Gunstar Heroes on the Sega Megadrive is generally regarded as one of the finest run and gun games, and with good reason. Treasure’s game is a true gem, a tough challenge that’s fun to play and will keep you coming back for more.
Sure, the graphics might have dated a little and the manga look is old hat these days, but Gunstar Heroes is still a good looking game. The main character might run as though he’s got a stick stuffed up his backside, but there’s a lot of variety to the enemies, backgrounds and characters.
Right from the off, the action is frantic. Waves of enemy soldiers come thick and fast and if you hang around or fail to kill them quickly enough, the screen rapidly fills with people who mean you harm. This breathless pace means there is rarely time to stop and think, which is just as it should be in this type of game. It’s an impressive technical achievement from Treasure as no matter how busy the screen gets, there is rarely any slowdown. If you want to survive, then your options boil down to two simple things: run like hell and shoot anything that moves.
The downside to the frantic pace is that it can sometimes be tricky to keep track of your character on screen (particularly if you are playing an emulated version of the game on a smaller screen). There have been plenty of times when I’ve only had the very vaguest idea where I was in the melee of on-screen sprites. This can impact a little on gameplay and you occasionally find yourself relying on a combination of luck and button mashing to survive.
Like the graphics, the sound has aged, albeit reasonably gracefully. It contains exactly the sorts of tunes and effects you would expect, the main issue being that some of the tunes are quite short and play on an endless loop, so they can become repetitive after extended play. They are well composed, however, and match the frantic pace of the gameplay.
Where Gunstar Heroes really comes to life is in the game design – an area Treasure has always excelled in. A run and gunner seems a simple genre to create. You just need an odd bit of scenery and some enemy sprites, don’t you? Well, no, actually. If you want to make a truly great game, the real skill lies in the careful positioning of enemies
Gunstar Heroes is so carefully constructed, it’s almost painful and the superb placement of enemies lends a strong risk and reward element to the gameplay. Do you try and run as fast as you can from one side of the screen to the other, avoiding contact with enemies as much as possible or do you take time to kill as many as possible, racking up the points, but risking damage? Similarly, as power-ups are dropped, do you risk going for them (which will make life a little easier) or play it safe and ignore them (but be left with a weaker weapon.) Gunstar Heroes gets the balance between fun and frustration almost perfectly, leaving the player to live (or die) by their choices.
With only 4 stages, the game might appear rather short, but like many old school games, it is pretty tough. The four stages are also broken into different sections, making it bigger than it first appears. As you learn the enemy placements, you get just that little bit further each time, anticipating their moves and getting into the best position to kill them quickly. Of course, it can be frustrating – dying for the 95th time in almost the same spot is annoying in any game – but it generally stays the right side of fun.
Gunstar Heroes remains a superb example of how to construct a game. An excellent blend of frantic action, risk and reward gameplay and a well-judged difficulty curve, it’s still fun over 20 years after first release. There’s a part of me that’s screaming out for it to be remade using today’s technology; the saner part of met hopes that it is left alone. Unless made a sympathetic developer who loved the original, a remake would probably miss what made the game so special in the first place.
Gunstar Heroes is a real Treasure (see what I did there?) and should be treated as such.