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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.