The Greatest Games: Gunstar Heroes (1993)

Gunstar Heroes (1993)
Developed by Treasure

Treasure is one of gaming’s hidden gems, a company which pushed stylistic boundaries while largely refusing to capitulate to the industry’s demands for sequel after sequel. Their focus on unique IPs gave them freedom to experiment without solidified expectations, and their output like Ikaruga and Sin & Punishment stand among gaming’s most singular experiences. This all began with Gunstar Heroes, a run and gun shooter that pushed the Genesis to its chaotic limit.

Like most games in this genre, Gunstar Heroes is largely simple to play. In the beginning, you choose between four basic weapon types. What makes this special is that the characters have two weapon slots, and these two slots can be combined to make a specialized attack. With 4 basic attacks and 10 combined variations, there are simply a ton of options in a genre where many games stick to the basics.

The four basics have their own specialties: force has rapid fire, lightning offers a long-range piercing attack, chaser homes, and flame is strong but short-ranged. The combinations logically combine the two concepts, with two of the same weapon simply offering a stronger variant. So, lightning and fire make a short-range mega weapon, while lightning and chaser can shift the player’s focus to movement while the weapon automatically and slowly chips away at enemies. A key feature in the initial options screen is the ability to choose between free or fixed controls. Free allows the player to move and shoot while fixed stops the character while firing but allows more directional control with aiming. Certain combinations work better depending on the control scheme.

The inclusion of cooperative gameplay is also a boon. It’s always fun to let a friend join in, but this particular game benefits from two players meaning two different weapons. Really, one thing I’ve always missed from this era is the rather common implementation of co-op. Whether it’s something as simple as controlling Tails or being able to play the full game on equal terms as in Gunstar Heroes, I sometimes find myself going back to this era because so few modern games even attempt to replicate the experience. With chaos being one of Treasure’s central tenets, a second player only builds upon the madness of Gunstar Heroes.

Gunstar Heroes is one of those classic ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ games. Playing is as simple as holding the shoot button and moving. But as the game throws out more and more enemies, your focus will turn more to the layout of the stages; how do you use these mechanics within this location?  The challenge is less about hitting the enemy than maintaining your health throughout these massive stages. The central bosses all push the limits, especially on the harder difficulties.

Seven Force is among the most striking boss fights I’ve encountered. Tucked away in only the second of seven levels (though you can and probably should play the first four levels in a different order), this boss goes through either five or seven distinct forms depending on difficulty. Each of these forms have as much health as a full boss, so the entire fight becomes an endurance run of mastering his simple yet changing mechanics. This is one of gaming’s best brutal yet rewarding experiences; he is fully manageable once you get the game down pat, but getting there seems impossible at first glance. Adding to the experience is the detailed design, with each section of Seven Force’s several bodies being animated as distinct pieces. Gunstar Heroes is absolutely one of the best looking games of the fourth generation, and that is on full display during this fight.

While games like Contra have been around forever, Gunstar Heroes went above and beyond. Mixing smooth yet variable gameplay with challenging designs and a vibrant style, Treasure created a chaotic classic. This is the run and gun genre perfected; no other even comes close.