The greatest 16-bit action game of all time.
That may be hyperbole, that may be entirely subjective, but the above statement holds absolutely true to me today. Here is a game that has never been surpassed.
Gunstar Heroes is a run ’n gun game, like Contra. Unsurprisingly the game was the first made by the ex-Konami employees that formed Treasure… except that it is surprising, because the game is so innovative and incredibly well made that it’s hard to believe the people who made it were responsible only for iterating on rigid formulas. I say that about what is widely perceived as the king of the genre looking back, Contra, because though those hardcore, demanding games are just as good as they’ve always been now, the games have barely introduced anything new to the world of video games since its first incarnation. It only serves as an explanation of how a game of this caliber could be a team’s “first effort”. This game could only be the result of years of experience with developing such games, it shows. But it is apparent that the people behind this game sought to prove what they could do beyond the confines of the branding they were previously limited to.
Gunstar Heroes is a run ‘n gun game where you can choose from 4 different weapon types. It isn’t as simple as a spread shot power up and a laser power up (though admittedly a spread shot would have been a tremendously helpful addition). Instead these 4 weapons can be combined with each other to mix effects in a total of 14 ways. For example, if you like the laser but prefer the short range efficiency of the flamethrower-like fire, you can combine them to make the equivalent of a light saber come out of your gun. Or you can combine the big bead shooting weapon with the “chaser” to create a giant homing arm of beads, which will reach and destroy enemies on screen without the need to aim. This adds a very welcome layer of complexity, which at the same time is accessible and simple for everybody.
Another way that it is different (read: better) than other run ‘n gun games is that you can throw or kick everything in your path. Whereas the only thing in Contra that you can do as a player is shoot, here you can hurl enemies off screen and watch them explode. Where you may come to this game only expecting to shoot, this game delivers a level of action not seen in a game preceding or since. This is truly why I hold this game in such high regard – why no other game has been able to deliver such intense action is beyond me. Imagine coming to any game expecting to shoot and being able to do this. For a modern example that we’re all familiar with – imagine coming to a Call of Duty game and expecting to only be able to shoot and maybe stab enemies when they come close enough, and instead being able to HURL THEM ACROSS THE MAP AND WATCH THEM EXPLODE. Why, may I ask, aren’t there more video games like this? Why isn’t every game like this?
The game also displays variety in every stage and boss battle. You are able to choose 4 stages from the beginning, and they’re all very unique with incredible highs. Spoilers incoming if you want to experience these situations for yourself, and haven’t yet. The first is a wooded area under siege where you will jump from burning tree to tree which are themselves destructible, then fighting a giant plant which spawns giant bugs, then climbing up a staircase to fight a strange creature made of blocks at the top, afterwards sliding down the long slope on the other side shooting at pursuing enemies the entire time. Then you find yourself at walking past this weird hole filled structure will you will find yourself dodging giant arms poking out somehow from behind the holes, shooting bees emerging from beehives and more enemies as you progress. Then this giant mech-like machine hops out from behind the structure controlled by three people at the same time, revealing that those giant arms you were just dodging were coming from this one thing. Then you can take out the three humans in any order to stop their corresponding attacks, and eventually you may destroy the machine as it explodes into one TV looking thing and the three people emerge to reluctantly give you the gem you were looking for. That may have came off rambling and I’m not sure I did it justice, but it still blew my mind as I was typing it that I was describing the first level in a game from 1993. There’s more, even, that I did not detail.
To be slightly more brief about the other levels; the second level sees you hopping between top and bottom planes on minecart things, chasing trains and other things as you ultimately end up fighting the boss, which by the way is one of the most memorable boss fights of all time – the seven force, a boss which can transform randomly between seven different forms, and if you choose the highest difficulty you’ll have to face off against all seven as opposed to just 3 random ones – and this boss is controlled by the traitorous Green, who used to be part of your Gunstar organization before joining the bad guys (for whatever reason). The third choice is where you will be hopping up this giant building to catch up and board a humongous airship, and advancing across the top of the airship you will then eventually jump on a helicopter that is also airborne to fight a ridiculously muscular coach-looking dude in extremely tense close quarters. Then the last level seems to be the most bland sci-fi setting thus far, a gray area with plenty of robotic enemies to fight (which even then are new and unique to this level). Then you reach a door into A GIANT BOARD GAME. You will throw the dice to fight things like a giant demented clown face or a big orange thing that will form the McDonald’s logo, and you may never see these things if you roll past them. This game is fucking insane in the best way possible.
All of these worlds are so fully realized that it makes you wish there was more story behind them. You choose them from a display on a giant computer, and you’re never told if these are their own planets that you’re visiting, all part of the same world, or some kind of digital/VR situation. You may notice things like the tiny people running in circles, panicking about what is presumably their homes being on fire, despite that these hovel things are much bigger than they are. I’d like to know more about this civilization. Also, there’s a guy who looks like a cartoon M. Bison who flies around laughing in a distinctively deep, evil way at numerous points throughout the game. There’s a point where he throws his own soldiers at you from the back of a train, and a point where you fight him briefly on the helicopter where he comes off as much more pathetic/weak than he ends up being during his own boss battle. What little is conveyed is so much more unique and interesting than so many of what is conveyed in detail in comic books and modern, story-driven games. While this has so much potential, part of the games charm is the mysterious, abstract setting. I just wonder what the developers could do with the same universe on the current generation of consoles.
There’s also a level that turns the game temporarily into a shoot-em-up, clearly taking after games like Gradius, which part of the team likely had a hand in developing as well. If you like those. They also made their own Gradius game for Konami later, ironically.
The game was succeeded by Alien Soldier, another run ‘n gun on the Genesis which is like one giant boss rush. Then formally succeeded by Gunstar Super Heroes on the GBA many years later. Both games are incredible, but none quite capturing the same glory.
Gunstar Heroes is an overlooked classic. As one of the first games I’ve ever been exposed to, it’s shaped the way I see video games in ways I probably couldn’t put into words. Unless you’re the type of person that can’t play “retro” games limited by pixels and 2D planes, you need to experience it yourself. I don’t think that’s just nostalgia and my subjective thoughts talking. Objectively, this is one of the most marvelous games ever created. Play it.