future: And you have no excuse not to! This game is available… literally everywhere. Ask your mom, she probably has it! Genesis, Game Gear, PSN, XBLA, Virtual Console and PC… this thing has been ported all over the damn planet! But I'm not surprised, as I've no doubt confided to you in this write up, this game is coveted genius, so it makes sense to put it everywhere for everyone. I understand that shooters aren't for everyone, and some people simply won't like this game, but it's damn near perfect, and I really do highly recommend you at least try it out - preferably on a Genesis, with a friend. The game is just so darn creative and tight, but fast and fun, too. That said, it's also become bloody expensive. I'd mentioned to a few Cartridge Clubbers that I'm glad I've managed to retain my copy all these years, 'cause the cartridge alone goes for $50+ these days. But as I've said, there are many digital options if you're on a budget, and for the collectors out there: go for it. It's worth it.

If you're really crazy, there is a sequel called Gunstar Super Heroes for the Game Boy Advance. I don't have it. I don't know why. If you'd like to give it to me, that would be great.👍🏻

I don't actually know any official cheats but screw it, you're getting a LOTIPS, 'cause I love this game!
  • You begin each new level with 20 more HP than the last. Take this into consideration when choosing your level order. Hint: Underground Mine and the Strange Fortress have the longest bosses (however there are health boosts in the item rooms at the latter!).
  • Instead of a new gun, sometimes you'll come upon a heart bead. As expected, this replenishes your HP!
  • In fact, kick the little robots that drop these. Sometimes you'll get more than one bead!
  • Sometimes key foes will have to be taken out before you can advance certain areas.
  • Appreciate the brilliant boss move names!
  • On the battleship: throw the bombs to eliminate baddies quicker!
  • Final boss: throw "him" to buy yourself a few seconds.

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