As someone who grew up loving the numerous side-scrolling shoot em’ ups released for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis during the golden age of games in the 90’s, Gunstar Heroes may be my absolute favorite. Some of my fondest memories as a kid were playing this on my Genesis and I still dust off my old cartridge and play it from time to time.
Gunstar Heroes was released in September 1993 for the Sega Genesis and was very well received by all the gaming magazines of the time(remember gaming magazines? 😁). The gameplay is similar to the side scrolling shooters popular at the time, like the Contra or Metal Slug games. You play as either Red or Blue, two siblings in the Gunstar family that has taken up fighting the evil Colonel Red (who does NOT wear red) has set out to acquire four gemstones to resurrect a powerful android – Golden Silver and control the galaxy…you know…the usual stuff.
When you choose your character you also select which fire mode you want to use – Free or Fixed. Free fire mode is what I have always preferred as you can run and gun through the levels rather than Fixed fire mode where you have to remain stationary to fire your weapon. You also choose one of four weapon types – Force, Flame, Chaser, or Lightning. Force is the closest to a typical machine gun with a faster fire rate(think Contra). Flame is a short-range but powerful flamethrower-type weapon. Chaser fires homing ammunition( F.Y.I – essentially the SAME as the Seeker fire mode you can use in Cuphead I was pleased to discover). Finally, the Lightning weapon fires laser beams that can shoot through enemies and barriers. One of my favorite aspects of Gunstar Heroes was the ability to combine weapon types; you can combine two of the same type of ammo the make a bigger more powerful version of the weapon such as two Flame types will create an even larger flamethrower or two Lightning types combined together create a steady short-range “blade” which looks conspicuously like a Lightsaber. My favorite pairing however, was the Force and Chaser types combined for a devastating homing machine gun effect which can be a HUGE advantage, as in typical shoot em’ up fashion the action on screen gets pretty chaotic( doubly so playing co-op).
Each of the first four levels can be played in any order and has a different boss fight at the end. You can pick from fighting your way through a jungle area( again…similar to Contra) and fight the boss, Pink to taking on Orange(who ironically is wearing GREEN military fatigues) and pursuing him on his flying base in an interesting level that begins climbing to the top of a tower chasing Orange as the screen scrolls vertically ending with a battle with Orange on the wing of a helicopter. You can also choose from playing your way through what is essentially a “board game” level as you have to roll the dice to advance to the corresponding spaces until you make your way to the end where you battle the boss, Black in what still remains one of the more unique AND at times, frustrating levels in a video game as a kid. (Another side note: this is just about note for note the SAME idea at the end of Cuphead playing your way to the DiceMaster at the end of the level…hmmm) Lastly, is probably my favorite level of the game in taking on Green( noticing a particular trend with everyone’s name?) – another member of the Gunstar family whose mind has been under the control and has been aiding the Emperor. The level takes place in an underground mining tunnel in which you ride in a small mine cart that can travel on either top or bottom path on screen while fighting waves of enemies before confronting Green who pilots the mech – Seven Force( think Tony Stark with Transformers). This is the most memorable boss battle of the game. Green can shift Seven Force into any one of…you guessed it…SEVEN different “Forces” – Soldier, Tiger, Blaster, Tail, Urchin, Eagle, or Crab. Once you defeat one of the first four stage bosses, you receive another one of the four gemstones. The next level finds you fighting your way through wave after wave…after wave of enemies to confront Colonel Red and rescue your sister Yellow, who has been kidnapped. This is pretty easily the most explosions I had seen on screen playing a video game to that time, possibly to this day, that’s how frantic the action gets during the game. The frame rate during this level gets slowed down to almost a crawl if playing co-op. After making your way through what seems like an endless amount of enemies before confronting Colonel Red who holds Yellow hostage, forcing you to hand over the gemstones before you battle the colonel’s right-hand man – Smash Daisaku who is dressed EXACTLY like M. Bison from the Street Fighter games and appears several times throughout the prior levels. After Smash Daisaku is defeated, the Gunstars chase Colonel Red who has set out to land his flying fortress on a small moon where Golden Silver is imprisoned. The next level takes place in space and has you piloting a small ship to shoot your way through the fortress’ defenses and stop the colonel. The setting of this level is from a top-down camera angle and plays similar to Xevious or the R-Type games and includes once again, a battle with Green and Seven Force in open space. The proceeding and final level of the game you catch up with Colonel Red, but not before he resurrects Golden Silver to be promptly destroyed by the android and initiates a battle between the Gunstars and Golden Silver before ultimately being destroyed.
Gunstar Heroes was released as developer Treasure’s debut effort in 1993. Treasure was founded by devs working at Konami that had grown restless with Konami’s insistence on releasing sequel after sequel for their biggest IPs like the Castlevania, Contra, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games and wanted to focus their efforts on making a more original title. Treasure was formed in 1992 and decided they wanted to utilize the Sega Genesis’ powerful( at the time) Motorola 68000 microprocessor. Treasure showed an incredible amount of imagination and absurd humor in Gunstar Heroes, and also in later releases like Sin and Punishment, Ikaruga, and Dynamite Headdy( another Genesis game I loved as a kid).
There was a sequel to Gunstar Heroes release on the Game Boy Advance in 2005 titled – Gunstar Super Heroes that received critical praise. I very regretfully, never picked up a copy for the GBA and now is a bit of a rarity for the handheld console. As for the original, I absolutely LOVE this game and have recommended it endlessly to anyone who would listen since I received it as a birthday present not knowing the incredible game I was about to play. I still feel that while the game received numerous accolades from gaming media it still is not as well known as games like Contra or Metal Slug, which is an astounding shame. The game has since seen a port for the Sega Game Gear as well as being released as part of the Sega Genesis Classics compilations. The Sega Forever version was also released in 2017 to play on mobile devices.
That does it for this week! Has anyone else out there played Gunstar Heroes or any other Treasure games? What are some games that you absolutely LOVE and feel are criminally unknown to the majority of gamers?
Keep on playing…