Treasure developed games are always something special. Thanks to their superior technical prowess, the developers are able to milk every last ounce of processing power out of any given hardware which can create memorable gameplay moments. Anyone who has experienced the bullet hell of Ikaruga or Radiant Silvergun can understand the basis behind most Treasure games. Guardian Heroes, one of Treasure's original gems of the Sega Saturn age is making a return on XBLA. And as you expect, it is an adrenalin packed journey.
Guardian Heroes is a brawler like Final Fight or Double Dragon but has many unique gameplay elements to create a special experience.
The first and most immediately noticeable feature are the sprite-based graphics. Using a hand drawn style, the game retains a charm all its own. And this new XBLA version allows the player to experience the original graphics or the updated high res style via the options menu. But even though it is nice to experience the game in its original format, I feel that the updated option isn't updated enough. Sure, things look better but it still seems like more detail could have been added to the animations, environments and to the character themselves; I think that the original mode is the way to go. The soundtrack is good, but nothing overly special and all characters speak with dialog bubbles. Perhaps if voice acting was introduced in the upgraded version…
Secondly, instead of simply traveling through each stage in progression, there are many different paths to take which can conclude in one of the many different available endings. Multiple play-throughs are required to experience everything the game has to offer and each path offers a different twist on the story. From beginning to end, skilled players could probably reach an ending in under 30 minutes. But because there are so many different paths to take and it doesn't take long to finish, replay value is one of the most welcoming features.
Next, combat has definitely been given the Treasure treatment. Expecting to get overwhelmed by dozens of enemies at once? You bet. Plan to take down your enemies with extravagant combos? Absolutely. Having trouble which of the many playable characters to play as? Of course. Again, this is a Treasure game through and through so expect great things.
Each successful attack on an enemy rewards the player with experience points and when enough have been collected, can grow stronger via leveling up. At the end of each stage, the player can upgrade a number of different abilities including your basic gaming categories like power, magic, defense, etc. By the time the credits roll, you will be lucky if you fill up half of your stats from level increases. Also, once the game is over, all stats reset back to zero eliminating any useful New Game + option. Sure this keeps the story mode in check but it also seems like a missed opportunity to introduce a new way and more powerful way to experience Guardian Heroes… and really, isn't that what it is all about?
The biggest complaint I have with the combat is due to the multi-tiered 2D plane effect. Take Final Fight for example; you can walk in all four directions at will. Here in Guardian Heroes, there are basically three different paths/tiers to walk on: one closest to the screen, one in the middle, and one in the distance. So if you want to travel further or closer to the screen, one of the L shoulder buttons must be tapped. I am sure this was a different and distinguishing feature back in the mid 90's when this game initially launched during the Saturn era, but it becomes a hindrance here in modern day gaming as it slows down combat and is actually confusing. Even though I played through the game many times and seen most of the game's endings, I still fumbled when trying to travel back and forth between the 2D planes. Tapping one of the shoulder buttons to switch planes never feels smooth and sometime it is difficult to distinguish which plane an enemy is on. Because this is so tedious, I found it to be much easier to stay on one plane and let the enemies come to me, although the result of this less involved style of play is taking more damage, cheap shots, and getting swarmed on both sides.
The story is also cheesy and a little hard to follow; in a time of swords and sorcery, a small band of rebels find a magical sword that awakens a long dead hero who becomes your companion throughout the entire game. Due to the choose-your-own-adventure style of gameplay, some of the branching paths and endings are better than others… and because there is some laughable Engrish. Luckily, if you want to skip some of the dialog cutscenes, tapping the Back button fast forwards and gets straight back to the action. There is even a behind-the-scenes morality system that can determine if you witness the light or dark versions of endings. If you continue to hit dead enemies, or attack fleeing citizens or even enemy soldiers, the game will secretly count these strikes against you. It is an interesting concept but ultimately winds up being confusing because there is no way to gauge just how corrupt you really are.
Besides the main story mode, a single player can test each character's endurance in the Arcade mode. Whoa, talk about going from 0-to-60 in about one second, this mode puts you literally in the middle of an ambush of dozens of baddies, again proving Treasure's mastery of the hardware. Some playable characters can hold their own for a few seconds while others can get destroyed almost immediately. If you have ever played the Multi-Man Melee in Smash Bros., you might have an idea behind this mode. But even though you will inevitability get your ass kicked, I found this mode to be quite entertaining as each character retains a leaderboard. Oh, and there is somewhere around 50 playable characters. Sure, you can dominate and get the high score for one character, but true champions will need to master and earn a high rank for all characters. This is no small feat and is actually surprisingly competitive. At the time of this review, the leaderboards are almost empty, but I anticipate this mode to become highly active upon its official launch. Besides this endurance mode, there is also your typical Vs mode, pitting multiple characters against each other over LIVE or local.
We are currently living through a gaming age where classic games are being revisited through modern means. Guardian Heroes is basically the same Saturn game you played over a decade ago but outfitted with a new coat of (optional) paint. Sure traveling between the 2D planes is tedious, the story isn't exactly the best, and the game could have benefitted from a tutorial instead of reading about the ins and outs from the options menu, but it is still one of the better recently released brawlers. At the very least, Guardian Heroes can act as a gaming history lesson, allowing players to experience a cult gem that was on cult favorite hardware. Oh yeah, and it is only $10.
Not As Good As: River City Random (NES)
Also Try: Advance Guardian Heroes (GBA)
Wait For It: the Double Dragon II remake
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