Gunstar Heroes first surfaced way back in 1993 on the Sega Mega Drive. It was the first in a long line of classy 2D shooters from Treaure, formed by several ex-Konami employees. With a healthy mix of colourful sprites, firepower and boss battles, it's easy to see why the game received such strong praise from critics. Last month, almost sixteen years after the game's original release, Gunstar Heroes graced the Xbox Live Arcade. But, in a world of epic 3D adventures, why should one bother giving Gunstar Heroes a chance?
Because it's still awesome, that's why.
At the heart, Gunstar Heroes is a typical 2D side-scrolling shooter. Players take control of a fiesty little character, and are even able to make slight tweaks to them. At the start of the game, players will need to opt for either 'fixed shot' or 'free shot'. Predictably, the former means players can only shoot when stationary, while the latter allows players to run and gun. If it seems like 'free shot' is a no brainer, the deadly and highly-entertaining flying-kick attack that fixed shot players receive makes up the difference.
As well as choosing from fixed or free shot, players also need to decide what weapon they will start the game with. There are four options: rapid-fire, homing shot, laser and flamethrower. There are two weapon slots available for us, so throughout the game, players will be to pick up another weapon. Best of all, they can all be put together to make some fantastic combinations. For instance, a flamethrower combined with a laser will result in a lightsaber. Rapid-fire mixed with homing shot creates a wave of destruction that will lock onto the nearest target. Meanwhile, a rapid-fire/laser combo creates a line that will waste almost everything in its path. Good weapons are an essential part of the 2D shooter, and Gunstar Heroes delivers in every way.
If you want to advance through the game, you'll need to learn to mix-and-match your weapons because the game's fantastic bosses are all susceptible to specific weapons. For instance, trying to beat one particular boss with a mere laser is a rather difficult experience - it's much wiser to use the homing shot. While it can be frustrating having to repeat a large chunk of a level because you didn't have the right weapon, the sense of accomplishment gained from finally offing that seemingly unstoppable ba... Uh, boss, is a great feeling.
Helping to reduce this frustration is the option to save your game. At any one time, three game states can be saved to the hard drive. Unfortunately, this does tend to highlight the game's one flaw - length. The game only has four main stages, plus a highly-extended fifth stage. The first play-through can last little more than an hour, with subsequent efforts taking even less time than that. While various difficulty modes help keep things interesting (and much, much tougher), Gunstar Heroes always leaves you wanting more.
Thankfully, the Xbox 360 port has controls which are just as as crisp as the original did. And, unlike other 16-bit ports, the game takes full advantage of the analog stick, allowing players to pull of ridiculous jump shots with relative ease. Of course, you can still use the directional-pad should you choose. If you're insane. The graphics also still look bright and cheery, even when blown up on a HD screen.
Don't length the length put you off the game, because Gunstar Heroes is still fantastic fun in 2009. The game oozes character, the controls are responsive, the weapons are both meaty and varied, and the boss battles are as plentiful as they are fantastic. Best of all, the game is only 400 MS points. It's hard to complain about that.