Monday, February 01, 2010

Videogame Classics - Gunstar Heroes

Gunstar Heroes
Treasure for Sega
Sega Genesis

(Originally written July 23, 2004)

Gunstar Heroes is just about the best game ever made for the Sega Genesis. It certainly symbolized everything that made the Genesis so cool: terrific music, speed, innovation, and style, style, style. There is more style and clever ideas crammed into this game than in many consoles’ entire libraries, and I’m sure that sounds like some cheesy cliché, but this time it’s very true. Gunstar is the rightful heir to the greatest of all the run-and-gun shooters, Contra; Contra filtered through 1990’s pop culture, Japanese anime, channel surfing, and way too many explosions.

Here is a game where you face off against a giant bouncing cell with an enormous happy face. Here is a game where you venture through a giant dice maze. Here is a game where a villain, trapped on a burning train, hurls his own soldiers at you. In one of the early levels, you battle against suicide bombers, soldiers who set fire to houses, killer bees, flying drones, thugs who grab you from behind, and a creature, made entirely out of boxes, who attacks with the dragon punches and foot sweeps from Street Fighter 2.

That crazy sense of humor has since become a trademark quality of the game’s developer, a small Japanese studio named Treasure. The developers originally hailed from Konami during the 8- and 16-bit eras, and a number of them worked on many classics, although exactly which ones remain clouded in mystery. It’s commonly believed that they were responsible for Castlevania 4 and Contra 3 on the Super Nintendo (Gunstar’s first level is something of a homage to Contra 3), and possibly Bucky ‘O Hare in the arcades. I’ve heard assertions that some of these developers even worked on the original Castlevania and Contra, but I’m a little more skeptical. It’s all a part of the legend, I suppose.

In any case, these folks grew unhappy with having to churn out sequels and brand-name tie-ins. They wanted to break out and pursue their own original ideas. They wanted something new. So this small collection of programmers and artists left Konami and founded Treasure. They immediately set to work, churning out a number of games on the Genesis; Gunstar Heroes was their first title.

Treasure immediately made an impact on the industry; with their first game, they demonstrated a technical brilliance and mastery of the Genesis. Truly Konami let some of their best talent slip out the door. Treasure also built up a fiercely loyal fan following, from fanzines (like mine) to magazines like Diehard Gamefan. To this day, you aren’t really considered a hardcore gamer if you don’t passionately love Treasure’s games.

Gunstar Heroes is just one of those great "kitchen sink" moments when a group of creative people are finally given the freedom to do everything they've ever wanted. How else can one explain the sheer diversity present from start to finish? Notice, first, your choice of two main characters. In addition to firing guns, you can also throw enemies, jump kick, body dive, slide, hang from ceilings, or even block. Your choice of weapons is determined by collecting various power-up icons, and then combining them into new weapons. Want a flamethrower? How about a laser gun or a lightsabre? Would a homing beam be more to your style, or would you prefer streams of red bullets?

The best games allow for at least some improvisation, and Gunstar’s many options brought a wonderful freshness to the genre. It’s great to catch soldiers sleeping on the job, or running away in a panic; it gives them a goofy sense of character, instead of merely being an endless line of moving targets. The main bosses are the best example of this. One of the bosses is a dead ringer for M. Bison (again with the Street Fighter riffs); weirder, one looks exactly like Jesse Ventura, our beloved wrestler-turned-governor. Or maybe he’s supposed to be the General from the movie “Akira.”

Did I mention the boss named Melon Bread, which is basically a smiley face that just sits there? How about Rice and Curry, the name of a monster made entirely out of brown rice balls? The “smash-the-vehicle” bonus stage with a hapless soldier trapped inside? This is a game that almost parodies itself.

Treasure pulled out some truly fantastic effects, arguably the finest of the 16-bit era. Even today, in our age of hyper-powered game consoles, it’s hard to think of a game with as much visual jazz and pop. Large characters twist, bend, and warp with ease. Backgrounds wiggle and fade into the distance. One main character, a defector from your team, rides a vehicle that morphs into a spaceship, a robot, a buzzsaw, and a gun; all superbly animated. And everywhere there are explosions, explosions, explosions. Hardly a second ever goes by without something blowing up.

The one great tragedy of Gunstar is that, outside the fan base, it came and went without a peep. Why did most Genesis owners never see this game? What marketing genius decided to pack the game with Fruit Roll-Ups? Who passed up the original Japanese box art for the lousy American version? What the hell was Sega thinking? I remember this was occurring while they were busy pushing the Sega CD and 32X, just before the Saturn arrived. It's funny now to realize just how incompetent they were at that time. You'd think the executives were deliberately trying to tank the company.

Sometimes it can’t be helped. Herzog Zwei was forgotten by Sega in its time, too. Videogame fans, real gamers, always knew the score, and Gunstar Heroes is as good as they come. What a wonderful, thrilling, crazy game.

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