Gunstar Heroes (XBLA)

Review – Gunstar Heroes

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Retro Shooter

First I’m gonna get you, then when I got you, I’m gonna gat you.

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Gareth

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Ever since I experienced Contra’s online co-op over Xbox Live I knew Treasure’s classic, Gunstar Heroes, would be an amazing addition to the Xbox Live Arcade library. It’s taken its sweet time to get here, but it’s here now and those who played it in its original form on the Sega Genesis/Megadrive will probably already have downloaded it. For those who have no idea what it is I’ll fill you in.

Released under the Sega Vintage Collection label this XBLA port is of the same style as Streets of Rage 2, Golden Axe, and all the other Megadrive games released already. As such you don’t get the title screen from the original game, just a blue screen with ‘New Game’, ‘Options’, etc. on it. You have the option to ‘smooth’ the graphics, but the effect is minor and the graphics aren’t particularly amazing. Saying that, all the characters are interesting, full of life and can be quite amusing. There are some nice effects used throughout the game, and the amount of enemies and explosions on screen at one time is very impressive, with slowdown only occurring at one point in the entire game.

What's Cartman doing here?

The sound hasn’t received any enhancements or remixing, so the Megadrive’s rather poor sound quality is quite evident here. Working within the limitations though Treasure has created some excellent tunes and the explosion sound effects are satisfying enough. Still, if you download old Megadrive games and expect it to stand up to today’s games then you’re bound to be disappointed. The gameplay is what matters.

Gunstar Heroes is a side scrolling shoot ‘em up in a similar vein to Contra and Metal Slug. One or two players can run from left to right through seven levels fighting numerous bosses and hundreds of henchmen. Unlike Contra and Metal Slug however there are no one hit deaths and is easier for it. Your life is indicated by a number at the top of the screen, so you can take multiple hits before death, and you can collect health refills throughout each level. There are no lives, so once you’re dead you have to continue which could mean going back to the start of the level, or rather more kindly to the beginning of a boss fight.

Annoyingly, unlike on the original Megadrive version, when playing in two player, if one player dies he is dead until the other player dies as well. That means if player one dies on the first level and player two never dies, then player one will never play again. On the Megadrive, if one player died the other could rejoin at the cost of half the other players health. Why they’ve taken this feature out I don’t know and my only guess would be because pressing start pauses it and they didn’t want to change the text at the top of the screen to say “Press Back”. So Backbone have actually taken a feature out of the game to make it worse. It doesn’t ruin it by any means, but if one player is of a higher skill level than another then it can affect your fun greatly.

As you start the game you can select any of the initial four levels to start from, and you can pick from four different weapons (Force, Lightning, Chaser and Flame) and two different control options. ‘Free Shot’ allows you to run and shoot as is the norm, whereas ‘Fixed Shot’ stops you from moving whilst shooting but you can fire in all eight directions (including down). Both have advantages and disadvantages so which you choose will be totally up to you, your play style and which weapon combinations you prefer.

That’s right, you can combine weapons. You start the game picking one, but as you go through the levels you’ll find weapon pick ups. Pick up a second weapon and the powers of both will combine to create a hybrid. You can press the Y button to start using the weapons individually if you choose, but the best weapons in the game are undoubtedly the combined ones. Combine Flame and Flame and you get an extra long flame thrower, combine Lightning and Chaser and you get a homing laser, combine Force and Flame to create bullets that explode on impact. Experimenting with each weapon combination can be a lot of fun, and each weapon has its pros and cons. Add to this the physical attacks you can use (flying kicks, sliding kicks, throws) and you’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

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Mark

Secondary Review

This is about as much fun as could have been had with two players on the original Megadrive and I’m glad to say not much has changed with this new conversion. Sure the lack of two player continues is an annoyance but when placed up against what is in this game you’ll happily forgive such trifles.

If you’re looking for a non-stop action packed shooter with tons of creativity and room for experimentation (it’s still a mystery to me why Konami didn’t rip of the muti-weapon system for the Contra sequels) then look no further or if you’ve just got 400 M$P lurking in your Live account and fancy a honest to goodness Treasure shooter that’s not a bullet hell memory test download this today or at least before Microsoft realise they’ve let a good game slip through the 800 M$P cracks.
Secondary Score: 8/10

The level design is the real star of the show here though. Although it very rarely deviates from the simple ‘walk left to right’ formula the levels are broken up with some entertaining bosses and there are a couple of levels which have to be experienced.

The mine cart level is stuff of legend. Being able to ride at the top or bottom of the screen, chasing a train through a tunnel only to be confronted by the boss, Seven Force. Said boss then proceeds to transform into one of seven forms, each requiring a different strategy and makes for one of the best boss battles in history. A special mention also has to go to the Dice Palace, a board game where you throw the dice to see which stages you have to partake in. A shoot ‘em up section where you control a space craft is weaker but is only a small portion of the game.

It’s quite obvious I’m a fan of the game, and I have been for over a decade. The only negative I have with this port is the death situation in two player that I mentioned earlier, other than that it is brilliant and hopefully they’ll patch it as whoever made that decision is an idiot. With online co-operative play, the option to save anywhere and leaderboards (which is kind of made redundant by the save option, but is nice all the same) you’ve got a very nice package. The game only lasts about 90 minutes (not including player deaths) but it only costs 400 Microsoft points and is very replayable, with four difficulty settings (bosses change a surprising amount on higher difficulties).

An absolute bargain and I can say without any hesitation, the best 400 points you can spend on XBLA. It’s just a shame about them trying to ruin the two player mode, for that I’ve taken a point off the final score.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 8/10

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