Nobody gives the Gameboy Advance library enough credit for being flipping amazing.
Okay, yes, there may be a number of Gameboy Advance acolytes out there. The GBA was a viable system for a number of years, and, while it may not have had the longevity enjoyed by its ancestor (the Nintendo Gameboy started out porting NES titles, and reached its finish line interfacing with N64 games) or its obvious descendant (The Nintendo DS: the last bastion of portable gaming before the rise of the cell phone), it was still a system that that defined gaming for a time. It had no real Game Gear or PSP to make a play at its throne, and, while some rumors of a supposed Neo Geo Pocket may have persisted, the GBA was the undisputed king of the portable heap in its day. Inevitably, this did lead to a number of gamers young and old extolling the virtues of the Gameboy Advance, and its library of thousands of amazing games. In truth, it is an outright lie to claim the Gameboy Advance was not lauded in the past straight through to the present.
But when you ask GBA fans about the games they played the most on that lovely little system, their responses often contain games that are better known for their appearances on other platforms. The SNES seemingly provided much of the best of the Gameboy Advance library, with series like Final Fantasy Advance, Super Mario Advance, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past & Four Swords (Advance). And when a game appeared on the Gameboy Advance, but was not an outright port, it was often seen as a portable compromise. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance revisited the Final Fantasy Tactics gameplay not seen since the Playstation 1, but there was no way this game featuring snowball fights was as mature as a game that blamed an uncaring God for misfortunes in its opening dialogue. Metroid Fusion and Metroid Zero Mission both did their best, but they could never combine to match the timelessness of Super Metroid. And the other half of the metroidvania equation seemed to find its home on the GBA, but the likes of Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance or Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow were never considered as intricate as their symphonic ancestor. In fact, the Castlevania series on GBA seemed to summarize to state of these franchises: these “types” of games would never work on the real consoles, so here they are in portable form. Here is a discount version of your actual favorite games, and if it winds up being your favorite, lucky you. Glad you can see the good in these “bargains”.
And, while that may have been a prevailing philosophy of the time, it is important to note that that was complete bullshit.
Let’s take Super Mario Advance as an example. On the surface, it is a remake of Super Mario Bros. 2, the end. It has the same gameplay and same basic graphics as the Super Mario All-Stars Release. Whoo boy. It is a good game, save the fact that Super Mario Bros. 2 was thirteen years old when it hit this portable scene. But claiming Super Mario Advance is merely a SMB2 remake is doing the whole of the game a disservice. There are new bosses, animations, and, for some reason, a robotic transsexual dinosaur. There are new mushrooms and coins to find. There are points for some insane reason. As our own commenter extraordinaire, Metal Man Master noted, it changes the Super Mario Bros. 2 experience to a startling degree. It was touted as a simple remake or “portable conversion”, but Super Mario Advance started the long history of “ports” on Gameboy Advance that were anything but. Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3 has the most confusing title on Earth for a reason!
Which brings us to today’s game, Gunstar Super Heroes. Gunstar Super Heroes is remembered by many as little more than a GBA port of the beloved Genesis title. The basic plot of GSH makes it clear this is a sequel set years after the original adventure, but all of the heroes and villains coincidentally have the exact same roles and names. The level structure is the same (give or take a Mega Man X-esque introductory stage), and, in the end, you’re still going to wind up fighting the same final boss/god-robot of destruction. You run. You gun. It’s Gunstar Heroes for a new generation, but with the same old gameplay from 1993. Maybe we’ll see Beyond Oasis Advance next week.
But actually play Gunstar Heroes and Gunstar Super Heroes back to back, and you’ll find that Gunstar Super Heroes is not only a very original sequel, but also one of the most astounding games of 2005.
Gunstar Super Heroes does echo its ancestor, but it uses the structure of GH less as a dedicated guide, and more as a skeleton on which to add meat. And, fun fact, if we’re going to go with that metaphor, then GSH has piled on enough flesh to make GH morbidly obese. Nearly every level in GSH features at least one area that could have been an entire game’s concept all by itself. Guiding chicks back to an exit in a rotating labyrinth? Battling a boss while leaping between a friendly ship and a teetering helicopter? An entire shoot ‘em up stage with a wholly rotating playfield? There are so many new ideas in any one level of GSH, claiming GS is little more than a portable remake of the original is akin to claiming the latest Star Wars Trilogy is little more than the OG Star Wars Trilogy with a different skin. Episode 9 had a grandpa that gets his freak on! Return of the Jedi barely had grandpas at all!
And when you look at Gunstar Super Heroes compared to its contemporaries, you realize the incredible level of originality on display. Gunstar Super Heroes was released the same year as Devil May Cry 3, Psychonauts, and God of War. It was the year Guitar Hero made its debut. If you’re looking for something more singular in gaming, it was the year we were first allowed to climb up on a big boy in Shadow of the Colossus. These were all colossal (ha!) games, but not a single one was 2-D run ‘n gun action title. Not a single one took what once would have been described as “mode 7 rotation” to its logical extreme. 2005 was a high water mark for gaming in general (Resident Evil 4 taught us all to love zombies all over again), but only one game from that year took all the best traits found on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, shook ‘em together, and produced a wholly unique and unforgettable experience.
Well… perhaps unforgettable is the wrong word. Gunstar Heroes has been reintroduced to a generation thanks to the Sega Genesis Mini, and has also been available on countless Sega Genesis compilations and retro download services. Gunstar Super Heroes? Forgotten. Despite being a game that reviewed well constantly in its time (Gamespot gave it an 8.9/10, which is the gentleman’s 139/150!), it sold very poorly, and was seemingly immediately forgotten by gaming history. As a result, GSH has not reappeared on any later consoles, portable or otherwise, and is currently only available as a *RARE AUTHENTIC* eBay purchase. Gunstar Super Heroes may have been a marvelous game, but now, whether through cultural osmosis or only six people playing it in the first place, it is only remembered as little more than a Genesis remake when it is remembered at all.
Gunstar Super Heroes deserved better. The Gameboy Advance deserved better. The GBA was more than a portable system built for ports, it was an astounding platform for titles that wouldn’t be showcased anywhere else. But, because many of those games are remembered as little more than handy timewasters, the GBA’s finest are generally forgotten. This was the system that did its best to improve Yoshi’s Island, it should be remembered for more than Pokémon Leaf Green.
Give the Gameboy Advance, and Gunstar Super Heroes, some credit.
FGC #506 Gunstar Super Heroes
- System: Gee, I dunno, maybe the Gameboy Advance?
- Number of players: Is the secret to having a successful run ‘n gun two players? This one is only one.
- Sexual Dimorphism is a Scourge: Gunstar Red is a woman! And it barely ever comes up! This makes Gunstar Super Heroes one of the few games I can name with a female lead that is neither a boobs-delivery service nor a frequently cited upstanding example of a modest girl in gaming. Or maybe this is just another example of how Gunstar Super Heroes is all but forgotten…
- Favorite Stage: In the interest of sequel separation, I will note that the Gunstar Heroes franchise is the only one where I enjoy boardgame-esque levels. Black’s gambling fortress is again one of the best stages in the game, and I don’t even mind that it’s basically just an excuse for a boss rush. They’re neat bosses!
- Favorite Boss: Pink gets the biggest glow-up between generations. What was once a battle with a heavy lobster is now one against a battle angel spewing laser beams. There’s probably some kind of deliberate anime reference going on here, but I’m just happy to fight a robotic celestial monster.
- Say something mean: Okay, I admit the Gunstars do deserve a higher resolution. Everything feels a little cramped, and I would love to see Gunstar Super Heroes remastered for a screen slightly larger than a postal stamp.
- An end: You get a pretty traditional Gunstar ending if you clear the game on normal, but if you make your way through hard mode, you’ll find that Yellow has a secret desire to become a dictator, and there are multiple Gunstar universes, and… Well, it’s kind of sad, as it was all likely setting up a sequel that would never be. Hard mode is making moving on even harder.
- Did you know? You have a lot of melee options in this game… but why would you ever use a single one? Seriously, you have a gun that shoots fire bolts. I can’t imagine using anything else.
- Would I play again: This is the reason the Gameboy Advance Player exists. Some people may be saving their Gamecube controllers for Super Smash Bros Melee, but I’ll just be over here running around with Red ‘n Blue.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Kill la Kill -IF! If you’re looking for some… interesting school uniforms, look no further! Please look forward to it!