Gunstar Heroes is a game that looks back to an era of gaming where staying alive while getting from point A to point B in spite of hordes of drones was perfectly acceptable. Originally released in 1993 as the first title from developer Treasure (known especially for its mastery of arcade shooter gameplay as seen in games like Ikaruga), Gunstar Heroes embodies the very essence of the classic run-and-gun genre. Adding its own twists and ideas to the genre, Gunstar Heroes is an incredibly solid package overall that is certainly worthy of its status as a classic among the more long-time gamers.
Did Somebody Say Guns?
The premise of Gunstar Heroes' gameplay is as simple as it gets: fight your way through legions of foes to reach the boss at the end of the stage, defeat the boss, move on to the next mission and do the same thing until you succeed in becoming the game's savior. However, it is exactly this no-frills approach that makes it possible for the game to focus on captivating players through engaging twitch gameplay mechanics.
Though gunplay is central to Gunstar Heroes, gun fire alone will not ensure survival. In addition to firing guns, players can jump, grab hold of ledges, hang from and crawl along said edges, slide tackle enemies, throw enemies (including throwing them while in the middle of a jump), jump off of walls, and perform headlong diving attacks (also useful in escaping hazard zones). This expanded array of moves might bring to mind the idea that Gunstar Heroes resembles the Mega Man X series, but the ability to acquire different guns, and use custom combinations of the guns, is what does more to tempt gamers to draw a connection between these games. However, in spite of these similarities, Gunstar Heroes is much more akin (in intensity, feel, and linearity) to the game that defines, for many, the run-and-gun genre, Contra.
Indeed, Gunstar Heroes has some form of a story line to provide motivation for beating the missions, but it is not something that would really motivate fans of the game (or genre as a whole) to continue playing if the gameplay doesn't. At the end of the day, Gunstar Heroes prioritizes gameplay over all other things. The absolutely spot-on responsiveness and simplicity of the controls is strong evidence of this.
What Was That About Gun Customization?
One of Gunstar Heroes' most pleasing mechanics is the ability to find different gun powers. There are four base gun types that you can find in the missions (you choose which you want to begin with at the very beginning of the game, though it can be swapped out): a rapid shot, a seeking shot, an electric shot, and a fire shot. Players can carry two gun powers at a time, and they have the option to use just one power at a time or (as is much more common) combine two powers to create other powers. Powers can be doubled up (that is, to say, that a player can have two rapid shots fused together), but the combinations tend to be more interesting and useful.
Though the combinations all have advantages and disadvantages, some combinations seem to make most of the boss fights exceptionally easy. Still, those combinations are actually rather ineffective when facing masses of enemies during the majority of the level prior to the boss chamber. Because of this, the gun combination options do balance themselves out.
A Heroic Beginning
As mentioned previously, Gunstar Heroes was Treasure's first game project. However, with its team consisting of veterans from Konami, Treasure shows a mastery of its available technology from the start. The graphics in Gunstar Heroes are, without doubt, amazing for the time and hardware the game was released on.
Graphically, the character sprites are lively, well animated, and fun in design. The missions take place in a very vividly crafted world with all sorts of things happening in the backgrounds. Still, the frantic action in the foreground will likely cause gamers to miss the work put into the surrounding world if they aren't careful to look for it. Nevertheless, regardless of how frantic the action becomes, there is rarely (if ever) any graphical slowdown. As if icing the on the cake, Gunstar Heroes even makes (good) use of three-dimensional graphic technologies for effect.
The sound department can hold its own weight, too. The sound effects fit the game well. Likewise, the music is upbeat and driving. The sound drives the game's feel very well. However, the music isn't likely to remain with gamers after shutting the game off.
A Heroic Journey
For all of the technical and artistic successes of Gunstar Heroes, the moral fabric of the game must be examined, too. Fortunately, Gunstar Heroes is no worse than most gamers familiar with the genre and era would expect. Gunplay is, obviously, central to the game. However, the deaths in the game are as clean as they can be (enemies bounce back and disappear in a simple explosion of flame). Though sexuality is practically nonexistent, there are a couple of female characters in the game that are given fully feminine figures. This is hardly worth mentioning, however. No profanity was found in the game. Finally, though insignificant to gameplay, those who watch the story segment that plays before the title screen will see brief mention of a spell and summoning. This has little-to-no bearing on the gameplay, though, and it really isn't something to be terribly concerned with.
And a Heroic End
At the end of the day, Gunstar Heroes is one of the best uses of $8 on the Virtual Console. The gameplay holds its own well over ten years after its release. The sheer level of fun that this game offers provides a lot of replay value. Even today, the graphics (technically and artistically) are pleasing on the eyes. In every way as a game, Gunstar Heroes has withstood the test of time and remains a thoroughly enjoyable classic worthy of that title. With the immoral content as minimal as it is, it's hard not to give a high recommendation to Gunstar Heroes. It is well worth the cost of admission to all self-declared gamers. Period.
Graphics - 9/10
Sound - 8/10
Stability - 5/5
Controls/Interface - 5/5
Violence - 6/10
Sexual Content - 10/10
Occult/Supernatural - 9/10
Cultural/Ethical - 10/10