Its 26 years since Treasure exploded onto the console scene with Gunstar Heroes. The legendary developers first game regularly finds itself in Mega Drive top ten lists due to its amazing presentation and excellent playability. Gunstar Heroes cemented Treasure’s reputation as the gold standard for Mega Drive shooters and Retro Faith looks back at this cult classic.
In the early 90’s several Konami staff were becoming jaded with the amount of sequels the Japanese giant was producing. They felt the company were relying too much on franchises such as Contra and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Programmer Masato Maegawa led the exodus after his idea to develop an original game was rejected. By 1992 Treasure had been established and Gunstar Heroes started taking shape.
Lacking the backing of a major publisher like Konami, Maegawa approached Sega. This made perfect sense as Gunstar was being developed for the Mega Drive. The new company felt the Motorola 68000 processor was more suited to the type of game they were producing. Initially Sega rejected the idea but decided to hire the fledgling developer for the McDonald Treasure Land Adventure license.
After a few months Sega were impressed with the progress and agreed to back Gunstar and for both games to be made simultaneously. The team was split in two with the Gunstar team consisting of just six main members. According to Maegawa the game was originally called Lunatic Gunstar but Sega suggested Heroes as they felt lunatic held negative connotations.
Treasure wanted their first game to be an original title so decided to release Gunstar before Treasure Island even though it had been finished earlier. There was not much expectation and only a small number of carts were produced. You could be forgiven for thinking Sega underestimated the impact Gunstar would have when it launched to critical fanfare in September 1993. All 10,000 initial Japanese copies quickly sold and the game would eventually ship over 250,000 units worldwide.
Every magazine and publication praised the impressive graphics and fast gameplay. Many credited it as their game of the month and later their game of the year. Rad from Mean Machines said “Gunstar Heroes is one of the most incredible games I’ve ever seen on the Megadrive. The graphics are fantastic, with an amazing depth of detail and a lot of attention paid to the animation.”
Once being greeted with a thumping intro you take control of either Blue or Red Gunstar on a mission to save the Earth from an evil empire. The battle centres on a set of gems that hold the power to rule the universe. You later learn that your brother, Green Gunstar, has been brainwashed to serve the enemy. The story develops as you progress with the main theme of chasing the bosses down until you reach the final stage.
Gunstar Heroes is a typical run ‘n gun from the 16-bit era. An endless array of enemies descends as you blast your way through the hordes. Spread throughout the stages are mini-bosses that are unique in design and these are followed up with an epic end of level boss. Treasure’s trademark for big boss battles started with Gunstar and has been a staple of their appeal for shooter fans ever since.
You also have many tools at your disposal in Gunstar Heroes. Firstly choosing between a fixed or free shot gives you the ability to take the game on in different ways. Then selecting one of four primary weapons to start with. They all have positives and negatives that you can play about with until you find your perfect starting settings.
The weapons have another feature that bring some longevity or at least adds some variety to the overall game. Each weapon can be combined with another to create a super weapon. Mashing the chaser and lighting weapons together creates an electric beam that follows enemies around the screen. Another is matching the flame thrower with the rifle to create a large fireball type weapon. There is a large arsenal to choose from and you really feel as though you are customising your own gameplay.
Players also have a few acrobatic moves to use. A standard jump is bolstered by the ability to hang underneath platformers. An offensive slide lines up with a flying kick and you can grab enemies up close before tossing them in any direction. The extra moves certainly bring a variety to the gameplay that is often missing from the run ‘n gun genre. Some of the bosses are easier to beat if you take advantage of the flying kick or sliding move and experimentation is key.
The controls are precise and you feel as though each individual kill is your own. The amount of ways you can dispose of your foes makes Gunstar feel like a unique experience each time you play it. Add to this a few different difficulty settings and this is a game you can come back to time and again. To round everything off try the two player and you will struggle to get tired of this title.
It is not just the playability that makes Gunstar stand out. The graphics and animation are out of this world. It redefines what Sega’s machine is capable of. The amount of sprites whirling around and scaling at once is impressive. The colour pallete is used to its fullest and it appears as though there are many layers when the Mega Drive only supports two. One negative from having so much happening is the odd bit of slow down but this does not really affect play.
The soundtrack is one of the best made during the 16-bit era and the thumping tracks add to the frantic action. You will take note of the explosions and bullets flying around the levels due to the amount of detail in each section. One of the best aspects of Gunstar is its humour and the sound during a few select set pieces are simply genius. It feels more like audio visual interactive art than a video game.
Everything about this game still stands up today. It is timeless and capable of wowing audiences even now. Gunstar Heroes is simply one of the greatest games of all time and you can play it today on Mega Drive Classics for all modern consoles.