Written for XPGain, recreated with permission.
Played on PC via Steam. (Also available on PS2, PS3, 360, Wii.)
Humans have an inherent fascination with chaos.
The thrill of an explosion, the impending catastrophe of a train wreck, the infinite details hidden in the microseconds of movement. These moments are fascinating to explore, conceptually and visually, in seeing the seemingly infinite interacting parts coalescing into a single, satisfying result.
Gunstar Heroes, an action-platformer originally released for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive by Treasure, explores that portion of human interest with glee. It is a game that approaches action not as a home console game, but in the same vein as arcade-based action platformers like Ghouls ‘n Ghosts or Metal Slug. Seemingly endless enemies fill the screen, dangerous attacks come from all directions, and the player is challenged less by each individual enemy, and more by the mass of their charge.
By that rubric, Gunstar Heroes is not a terribly forgiving game. Although there are techniques and weapons that make the game a lot more forgiving and approachable, the lack of tutorials and a vague sense that there is more to the mechanics than is immediately apparent belies just how dated the arcade-style action can be. Players are given a brief, slightly opaque description of much of their weapon options and objectives, and most of what what can be learned from these little snippets comes more from assumed aspects rather than clearly defined ones. This is further hampered by the seemingly literal translations, leaving the player to guess what moves like “Unit of the Dragon” or “Rotor Hang” actually mean in context to a sudden boss.
In addition, the difference between a “regular” enemy who dies after very little contact with player fire and stronger or sub-boss enemies are not given clear visual distinction. There are relatively few instances where this can dramatically affect the player, as enemies will rarely materialize dangerously close to the player, but it will still make informed tactical decisions more difficult than really need be.
However, players are given many mechanics to combat this. The option to choose the players starting weapon, the ability to swap between one of two weapon types, or to combine both into a new weapon, lets players explore several methods of play. While some are a little too situational to be universally effective, none of them are unusable. Pair this with a mild generosity of health collectibles and local co-op, and the game becomes a lot less daunting in the face of just so much going on.
There is a merriment to the grand spectacle, though, a celebration to the joy of the mechanics. It isn’t a game that searches for deeper meaning or subtle narrative. It’s an expression of play. Gunstar Heroes lets players simply play, and gives them countless challenges to explore and foes to face.
In that regard, it also succeeds in making a game that is not as simple as first impressions might make it out to be. There is a level of depth to the mechanics, and stages in the game that explore these mechanics in creative ways. Dice rolls by using the player’s throw ability, spaceship-based combat, creating obstacles that subvert the strengths of weapon combinations, sliding and moving stages that shift player physics, and rail-based stages and boss fights. All of these aspects change how they’re played without really straining the mechanics, allowing the play to be novel and exciting throughout without complicating the system or distracting the player with unnecessary systems to have to learn.
It means that Gunstar Heroes is a game that feels natural and enthralling despite it being so dated. It’s an older game with a younger soul, whose players will always find joy and enthusiasm from its experiences. It’s playful, chaotic, challenging, rewarding, and enthralling. The sort of game that leaves its players longing for more; just one more taste of the jubilant cacophony of light and danger.
If anything, it is here that the biggest flaw resides. It’s too short, a game polished enough to make its passing too fleeting. It resides just long enough to give the player a sense of how fun games in this genre can be before fading to credits, before the player has had their fill. Repeat plays are quite possible, even encouraged, but there is something lost without more to drive the player forward to greater heights and deeper challenges. There lies the most tragic part, feeling it all fade away before its prime.
Despite that, though, Gunstar Heroes is a game any fan of classic gaming, or even modern action games, should experience. It is a trophy of excellent design, jubilant mechanics, merry chaos, and player experience. Perhaps too short, but the longing for more proves the game had everything right but the length. Being too good to give up is a trait well-worth indulging.