Growing up, I was a Nintendo kid, but as frequently as I played games at my friends’ houses who had other games and systems, I wasn’t a stranger to the Genesis either. It had a unique sort of charm to it- the graphics seemed nicer, but the sound had the strange ability to be both shitty and catchy at the same time. Though I played the daylights out of Sonic 1-3 and Moonwalker, it always seemed to be the games that I only saw in passing or on TV that really captivated my attention.
Fast forward several years and ENTER THE EMULATOR, and I finally had my chance to catch up. One of the first games that I glomped onto happened to be Gunstar Heroes, which served as my introduction to the wonderful world of Treasure. Also, stop wagging your finger before I bite it off- I have legit copies of it and its GBA sequel at this point.
Gunstar Heroes is like the most relaxingly chaotic experience I can think of in an action game. It’s not exactly easy, but it does this great job of making your cartoony little avatar feel powerful enough that even when the screen is being flooded with enemies, you kinda go, “Yeah. I got this.” In particular, the addition of melee and throw attacks to the mix makes your character feel a lot more versatile and a lot less paperlike, unlike its cousin game of sorts, Contra: Hard Corps, where every enemy mook has the Touch of Death. You can make a flying kick/tackle move by double tapping jump as well. Especially back then, you just didn’t get that many options in how to murder folks en masse, so this was pretty awesome stuff to stumble into. But even more awesome than the ability to just throw one of the goofy looking enemy soldiers aside was the weapon system. You had four basic guns to choose from, but you also had the option of combining them in various ways. One of the more potent combinations (to the point I kind of feel like it’s cheating on my playthroughs) is the homing gun plus the laser, which creates a homing laser that loops in on itself and stays ‘stuck’ to an enemy, usually for about as long as you can hold the fire button down. You can basically tap fire once and hold it down while watching a little blue beam do all the killing for you. You can even double-up your favorite guns if you have a favorite and just want to power it up further, like a double-strength normal (rapid-fire) shot.
Of course, having all these neat destructive tools at your disposal wouldn’t mean a thing without things to destroy, and if there’s one thing Treasure excels at, it’s giving you setpiece encounters to plow through with your array of moves. I like the tendency Treasure has to give the player a simple set of abilities, then just throw you into the action to figure out what works best. Calling this game in particular a “boss rush” doesn’t feel very accurate to me, since the stages themselves are still memorable, even if they are mostly build up for them. It’s good at delivering a series of “What NOW?” moments, as you go from fighting a kung fu block man to sliding down the side of a pyramid, then later on throwing a giant die around in order to make your way through a killer board game.
Gunstar Super Heroes, a GameBoy Advance remake…quel to coin a term, wasn’t too shabby either, but certain design changes kind of took the momentum from your gleeful destruction spree. For instance, melee attacks have been changed to a simple knife attack, and there’s an ill-advised overhead chopper level that nobody seems to enjoy. The enhanced graphics and new cutscenes were welcome additions, though, and they did manage to retain the wacky charm of the older game by bringing back the dice maze and goofy bosses like Melon Bread, a giant sharp-toothed smiley face.
How did Gunstar Heroes influence me? I just love the “feel” of it. It’s not demanding pixel-perfect jumps like Mega Man or avoiding gentle contact with unarmed enemies to avert instant death. I find a lot of games I enjoy tend to drop you into a level and afford you some sort of freedom to push onward. The mix-and-combine weapon system is awesome, and I almost hate that it isn’t ripped off more often. Treasure has a real knack for taking a simple engine and exploring what kind of crazy shit you can do with it, and even when they attempt to work more story into their games, it’s clear they’re putting the game experience first.
In closing, here’s a video of Seven Force that should serve as a nice summary.