Monday, October 17, 2011

Guardian Heroes: Now Affordable, Still Awesome

Until recently I would have had a hard time justifying putting up an article about Guardian Heroes. Sure, it is an oft overlooked classic game, but the fact it was only released on the Saturn, which is notoriously hard to emulate, and the rarity of the game meant that tracking down a copy of the game could get quite expensive. I consider myself lucky in that, not only do I own a Saturn, but I also have a friend that has owned the game for years. Now that the game has been remastered and released on Xbox Live Arcade for a measly ten dollars, I won't feel guilty about writing about the game for this site, and I no longer have to organize meetings at my house just to show off the game.

Treasure, the company behind Gunstar Heroes and a bunch of well-respected shmups, developed Guardian Heroes for Sega, and for many this 1996 beat'em up is considered the best game, not only on the system, but in the genre. One distinguishing feature of the game that sets it apart from other beat'em ups is the fantasy setting and anime art style, as opposed to the usual 80's street gangs. Another unique features is the RPG-like leveling system that allows player to put points in stats that affect how characters play. While many beat'em ups are simple games, with maybe one or two special moves per charcter, Guardian Heroes revels in complexity and uses controls more like a fighting game. It accomplishes this by changing some of the most basic controls normally found in this type of game.

Instead of scrolling freely through the vertical plane, the levels are separated into three planes that can be switched between, similar to a Fatal Fury game. With plane switching relegated to buttons, the up and down arrows are free to give the player more fighting-game like controls, with up being jump and down being crouch. This also allows for more complicated motions to be used for more special moves. As a result, the characters are all very unique, with complex repertoires and play styles that are all a lot of fun to play. For example, my favorite character, Randy, is a mage, so he has a lot of spells at his disposal and his melee attacks are fast, but weak. Conversely, the main character, Han, is a basic guy with a big sword that does big, slow damage and can't cast many spells.

Other controls include a block button, weak attack, strong attack, and magic. Holding block, obviously, defends against attacks and is essential to not getting killed, bu pressing the weak attack during a block does a back dash that can get the player out of danger quickly. That, combined with the forward dash, performed by pressing forward, forward, a double jump, and plane switching gives the player a great deal of mobility in dodging attacks, as well as going on the offense. There are two ways to cast magic. One is to press the magic button, then select a spell from the menu, and cast it. Since the menu is navigated in real-time, this method is useless, and the only way to cast spells without getting punched in the face is to input a shortcut motion, then press the magic button. This is another way the game is similar to a fighting game, with quarter-circle forward being the motion for the fireball spell.

The sum of all of these design decisions for the controls is a complicated, fast-paced, combo-heavy, and extremely fun combat system. Probably the only thing more complicated than the mechanics of the game is the story and its insane branching pathways. At many points throughout the game, the player is given a list of choices, some with obvious repercussions and others that are harder to discern. I don't remember much about the story, but I think there is an ending in which the heroes kill the devil, and another where they kill God, or some similar being. While the massive amount of choices is interesting, the story itself isn't really the strongest point of the game, but in the remastered version it has been re-translated, and if it isn't enough of an improvement, the cutscenes can be more easily skipped.

On the topic of the remastered version for XBLA, in spite of the bad first impression many got from the first screenshots that were released, it turned out really nice. I didn't realize quite how fuzzy the game is on Saturn until I played the new version, which is crystal clear and looks great on a high-definition screen. There are two graphical modes, original and remix. Original isn't exactly like it used to be, as the UI has been redone, and the game has be reformatted to 16/9. For people that don't mind seeing a few pixels, like me, this is the mode for them, because everything looks very crisp. Remix mode is a group of graphical filters applied to the game that make the game more palatable to people afraid of sharp edges. It's not just a bunch of smoothing, but other nice little touches like simulated pencil shading. Both modes look good, so it's really just down to preference.

More important than the original and remix graphics modes is the choice between original and remix gameplay modes. Original is, as far as I can tell, completely faithful to the Saturn version, but remix adds a bunch of tweaks that make the game a bit more like modern fighting games. Instead of a short forward dash, the player can now run, and the forward dash can now be performed in the air. Attacks are now split up between a light, medium, and hard, with all the attacks that were available split between them. Also, shortcuts for spells are now performed using the hard button instead of the magic button, which is now pretty much useless. Another convenient addition is a dedicated button for the back dash. There are a lot of other small tweaks that make the combos something more akin to something that might be found in a doujin fighter or an Arc Systems Works games. Overall, I consider it an improvement on an already great combat system.

There are quite a few other reasons that the XBLA version is just better than the original. Obviously, the ability to play co-op and competitive modes online is really convenient, though I haven't tried it out online yet, so I can't vouch for the quality of the netcode. More important, it no longer has problems with slowdown whenever there is too much stuff on screen. That generally makes playing the game a better experience, but it also means that the versus mode can be played with up to twelve characters instead of just six. Simply put, Guardian Heroes is fucking awesome, and with the new release there is no longer a valid excuse for not owning it.

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