Gunstar Heroes (Genesis) review
"The light tone really is impossible to ignore. It hits you across the face the minute you plug in the title, then turns gracefully on one heel like a figure skater before nailing you in the crotch with another well-timed blow. Visuals are extremely cartoony, and often looked to me like the love child of an affair shared by Street Fighter 2 and The Powerpuff Girls."
Like Alanis Morrissette, I'm fond of searching for irony in places where it doesn't exist. And so I present to you my latest such an attempt, an analysis of the company that is Treasure.
Treasure was born in the small hamlet of Konami, where it spent its childhood developing games like Contra for its parents. Then, as the people that made up Treasure reached their collective teens, they found the shelter Konami provided too restrictive. They were sick of making Contra games, and wanted to try something different with their lives. So they fled their hometown, got together, and formed the utopia of Treasure. And their first project was Gunstar Heroes. Which is where I was ready to assert the irony comes into play. If Treasure really wanted to try something different, the last thing they should have created was Gunstar Heroes. The game is (aside from the lack of bulbous aliens and gritty production values) about as close as you can get to Contra without fearing copyright infringement allegations.
The similarities begin at the most fundamental of levels. Both of the games are side-scrolling shooters for one or two players. Both feature enemies that drop weapon power-ups you can use to fire more damaging types of weaponry at your enemies. They even both share enjoyable breaks from straight-forward action in the form of vehicles you can ride. If the graphical presentation were just a bit different (and the game's tone a little darker), this might well have been released as Super Duper C.
The light tone really is impossible to ignore. It hits you across the face the minute you plug in the title, then turns gracefully on one heel like a figure skater before nailing you in the crotch with another well-timed blow. Visuals are extremely cartoony, and often looked to me like the love child of an affair shared by Street Fighter 2 and The Powerpuff Girls. As an example, the main villain at the game's onset could pass for Capcom's M. Bison character, aside from his pants being just a little too baggy and his movements a bit too abrupt. There's another baddie who looks like Zangief without the scars or beard, and so there are two main characters that support my ludicrous claims. I'm content to move on, even if you're not.
Though your enemies may be cute, though, they have sneaky intentions that just can't go unaddressed. One of them is convinced that grabbing four crystals and awakening some alien force will allow him to bring about world domination. His cronies seem to be similarly motivated. I say 'seem' because the game's opening hints around at such things through the use of sprites and cheesy dialogue. The instruction manual likely provides further illumination, but my used copy of the game came without that particular luxury. Either way, it's not the story that matters.
Instead, it's the gameplay that will make or break this for you, assuming you're not reeling at the idea of a shooter with cute graphical presentation like I've described above. And in this area, the game mostly succeeds.
When you begin the game, you'll be at a menu that shows four different monitor screens. Each of these represents a stage you can tackle in order to retrieve one of the four crystals. They can be played in any order, so even after you've conquered the game (which you'll do easily enough), you can still go back and play your favorite of the first four stages on a whim. Of course, once you finish the introductory stages, you'll then be forced through a more linear stage progression, as you go through a few more areas to the final showdown at the game's end.
Each of the first four stages seems to have a general theme in the way it's constructed. The left-most screen is a good place for beginners to start, as it puts the player right in the middle of the generic type of shooter level most reminiscent of standard Contra fare. Here, you can run around blasting enemies, jump to hang from ledges, or just mow down swarms of approaching enemies like so many blades of grass before a final confrontation at the end.
Other stages present much different challenges, so much as the genre will permit. One area has you climbing scaffolding to the left (and shooting enemies that emerge from it) while a massive battleship rises to your right. As the level progresses, you'll get onto that ship and continue battling the disposable goons that attack from all sides. It's good fun. Another level puts you on moving platforms of a sort, and you'll ride them along corridors while other soldiers attack from the sides or above. You can even switch so that you're on the ceiling, and you'll descend vertical shafts, as well. Then there's the area where you're sliding down the side of a building and enemies are chasing after you with guns blazing. The way they so relentlessly pursue you, I'd almost think they caught you sleeping with their women, if not for the cute cartoon character on the game's cover.
Variety continues beyond what I've already described, though. There's even a stage where you forget about running around on foot and instead hop into a space pod for some horizontal shooter action. It's unexpected twists like this (and others I'll leave for you to discover) that will keep you constantly guessing what'll happen next. I was really pleased with all of this. Even the cute presentation (which garnered a 'GA' rating but probably would be rated 'T' if the ESRB took a gander) didn't irritate me, because it was so pleasingly integrated into the experience.
But there are issues, my friend, and they may be enough to discourage you from treasuring Gunstar Heroes as much as its proud creators no doubt do.
For one thing, the game just isn't long enough. It's something like eight stages, and none of them are so massive that you can convincingly say to your friends ''But wow, it's like those eight stages are thirty!'' Even with all the variety from one objective to the next, the game is over inside an hour's time. Then you're just left with the question of whether or not you want to play through it again a few times to extend the cartridge's usefulness.
Unfortunately, you quite possibly won't. This is because the game doesn't offer enough overall depth. There are only four or five weapon upgrades. Even though they aren't so similar as to cancel one another out, they still all amount to 'guns you use to blow stuff up.' And while you can also rely on your throw moves, those don't really come into play unless you're fighting the Zangief clone I mentioned earlier. Most of the time, you're just hopping around and shooting anything that moves.
Speaking of things that move, we're left examining the different enemies the game offers. I didn't notice it until someone pointed it out to me (Zigfried, you know who you are), but there really aren't a lot of different enemies in the game. You're just battling hordes of opponents that look like they all stepped off the assembly line. The foes in one level might be purple, the ones in the next blue. When it comes to enemies, the only real variety is in the bosses. Still, there's not a one of them that really should challenge you for very long. Mostly, it's just a matter of watching how they move, how they shoot, then figuring out where to stand (or duck) so that they miss you. Even the game's final enemy is a total wimp when you figure out how to damage him the most. And if you make it to a level boss and die, the game is kind enough that it allows you to continue from a checkpoint only a short distance from the stage's end. The thrill of fighting these monstrosities comes not from the fear that you'll die, but rather from their unique appearance.
Because the game is so forgiving, and because its visuals are so bright and cheery, I can't help but think that when Treasure set out to develop Gunstar Heroes, they wanted to make a Contra for kids. In that regard, the game succeeds admirably. It's just the kind of game I can imagine two elementary children playing together after school while their older brothers play Contra in the next room. And if that's something that Konami didn't want to release, maybe the formation of Treasure wasn't so ironic after all. Sadly, my search for irony in video games is stalled. I'm left holding ten thousand spoons.
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 03, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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