Genre: Action (Beat 'Em Up) / Role-Playing Game
Reviewer: Ryan Newman
Overall: 9 = Must Buy
Guardian Heroes was released during the twilight of the traditional 2D beat ’em up. With the 32-bit consoles pulling gamers out of the arcades and back into their homes, the short, action- and co-op-focused design of the beat ’em up was replaced with genres offering greater variety and longevity. While titles have sprung up now and then, the days of when Final Fight, Streets of Rage, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game ruled cabinet monitors and television screens were already becoming a thing of the past. It was during this time that famed Japanese developer Treasure threw in their lot. Known for a string of hits on the Genesis, most notably Gunstar Heroes, Treasure took the genre into a new direction with an addictive hybrid release that combined elements of beat ’em ups, one-on-one fighters, and role-playing games, creating one of the most beloved releases on the Sega Saturn and a bona fide cult classic: Guardian Heroes.
As one of four heroes, with a fifth joining the roster later on, players are given the chance to take brawler Samuel, elemental magician Randy, healer Nicole, or ninja Ginjirou on a sprawling adventure that will see the forces of heaven and hell face off in an age-old war. After the quartet stumbles upon the machinations of a conniving wizard, they are marked as enemies of the realm and hunted by the king’s troops. After a daring escape from a burning inn, they stumble upon the grave of a powerful undead warrior, a hero who died serving the previous dynasty. And this is where the true quest begins. As the selected character makes their way through a branching storyline, they will have the aid of this ferocious golden-armored zombie, who can be commanded to attack, defend, wait, follow, or explode in a rage. It’s through judicious use of this companion and allocation of experience points that will see them through the clouds of the heavens, bowels of the earth, and onto victory.
What makes Guardian Heroes so unique isn’t its varied cast of characters, which range from a gang of beefed-up muscleheads who flex on sight to giant laser-firing robots, but how it effortlessly combines so many disparate elements into a well-worn template. Action role-playing games aren’t uncommon these days, with 3D replacing 2D and the camera shifting from a side view to isometric, but they tend to have combat systems limited to predictable move lists that are largely enhanced through increased power. Guardian Heroes, on the other hand, features elements of both a fighter and a brawler. Moves range between button-only combos to those that mix in Street Fighter-style quarter-circle rotations for greater variety. How the game manages this is through a fairly simple solution. Instead of the traditional single, open plane, the battlefields here are split into three: fore, middle, and back. This prevents characters from being able to walk ‘to’ the background, requiring players to instead leap between the three planes. This allows for a greater assortment of move types, since the characters won’t shuffle about but stay put on the occupied plane. This is a small but important distinction, because so much of the chaotic combat relies on keeping a close eye on both allies and enemies.
Making sense of the bedlam is critical, because many elemental attacks hurt friend and foe alike. Encounters soon devolve into masses of swords, pikes, explosions, lightning, and flying bodies. Keeping track of the character through all of this will be too trying for some, as it quickly become overwhelming, but the game also breaks from the mold by offering numerous ways to survive such battles—and for there to be a touch of technique. Not only can characters block, but they can also back dash and, when utilizing the new Remix Mode, air dash, sprint, force back opponents, and unleash a stronger counter. Keeping a good line of sight will not only keep friendlies from facing fireballs of doom but also ensure that non-combatants and retreating foes are left alone. That is, if the player wishes to go the route of the pure hero. Throughout the game, opportunities will present themselves to the player for them to test their inner character, whether it is a fleeing soldier, the chance to leave a scene before all of the enemies have been defeated, or barrels of the town’s products that can be left alone or destroyed; all actions have consequences, however, and being a badass will result in bad karma. For those who only want the enemy to feel their wrath and could care less for the pummeled corpses and hungry towns left in their wake, the game will show a ‘bad’ version of one of the several endings.
Yes, there are several endings. Which one is displayed not only depends on behavior but also which route is taken. In a novel twist on the traditionally linear beat ’em up, there are points in the game when a dialog or destination option presents itself. Which route is taken also determines which areas are visited, and these can vary wildly: one route will see the crew facing earthen monsters, another pits them against sci-fi-inspired angels, and another against the king’s forces. Few action games offer such strong replayability.
To keep the character side interesting, Guardian Heroes utilizes a rudimentary role-playing-style leveling system. Experience points earned during the brawls are allocated in-between areas, with the standard categories represented—strength, luck, agility, etc. These can be used for balance or to go all-out—drop a ton of points in strength for Samuel and watch him go to work. The moves also represent a nice range, with easy combos sitting nicely with linked combos and a variety of elemental magic attacks and defensive moves. But for those who have perfected their skills on the Saturn version, the aforementioned Remix Mode enhances things a bit by offering new combat possibilities. Since the mode is optional, newcomers can go with Original to learn the ropes while veterans can jump into Remix and get to practicing.
The Live Arcade release actually adds a fair bit to the base game, in addition to Remix Mode. The Versus mode, famous for the fact that any character in the game can be unlocked for play (including peasants and Randy’s pet rabbit Nando), has been extended with four-player local and twelve-player online multiplayer. Versus also includes six pre-set rule sets, representing balance (Orthodox), restriction-free (Anything Goes), and random (Who Knows What Goes?) options. There are also three for two-, three-, and six-player teams. All of the modes, team and solo, have Original and Remix variations. Not only that, but players can also create their own rule sets; one of the set options is used as a base, and from there, everything from time limits to victory condition (deathmatch or point match) to strength boost multiplier to mod support (element or luck) can be set. Players going solo can even set the color and level of up to eleven AI-controlled opponents. The massive battles give Versus a Smash Bros. precursor vibe—zany, confusing, random, and fun.
Arcade is an entirely new mode which pits players against waves of enemies. The resulting score, tallied by time lasted and points, are uploaded onto online leaderboards. The sessions can definitely be trying, especially because the points earned through leveling are allocated randomly. A new graphics mode has also been added. The optional update gives the characters and environment the appearance of being sketched, similar to previous Sega re-releases, which looks as if a slight paintbrush effect was used on the original sprites. The original visuals can be used, but unfortunately, there’s no option to adjust the screen size, so everything will be overly pixelated, especially on larger televisions. It’s actually easy to get an idea of what resolutions were in 1996 thanks to the original animated Saturn intro being included—an excellent bonus—which is displayed in a shockingly small window, and also helps to illustrate the usefulness of a manual screen-adjustment option. However, the game is more than playable as it is.
One of the biggest downsides about Guardian Heroes isn’t because of the game itself but the 360 controller. The controller’s inability to play well with anything not a first-person shooter or 3D action-platformer can be a serious cause of frustration with titles designed around directional pads. Even with the newer Silver model that has a more defined directional pad, pulling off some of the half-circle or quick opposite directional moves (up, down) can be tricky—and uncomfortable. The MadCatz FightPad, released for Street Fighter IV, is definitely the way to go with its more pronounced but smoother directional pad. The FightPad also adheres to the Saturn’s six-button layout, broken up into two rows of three as opposed to the standard controller’s two rows of four, which makes some of the button-combo moves much easier to perform. Buttons can be reconfigured in Settings to help alleviate the troubles, but nothing can make the standard controller comfortable for prolonged use. Then again, it’s hard to go back to anything else after using the Saturn pad.
A negative that rests solely on Guardian Heroes is the online component, or more appropriately, the lackluster implementation thereof. Story and Versus are handle multiplayer differently. Players are capable of setting Story games to allow for others to join in at any time, while Versus games are locked once the round has begun. However, players can still join a Versus lobby while a game is being played, and therein lies several problems. First and foremost, connections are spotty with lag and syncing issues cropping up frequently. Even when a Versus match is relatively smooth, there will still be numerous hiccups due to the game having to synch every time a player enters the game’s lobby. That wouldn’t be a problem if the interface were more informative, but as it is, there is a severe lack of detail. Only the connection strength, player count, and rule set are displayed, but not the remaining time or points, players’ health, or a note that a match is already in progress. The result is that there is a lot of lobby hopping as players try to find a new game, which means that each time one of them lands into an ongoing session there will be a pause to sync for those battling it out. For as many options and modes as the game provides, online multiplayer surprisingly suffers from some pretty basic problems. The game holds up very well when connections are solid, and is as enjoyable as it is when played locally, but something definitely needs to be done to improve stability and Versus mode.
Guardian Heroes has stood the test of with aplomb, thanks to an engaging combat system, interesting characters, and multiple endings that take into account paths taken and decisions made. Few beat ’em ups have been as rich or role-playing games as arcadey, which makes for an addictive mix that wooed gamers back in the 1990s and will surely do so today. There are some downsides, though. The inability to properly scale the screen size for cleaner visuals in Classic is a letdown, as is the somewhat vague and uneven online component, though the Xbox controller’s continued reign of terror over titles that favor the directional pad is an unfortunate fact for the system. Those are no excuse to not to pick up this gem, though, as the single-player and local multiplayer is as strong as ever and online multiplayer is great when connections hold. Quirks aside, the game is just a flat-out blast.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)