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The Guardian Legend (NES) artwork

The Guardian Legend (NES) review

"Before the eight bit powerhouses such as the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System, console games were limited to a singular form of play. Generally the player would perform a certain number of tasks to complete a stage and then advance to the next level, which was pretty much the same as the previous level but with increased difficulty. Even with enhanced power most game makers chose to expand on the singular concept. Games were still in stages, but the stage boundaries became le..."

Before the eight bit powerhouses such as the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System, console games were limited to a singular form of play. Generally the player would perform a certain number of tasks to complete a stage and then advance to the next level, which was pretty much the same as the previous level but with increased difficulty. Even with enhanced power most game makers chose to expand on the singular concept. Games were still in stages, but the stage boundaries became less defined. In addition, stages became longer in duration and the objectives more complicated.

However, some manufactures took a different approach: instead of simply expanding on an old style of play, why not seamlessly combine two completely different styles into one game? The idea is logical and exciting, especially in the case of mixing vertical shooter action with character based adventure, two of the most popular yet diverse genres available. Guardic Gaiden, designed by Compile, distributed through Irem, and distributed as The Guardian Legend internationally by Broderbund, gives us exactly that mix and succeeds where others have failed.

While the hybrid concept sounds great on paper, execution is not as stellar. For a worthy mix, manufacturers essentially have to design two games. Producing one great game is difficult enough, but creating two, sticking them together on limited ROM space, and putting a single-game price on it isn't too inviting. As a result, several other titles that attempted this, such as Akara Senki Raijin and Fuzzical Fighter, were abysmal failures, offering putrid adventure and frustrating shooting action. However, The Guardian Legend cuts through the mediocrity and shows us what a real mixed game can do.

Guardic Gaiden is the sequel to Guardic, an obscure MSX game with vastly different game play. Don't worry if you've never heard of it: The Guardian Legend shares more in common with Zanac, another vertically scrolling NES shooter, than it does with its predecessor. You play the role of an unnamed female android who can transform from a space craft into a humanoid. Your mission is to invade Naju, an enormous artificial world rapidly heading toward earth. Once filled with a benevolent civilization, Naju was invaded and conquered by aggressive power-gathering aliens. Before being completely overtaken, the last surviving native left instructions on how to activate the self-destruct mechanisms and left behind tools to help you on your quest.

To destroy Naju, you must find the ten sealed corridors (out of twenty corridors total) which lead deep into Naju's core and set the self-destruct mechanism in each. Connecting the corridor access points is the labyrinth, which, ironically, is on the surface of the planet. After completion of certain corridors you receive keys which enable you to further explore the labyrinth.

The labyrinth is played out in humanoid form. Here you can find items, fight mini-bosses, and gather information on how to break seals on corridors, but the primary purpose of the labyrinth is linking the corridors together. Entry into a corridor is done via a gate which opens into the planet. After a short animation sequence where the android transforms into a flying craft, you pilot her and the game plays out as a shooter until the boss at the end is defeated.

Every region has its own theme. When you first enter the labyrinth you'll see dull gray hallways. But don't be deceived—this area is generic on purpose. The labyrinth is a switchboard, a gateway to more specialized areas. The first such area you'll encounter has an aquatic theme. Its corridors are set in an ocean, with fish, crabs, and hydrae attacking from all sides, and its labyrinth section is set in deep blue to match. Past that is a green, vegetation themed environment with all sorts of hostile plants. Far into the game is a disgusting alive area where the corridors appear to be the innards of some enormous beast, though while revolting these areas boast some of the most impressive graphics to be seen on the NES with rib bones, veins, and arteries almost beautifully detailing the stages.

The Guardian Legend is accentuated with a wonderful weapons system. In addition to the upgradeable main weapon, twelve secondary weapons are available to the player, eleven of them having three levels of strength. Weapons and upgrades can be bought, won from bosses and mini-bosses, or found just lying around.

Just as the game itself blends a perfect mixture of adventure and shooting action, the game's difficulty is very well balanced. Professional players can jump directly to the sealed corridors, skipping the power-up yielding optional stages, for a more challenging quest. The Guardian Legend is a fairly challenging game overall. Sure it's easy at first but wait until you get to the Blue Optomon (a giant blue eyeball thing that shoots seaweed at you). You're sure to be cursing at the thing.

A rare occurrence, Broderbund's translation fixes errors in the original script, giving the U.S. a more refined read than the original. The game's script is especially powerful; there are not many words total but those printed convey a dark and depressing mood, which is exactly what one would expect from a somebody leaving a requiem right before being killed by hostile aliens.

The Guardian Legend is not without its problems, however. This type of game is perfect for a battery backed up cartridge. So why did Irem and Broderbund feel it necessary to cripple the game with an atrocious password system? You have to enter thirty-two character combinations out of a sixty-four character alphabet. It takes minutes to write down and confirm the given passwords, and the chance of writing error is high. The sheer time this system requires absolutely kills the casual game; after all, who wants to play for a half an hour just to spend five or six minutes entering and writing down passwords? As a positive point, the password data stores nearly all information, so a revisited game leaves you off in the just about the same condition as before with power-ups, score, and maximum life intact.

I also wish the game revealed more about the guardian, who is among the most mysterious of all game heroines. Who sent her? Who built her? What's her name? Does she have feelings or is she just a killing machine? Is there a whole army of her on earth or is she the only one? Her character just begs for more information, even if it just shows up in the manual. But, just like all women, she's just a tease and we're left hanging.

However, nothing really killed The Guardian Legend more than its sham marketing. Perpetually delayed, The Guardian Legend was silently released with no fanfare months after its target date. Even after its release it took me months to actually track down a copy, some seventy miles away from my home. The Guardian Legend is, without a doubt, one of the best titles for the NES, and the most marketing it gets is a short preview in Nintendo Power about six months before it hits the streets.

Zanac fans will discover some nostalgia as Compile used quite a few elements from their previous shooter. The Blue Lander makes its return as a life-expanding powerup, and Guardic's Randar makes a return as a big Blue Lander who sells you weapons. Many weapons, sounds, and enemies are borrowed from Zanac as well. While not directly a sequel to Zanac, the common components give a feel of lineage.

And, in the true tradition of Zanac, The Guardian Legend contains some incredible music. The tunes are mysterious and spacey but forced and structured, giving a foreign yet urgent and focused feel to the pieces. Another great touch is the influence of late 1980s electronica which adds to the artificial feel of Naju. To top it off, The Guardian Legend's music is set by a single pervasive tone, a harmonizing element linking together the entire game. While the tracks do vary in quality, overall The Guardian Legend contains one of the best soundtracks for the NES.

Also like Zanac, The Guardian Legend has great enemy designs and detailed backgrounds. While this game, like so many NES games, is guilty of palette swapping foes, there are enough types of enemies to keep the eye entertained. Bosses are enormous and creepy; most are some form of giant mutated animal drawn in impressive detail. The guardian animates well, especially during transformation scenes. Bosses' eyes roam as they move, and virtually every stage enemy creeps around. The game has above average animation overall.

While you need keys from certain corridors to unlock other sections of the labyrinth, The Guardian Legend still has a degree of non-linearity in it due to some keys opening several areas and the existence of optional corridors. Additionally, finishing the game yields a special password which allows you to play the game in just its shooter part with slightly modified gameplay. Progress is much harder this way since there's no way to save. You'll have to devote a big chunk of time because there are twenty-two shooter stages, and you must play through them all. Whichever mode you play, The Guardian Legend offers more than enough to come back after completion.

The pesky password system and boneheaded distribution can't keep this game down. The Guardian Legend is truly at the top of both NES adventure and shooter games and among the best titles for the system, period. The game marked a point in history; there weren't many hybrids of this type and there were even fewer successful titles. Fans of shooters should play this game. Fans of the adventure genre should play this game. Every NES gamer should play this game.

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Community review by whelkman (March 04, 2003)

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