TURN TO CHANNEL 3: ‘Gunstar Heroes’ shoots up the run ‘n’ gun competition
While the unique qualities and subtle differences between games, even those in the same genre are always fun to witness. I think those simplistic ideas that unite so many gamers, and especially those heavily influenced by retro games, are always the most delightful. During this month of “Summer Shooters,” we are looking at games with action, suspense, white-knuckle adventures, and explosions galore, long before these things were commonplace and – let’s face it – cliché in gaming.
Today, Sega Genesis fans, we turn our focus to you and a game by a company that built a reputation on being different, going against the grain and industry norms to create a game that has stood the test of time, becoming a vital asset in Sega’s war against the Nintendo empire. Today, fellow retro gamers, we look at “Gunstar Heroes” and whether or not it is worthy of the adoration and following it has achieved. Let’s blast our way through it!
“Gunstar Heroes” (Sega Genesis)
One of the first things gamers notice about games like “Gunstar Heroes” and other great and unique titles from Treasure is that, from top to bottom, the game is an experience, a journey, and it is often cinematic in setup despite the basic premise and simplistic nature of the title. How are games that are known as “run ‘n’ gun” titles given that extra boost to take them to that next level of excitement and entertainment? It all begins with a great soundtrack, and I have to say that for someone who often complains of the overall audio quality and composition of many Genesis title soundtracks, “Gunstar Heroes” has a selection of tunes that are severely underrated in the lore of gaming. The soundtrack almost sneaks up on you, beginning as something perhaps too basic to most composers and listeners before turning things up, further adding to the adrenaline rush experienced while playing the game.
Obviously, it helps that the sound effects in the game are just amazing, from the sounds of your weapons to the explosions going on all around you.
Graphically, “Gunstar Heroes” definitely has that Japanese anime meets Saturday morning action cartoon feel to it, with some zany characters mixed with these ultra-serious and ultra-dangerous-looking characters you encounter as you make your way through the game. Some of the bosses, regardless of size, are breathtaking and quite detailed and diverse for a game that debuted over 20 years ago.
The levels are a colorful mix of all kinds of elements and environments that further illustrate that the folks at Treasure have a knack of throwing things against a wall and not just seeing if it sticks, but making it stick by any means necessary. In the artwork alone, you can see the attention and motivation behind making this game by everyone involved, which, to be honest, can be seen in all Treasure games, and I think that’s a lost art, really, developers wearing their love of their own creations on their sleeves.
When gamers say “Gunstar Heroes” has a cinematic feel to it, it is largely due to the fact that it is a game that begins with a good little story and ominous title music that then throws you right into the action and doesn’t stop until you’ve reached the end. Gamers have compared this experience to riding the longest rollercoaster they ever rode; others say that other run ‘n’ guns should have taken notes from “Gunstar Heroes,” and as someone who has played his fair share of them, I’d have to agree with both of those statements.
“Gunstar Heroes” has a stash of weapons that “Contra” fans could only dream of, with all due respect to the mighty Spread Gun. I fell in love with this weapon that chased the enemies, like a homing missile only with far less missile and a lot more laser in design. You’re not always shooting either, with explosions going on around you. There are moments where you are jumping or sliding down a steep pyramid or hill, or dodging and rolling past enemies in a mine. “Gunstar Heroes” doesn’t care if you’re bored, or even contemplating the idea of being bored, because it isn’t going to give you the chance.
I’d also like to add that the health system in the game is a blessing in comparison to the classic frustration of “one hit and you die” that, while making “Contra” more of a skill to master, can make it a bit of a turn-off. There are few games in similar genres where the Genesis equivalent is better than the Nintendo offering, but I’m man enough and humble enough to admit that “Gunstar Heroes” is a better overall game than “Contra,” while also noting that I can understand both sides of how one could be better or more legendary than the other.
I liken “Gunstar Heroes” to a newcomer to the scene of established games in the same or similar genres, even though it is far from the new kid on the block. As it seems to happen in gaming, even today, a game can come along that actually does it better than those who have paved the way, yet it doesn’t get the fanfare while the architects of the genre get piled into the trophy case. While “Gunstar Heroes” doesn’t have quite the grit of games like “Contra,” “Rush’n Attack,” and others like it, the sleek, futuristic design doesn’t completely cover the rock-solid core of the game, which is just an intense as the other aforementioned games.
I don’t see “Gunstar Heroes” much in my travels, at my store or otherwise, but if you see it, even if you grew up with an NES or SNES, “Gunstar Heroes” is a prime example where the folks at Sega, along with a talented developer, hit the nail on the head, lined up the stars and planets just right, and created a gaming experience that more than stands the test of time. “Contra” may have laid the foundation, but “Gunstar Heroes” upped the ante with its contribution to the genre, as well as the Genesis library as a whole.
Well, that does it for me this week. Join us next week when we head back to the arcades to play a game that surprisingly has slipped out of the radars of many classic arcade gamers’ lists of all-time favorites, despite the fact that it donned the name of one of the biggest cult classic cartoons of all time.
Until then, take care, and always remember to game on!
Note: All ratings for Turn to Channel 3 are based on a scale of 1-10.
by Nick DeMarco
Nick DeMarco is a blogger, retro video game small business owner, and lover of all things retro. Don't get stuck on an elevator with him, unless you know who Ace Harding is and why Crystal Pepsi deserves just as big a comeback as Surge.