One of the last modern classics.
Gunstar Superheroes is an absolute blast. If you have any inclination towards action games, 2D games, score-based games, challenging games or even if you just have an itchy trigger finger, this is an action-packed blast-a-thon classic that is sure to satisfy. This is the sequel to Gunstar Heroes for the Sega Genesis, which was one of Treasure's breakout (and relatively undercurrent) hits. Gunstar Superheroes definitely lives up to the legacy by sticking to the winning formula of frenetic shooting, genre-busting level designs, and tough-as-nails challenge. It also throws in homages to the original Gunstar for safe measure. However, it is not without its flaws.
The game's premise is built upon a simple, but functional plot. You play as either Red or Blue, with the assistance of Yellow, as you battle your way against an evil empire headed by General Grey. The strange naming convention, the light-hearted story, and the static dialogue scenes give the game a defined personality. You also get slightly different scenes if you play as either Red or Blue, and different endings depending on your difficulty setting, which all factors up to the replayability.
Your most essential weapon is your gun. Apart from one different weapon each in a set of three, Red and Blue plays almost identically, and will both face the same adversaries, and most likely use the same tactics. The game gives you other close-quarter moves in your aresenal like the knife, the uppercut, and mid-air kicks, making you more able to bust your way from a number of situations where the gun might not be ideal. There is also the ability to lock your firing direction to one of the eight directions, as well as the ability to stay in place while firing in all eight directions. All this gives you capability to handle the tough level and enemy designs that Gunstar has to offer. Unfortunately, that also means that there is little differenctiating between Red and Blue play-wise.
You travel through 6 stages as you blast your way through the forces of the empire. Each stage is well designed and offers a lot of satisfying blasting, and they all climax to a boss that require genuine skill to beat. Much of the stages feature interesting design choices, whether it's from a presentation standpoint or a gameplay standpoint.
Some of the visual creativity comes from the choice of perspective. On the first level, you view your character from an IR monitor that the enemy guards are watching, and they see you blasting through their comrades. However, most of the creativity is in the varied stage design. As you venture through the stages, the game mixes things up by constantly giving you new gameplay experiences. There is a Sonic-like rotating level, a Desert/Jungle Strike-like level, a multi-directional chase scene, a 2D shmup, and a few more. These unique levels definitely freshen things up, but they can also be a cause of extreme migraine. Moon 2 starts off with the top-down Desert Strike style first level. At first, it's a neat deviation and a welcome change on the easiest setting. Unfortunately, it gets almost impossible to beat on the Harder modes and breaks the game's run-and-gun flow. The entire Moon 3 stage has you riding an anti-gravity thing-a-ma-jig that has its verticality controlled by the jump button as it courses its way on an auto-scrolling railway level. This entire level is actually a tribute to an original level from Gunstar Heroes, but it's also a sudden and undeniable spike in difficulty as uninitiated players will wrestle with the multi-directional controls as well as the jump button.
To top it all off, you are kicked out to the splash screen whenever you die. You have to load the save file every time you see the game over screen, which seems so unnecessarily tedious.
Much of the audiovisual quality of the game is very good. The soundtrack definitely has an old-school 2D flavor almost to the extent of a tribute to the classics. The sound effects are crisp and distinct. There are also snippets of voice acting. Not the best, mind you, but definitely give the characters some personalilty, considering the limitations of the GBA. The sprites are well animated, espescially the big screen-filling ones, like the bosses.
Gunstar Superheroes is a fantastic action game. It succeeds because it has a lot of polish and takes the old formula to a new level. It tries a few radical things. Although the experimentation broke the flow on a few occassions, it elevates the action to offer a varied experience that would make its predecessors proud.
Gunstar Superheroes is an excellent example of the 2D action legacy.