Guardian Heroes (1996, Treasure for Sega Saturn)

By nearly all accounts, Treasure’s Guardian Heroes is just about the greatest thing to happen to Sega Saturn, a 2D spectacular dazzles the eyes, ears and itchy trigger fingers of all players. Nearly all modern polls of Saturn’s finest games ranks this title among the very top, a defining classic for the system’s library. If you are a fan of arcade beat-em-ups like Double Dragon, Final Fight and Streets of Rage, you’re going to love this game.

Back in 1996, however, the mood of the gaming public was very different. 2D videogames were as dead as leisure suits in the 1980s or synth pop in the 1990s. The entire art form was massively out of fashion, killed by new technologies such as pre-rendered CG and texture-mapped polygons. For gamers always hungry for the “next big thing,” sprite graphics were the kiss of death.

Sony successfully rode the new wave of 3D graphics to legendary success with their Playstation system, and Nintendo successfully established a new paradigm for 3D videogames with Super Mario 64, but Sega was hit hardest by this sea change. Their Saturn was envisioned as the best of both worlds, a continuation of the 2D arcade games of the Sega Genesis and an exploration of the new 3D frontier of arcade hits like Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA. Two decades later, this feels like a reasonable, almost cautious strategy, and if the winds of fashion had not blown so harshly, the Fifth Generation may have ended differently.

But the winds come and go. Fashion rises and falls. Greatness lasts. Today, Guardian Heroes more closely resembles the latest pop craze on iOS, or the latest indie hit on consoles. It feels very fresh and vital and new, and its excitement can hardly be contained. When playing, you feel a rush as though lightning were shooting out of your fingers, your pulse racing as you face endless waves of soldiers, ogres, wizards and giant plants that want to stomp you flat. It’s great fun, gloriously attractive and endlessly addicting.

Treasure are the madcap developers behind this game, and they’re known for their freewheeling subversive style that takes established videogame genres and turns them on their heads. Their software library is a virtual must for all budding diehard gamers: Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy, Alien Soldier, Silhouette Mirage, Radiant Silvergun, Sin and Punishment, Mischief Makers, Bangai-O, Ikaruga. The mid ’90s marked the studio’s creative and commercial peak. Many studio could deliver zany or surreal games, but Treasure had the classic arcade skills to match, and that’s why their name remains revered to this day.

Guardian Heroes is Treasure’s take on the beat-em-up genre, mashed up with elements of fantasy role-playing games. You play as a band of adventurers who discover a mysterious sword and find themselves suddenly attacked by the kingdom’s royal knights who seek the weapon. A mysterious female warrior arrives at your side, imploring you to fight back. The battle spills out into the town streets and your team gathers at a neighboring cemetery, where you are ambushed by the prince of the kingdom. During the fight, something unexpected happens: the sword flies from your grip, floats in the air, then flies over a grave. An armored skeleton emerges with the sword in hand and immediately begins to fight the enemy army. You quickly discover that this is the sword’s original owner and he now obeys your commands. Your team now must begin its quest to solve the mystery of the sword and the kingdom, where you will meet a wide cast of characters good and bad, and a story with numerous surprises and twists.

The gameplay is fascinating. You move along a strictly linear plane in the style of Kung-Fu Master, only moving left and right, but you can also jump along three separate planes in the background. Skilled players will learn when to jump planes to either attack enemies or avoid damages and buy some time. Each player-character is armed with an impressive arsenal of moves, which include standard attacks, combos and magic spells. Each character has a unique set of skills and stats which emphasize one style of play or another. The burly fighter is good for direct attacks but cannot use magic. The magic girl can employ many magic attacks but is physically weak. In addition, you gain experience points as you defeat enemies, which will not only raise your abilities but reward you with “stat points” at the end of each stage, where you can raise your abilities as you wish. As there are not enough stat points to maximize all your abilities, you will have to choose which abilities to build. This gives you a great amount of freedom to experiment and adds greatly to the replay value.

During your quest, you are offered multiple pathways or choices to follow. For example, after resurrecting the golden warrior and defeating the fighters in the cemetery, you have the option to proceed to the next town, a nearby village, or a forest. There are 30 stages in all, only a fraction which is seen on any given quest. There are seven different endings and five different final villains, depending on which path you’ve chosen, which foes you’ve defeated and which friends you’ve helped. In addition to this, Treasure added a “karma” rating for your character, which can rise or fall based on your actions, such as breaking barrels, killing civilians, attacking fleeing soldiers or continuing to attack defeated foes. Several, if not all, of the endings have a “dark” variation if you finish with negative karma. Either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain, I suppose.

Guardian Heroes is filled with gameplay subtleties that emerge over time. Magic spells can affect you as well, such as touching an enemy who has caught on fire. Attacks can be added into combos or buffered together, allowing for more powerful attacks. Blocking and dodging attacks is an essential skill that will ensure your survival (I can’t remember another brawler with blocking). The undead hero can be guided with a series of commands from “attack” to “defend” that can be changed on the fly. The larger and more challenging enemies employ stronger defense and require a bit of tactics to defeat (you can’t get beat the game by mashing buttons), and is especially true with the epic boss fights.

Visually, Guardian Heroes presents a spectacular buffet of 2D graphics, using Sega Saturn’s VDP2 powers to great effect. The screen is often filled with characters, trees, pillars, tables or other objects. Character designs are heavily anime-inspired, with thick black outlines and sparing use of colors. Its look is slightly pixelated, and there are some larger opponents that are clearly scaled sprites, making for a very stylishly blocky look (I’m reminded of the Atari Lynx). For critics, this was slightly jarring in 1996, further proof of the supremacy of pre-rendered CG and polygons, but I believe Treasure deliberately designed this as a style, as though you are taking animation cels and zooming them in and out.

There are many highly impressive visual effects, including transparencies in foreground objects and magic attacks. One character wears a transparent pink cape that looks very nice, but also demonstrates the Saturn’s famous difficulties with alpha blending, as its graphics are layered on top of one another much like cel animation. Again with the anime influences. In still photos, you may see how some tricks were performed. In action, everything looks smooth and sublime, and you wonder why more videogames of that era couldn’t follow this style. I would have killed to see a Castlevania that copied this game’s design.

In addition to the story mode, there is a versus mode where you can play up to six players in a series of battle arenas. You will also have access to the game’s entire cast of characters (at least 45), all of which feature their own attacks and combos. For many players, this will be the most exciting part and will become a fixture at parties. You bring the cerveza, the nachos and a stack of records. I’ll bring the Saturn and Guardian Heroes. That’s not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.

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