Review by Ryan Harrison
Lightning + Chaser rules all.
Gunstar Heroes (Treasure, 1993) for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive simply has to be, hands down, one of the finest old-school run-and-gun games ever made. It still feels as wonderfully satisfying more than 20 years later to blast your way through endless waves of minions with the use of many a different weapon combination, all in the name of foiling evil plans and saving the day as you would in many a mindless shooter such as this one. Whether it be toasting them with flamethrowers, zapping them with a light sabre-style laser beam or going with powerful homing energy beams, the mixture of action and variety, wonderfully fleshed out with wonderful visuals make Gunstar Heroes one of the landmark titles in the scrolling shooter genre.
With two major parts comprising the entire game, the first part offers you from a choice of four different levels to choose from as your characters, Red and Blue, aim to recover a precious gem obtained upon the defeat of the end-of-level boss of that particular area. Each of the four beginning levels has its own particular style of play and plenty of well-designed, entertaining and equally challenging boss battles, with plenty of constant shooting action to keep you occupied the whole time throughout.
At first you're mostly going to familiarise yourself with the general control and gameplay style while blasting your way through multiple waves of enemy minion attacks. These guys really do have nothing on your firepower, but it still feels satisfying as hell to grind your way through them all. Sure, if some are a bit lucky enough to get too close for comfort, a handful of physical attacks and throws are available at your disposal, too.
First, let's start with the weapons you have at your disposal. Once you first begin the game, you have a choice of which character to control, denoted by their shooting style - Red's Free Shot allows the player to shoot freely while on the move, whereas Blue's Fixed Shot means he must remain motionless, though can fire in a number of different directions, allowing more precision with your aiming. If going through this adventure with a second player, you'll have to decide between yourselves who will control whom. Both guys are able to pick up a base weapon from four available types at the start of the game, which include a standard energy shot, a lightning shot that fires lasers straight through enemies, a chaser shot that homes in on the nearest enemy, and a flamethrower that deals good damage but is limited to close range.
However, that's not all there is to weaponry; for as you'll notice at the top of the screen in your character's status bar, there are two weapon slots, meaning one can combine two weapon icons to create several new types of firepower available at your disposal. For example, by combining a flamethrower and a chaser, you're able to shoot clouds of flame and control their movement with the D-Pad; while with energy and lightning, you're able to shoot laser beams at a quicker rate; or my personal favourite, the lightning-chaser combination, shoots a single laser beam that will stay stuck on a target as long as the shot button is held down, and very quickly drains their vitality, immediately latching onto the next target once the first one is defeated! Two of the same type of weapon icon could also create an enhanced version of the weapon with better range and power. There are so many possible combinations to choose from and play around with, some you'll perhaps find more effective for your own style of play than others, so it's all about choosing wisely before you embark on your mission.
The game plays like a dream, mainly in part thanks to the sharp, accurate and responsive controls. The Genesis controller layout should make learning the various actions easy, with the D-Pad getting your guys to move, while the action buttons make them shoot, jump, change weapon combinations, while with a combination of buttons also perform a few other secondary actions, for example climbing ledges, slide attacks, wall kicks and aerial attacks. There are numerous points in the game where the use of each of these manoeuvres can prove pivotal, if not even downright necessary to proceed, so it's going to take plenty of time trying your skills out and becoming accustomed to them throughout the earlier stages if you are to succeed later on.
The overall challenge of the game is finely balanced in that most of the enemies you'll encounter are beaten with minimal effort or hassle, weapon and health pickups are found in abundance, and your guys can sustain several hits before they are killed on account of a health meter than can be bumped up to as high as 200 vitality points - double that of your starting amount of 100. Your main challenge will come in the form of the stages that play out in many different manners, as well as a huge array of bosses encountered throughout every one.
From the simple side-scrollers, there are also areas that involve dodging enemies raining down while you slide down the side of a pyramid; one level in which you ride high-speed mine carts and have to alternate its gravitational control by swapping between the ceiling and ground while continually shooting away at enemies and avoiding obstacles; one involves some vertical scrolling as you climb multiple ledges in order to quickly make it onto an aircraft that takes off to recover one of the gems reported to be on board; and perhaps the most fun level of all being the board game-themed stage in which you throw a die, with the mini-level you play depending on which space of the board you moved to, and some horizontal-style shmup gameplay in the latter half of the game completes the variety of playing styles that Gunstar Heroes has to offer.
To go with the many well-designed and fast-paced stages, all kinds of testing boss battles will provide great entertainment and challenge. The game has dozens of bosses all ranging in shapes, sizes and strengths, some being easier to beat than others, while some could be found vulnerable to certain weapons or attacks. Their on-screen vitality meters (and how quickly they go down while you grind away) should give you a good idea of how tough each boss is. By far, the most entertaining boss, while not necessarily the toughest, is the Seven Force - a gargantuan, shape-shifting Transformer-esque contraption that takes all manner of forms with various attack patterns, and strategies required to outmanoeuvre and defeat each one. It'll take some precision and plenty of skill to overcome many of the bosses in the game - unlimited continues being a good incentive to keep coming back and trying again if your character is beaten - and for the less experienced Gunstar Heroes player a very handy feature to have too, given that the game has no form of save or password features, making it necessary to beat the whole thing in one sitting.
The frantic, all-out action is complemented well with wonderfully colourful, bright and detailed visuals with some particularly great-looking effects that could well rank among the best that the Sega Genesis has to offer. Along with unique looks and designs for characters and bosses beside some of the more generic-looking grunts, stage backgrounds and foregrounds look superb and the parallax scrolling effect is done very well. Some areas have a nice pseudo-3-dimensional feel as objects scale, rotate and change in size accordingly, while the animation is pulled off flawlessly with no apparent issues with the speed and flow at which the game runs. The lively, colourful and charming graphics are accompanied by a splendid soundtrack of many well-composed themes ranging in styles and all fitting with the feel of their respective levels perfectly; deep, clear and resonating sound effects with a few simple-sounding voice samples give the game a wonderful, trademark audio style.
Providing an ideal lifespan of an hour or so and several stages, each of which being just as fun to play as the last, Gunstar Heroes does also prove as fun to play solo as it does with a second player, and one with plenty of staying power in that it feels just as enjoyable to revisit now as it did over 20 years ago. I really just feel that everything in this game was done perfectly; it has no apparent flaws in any areas of its design from what I've seen. Even though these days while it goes for pretty steep asking prices online if you're looking to get an authentic Genesis cartridge, the game's endearing popularity and status as one of the finest run-and-gun titles to be found on any system out there, means it has thankfully become easily accessible to owners of seventh-generation consoles to download via their respective online networks (Steam, PSN, Virtual Console or Xbox Live Arcade). While I'll admit that this could take a few tries for those less familiar with games of the same genre to come to grips with this thing, it is a most rewarding experience to get through for first-timers, and one as worthwhile as ever to return to for seasoned veterans. Fantastic, varied gameplay, well-designed stages, entertaining boss battles, colourful graphics and catchy music, all of which done to a very high standard make Gunstar Heroes one of the all-time best games of its kind.
Ten Lightning + Chase shots out of ten.
Product Release: Gunstar Heroes (EU, 12/31/93)
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