If Random ROB was at all predictable, I could have made the previous few entries into some sort of “theme week”. Starting with entry #125, we’ve had, in order…
- Sonic Rivals, a 2-D platforming game with an emphasis on speed/racing.
- Super Adventure Island 2, a 2-D “adventure” game with an emphasis on learning new skills and finding treasure.
- The Itchy & Scratchy Game, a 2-D action/fighting game that could be interpreted as a primitive ancestor to Smash Bros (or at least its basic gameplay).
- Metroid Fusion, a 2-D metroidvania with an emphasis on exploration and crazy bosses.
- Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures, a 2-D animation simulator with unusual controls and even stranger set pieces.
- Mario vs. Donkey Kong, a 2-D “puzzle platformer” with measured Mario movements.
While many (entire companies) seem to have it in their minds that 2-D gaming is exclusively the domain of 90’s animals with attitude running and jumping, it’s pretty clear that that is not the case. Heck, a number of the games listed above are from that ancient, homogenized 16-bit era, and, guess what? Something like Pac-Man 2 couldn’t be more different from The Itchy & Scratchy Game if it tried, and they’re both primarily based on the concept of “playable cartoons”. And, as has been discussed on this very site, Metroid and the likes of Super Adventure Island 2 are very different gaming experiences despite having many surface level similarities. Point is, you get right down to it, even if you’ve only got two dimensions, you’ve got infinite possibilities.
And we haven’t even hit my favorite 2-D sub-genre yet.
Actually, even saying that makes me wince a little, as, deep in my heart, I know I’m a sucker for metroidvania games. Super Metroid is indisputably one of my favorite games of all time, and I’ll gladly play through practically any game in that series at the slightest provocation. And, honestly, I am completely incapable of interpreting any of the “IGAvania” Castlevania games as bad in any plausible way. However, the recent glut of “indie” metroidvania games has proven that when a metroidvania game is bad, it can be dire. Backtracking is an integral part of the metroidvania genre, and when that is applied to a game that doesn’t really know what it’s doing? Suddenly the template for the best game in the world becomes one of the worst. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the worst thing a video game can do is be boring, and a bad metroidvania is pretty much guaranteed to be boring.
But you know what isn’t boring? Running around and shooting the hell out of everything.
If my video game judging rubric is that “boring = bad”, and the opposite is true? Well then, Gunstar Heroes is the best game ever made. There is nary a second in Gunstar Heroes that is given over to “waiting for something to happen”. From the first moment you start your first level in this game, you’re assaulted on all sides by murderous enemy soldiers. Or you’re trying to catch a rapidly ascending airship. Or you’re catapulting through a mineshaft. From there, you’re battling a minimum of three boss monsters per level, often culminating in a beast that is many times your hero’s size. And then there’s a sprinkling of boss rushes here and there, like the clash(s) against Seven Force, a gigantic mech that is basically an excuse for you to battle Treasure’s digital Lego creations. Top it all off with a trip to space to battle Super God Frankenstein, and you’re lucky if you have five seconds to breathe while counting your score.
Gunstar Heroes is an action game that practically defines the word “action”. It’s fundamentally the same gameplay as Mega Man (jump, jump, slide), but it lives much more on the Contra side of the things. If you’re not firing your gun at all times, you’re doing something wrong, and you’ll probably be looking at a Game Over screen pretty soon. In fact, that’s about the only way the action stops (give or take a level select screen), and you’ll probably see it a bunch if it’s your first time, because Gunstar Heroes expects you to know what’s coming, and instantly be able to identify boss patterns and incoming bullet hells. If you want to use some infinite vitality code and rob yourself of the experience of memorizing exactly how mechanical lobsters work, that’s your business, but I do have to say that this is one of the few video games out there where unbridled invincibility won’t detract from the experience one iota. Alright, it might be a little less fun if you just camp out and unload a flamethrower up Core Runner’s core nethers, but I don’t fault anyone for wanting to keep the party going for as long as possible, regardless of skill.
I can’t say enough good things about Gunstar Heroes, and my only regret about the game is that, as a Nintendo kid, I didn’t know it existed until around the Playstation 2 era. So many years wasted…
But why do I think this game is so great? I mean, yeah, the “nonstop action” and “crazy bosses” are pretty amazing, but any given Dance Dance Revolution game offers plenty of reasons to need a breather, and even Krion Conquest had its share of interesting level cappers. And if I’m going on so much about how I love run ‘n gun gameplay, why don’t you see me expounding on the joys of Halo or Doom? Fight the enemy soldiers, kill the boss, what’s the big difference?
And I want to say it’s the limited two dimensions that make all the difference.
Gunstar Heroes was once disparaged for its small characters, but it has “tiny” sprites for a reason, and that reason is to cram as much action onto the screen as possible. In a time when there was already a push for graphics over gameplay (“graphics” in this case being gigantic, detailed sprites like you’d find in Street Fighter 2), Gunstar Heroes eschewed the norms and made teeny dudes that could be smushed into the limited view of a 2-D stage. And it was magnificent, because it created a world where Gunstar Red and Blue are constantly assaulted from all sides. There’s no question about where the bullet that got you originated, because you can see it coming no matter what. You’re surrounded. Outnumbered. This is not fair to your little 16-bit hero, but it’s fair to you, the player, because you can see it all. You can survive, you can win, and it’s all thanks to the 2-D layout.
This is something that has been lost in the FPS genre. As immersive as a first person shooter can be, it’s not going to be perfect until we can simulate real peripheral vision and “knowing” someone is sneaking up on “you”. A quick look over your shoulder is impossible (or at least disorienting) in a modern FPS, and when your health starts rapidly dropping, you might not even know that it’s because you back has suddenly become holier than a cheese grater. To be clear, I’m not saying this is a reason FPS games are “bad”, simply that it’s a disadvantage of the genre, and something that can quickly cause frustration and a disassembled controller. And if the action stops… that’s not so great for an action game.
So that’s why I love 2-D action “run ‘n gun” games. Like many video games, it’s an approximation of reality, and, while it’s “unrealistic” that you can see those creatures sneaking up behind you, it creates a much more fair environment for the player, which dramatically increases the odds of the game getting, you know, played. Gunstar Heroes is arguably the pinnacle of this thinking, with a “tough but fair” design structure that, when you’re on, you’re really fuggin’ on. It’s a great game with amazing Genesis technical feats and fun characters, but what’s most important about Gunstar Heroes is that it’s an action game that does everything to maximize the action.
It’s clear that, despite what the early 21st century may have tried to hoist on us, 2-D has its advantages. Even after thirty years of gaming, there’s still a lot of treasure buried in those hills, and Gunstar Heroes is a perfect example of everything right about 2-D gaming.
FGC #131 Gunstar Heroes
- System: Sega Genesis, though also available on a number of random Genesis collections throughout the Ages, and most recently available on Nintendo 3DS as part of the excellent 3D Classics Series. You have no excuse.
- Number of players: Secret shame? I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a two-player simultaneous game of Gunstar Heroes going. Why’s everybody always gotta play Smash Bros?
- Port o’ Call: Gunstar Super Heroes is a totally separate game and will be treated as such. It’s a sequel, dammit. Totally different characters.
- Mecha Hitler: How many wannabe Hitlers with mechanical limbs are going to show up in video games?
I want to say at least two.
- Favorite Boss: G.I. Orange basically throws a helicopter at the player. And he spends most of the game standing around flexing. Can’t really stay mad at that guy.
- Bet on Black: I want to say this is the only game in the history of gaming that has ever presented me with a board game “board” and not made me groan immediately. Animal Crossing, Mario Party, and Pictionary could learn something…
- Did you know? The 2009 edition of Guinness World Records Gamer’s Edition named Gunstar Heroes the 33rd best game of all time. Chrono Trigger was 32. Considering Super Mario Kart (the game, not the franchise) was number one, I want to say the list was merely designed to enflame.
- Would I play again: DOES ANYONE WANT TO PLAY TWO PLAYER RIGHT NOW!? I’M FREE!
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Mary-Kate and Ashley: Magical Mystery Mall! …. What? Huh. Alright, I want to say this game isn’t on any “best of” lists. Maybe best games that involve the mall? Maybe? Uh, please look forward to it.