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Guardian Heroes Review

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On 10/21/2011 at 08:00 PM by Julian Titus

Does Treasure's beat 'em up still have its edge?

If you bought and enjoyed any of the older brawlers like Streets of Rage 2, X-Men: The Arcade Game, or Golden Axe, then you should definitely pick up Guardian Heroes. It's a deeper experience, and offers more under the hood. If those games didn't do anything for you, this game probably won't, either.

When the 32 bit wars began, I was firmly entrenched in the Sony PlayStation camp. I believed then, as I do now, that the overall library of games on the PSX was far superior to that of the Sega Saturn. That shouldn’t imply, however, that there weren’t games on the Saturn that could make even the staunchest PlayStation supporter green with envy. The Saturn was capable of pumping out impressive sets of 2D sprites, and in this the PlayStation was a distant second. Games like Astal, X-Men vs. Street Fighter, and Albert Odyssey made me desperately want the beefy Sega console, and as soon as I was able to, I plunked down my hard-earned cash for a Saturn. The main reason for this purchase was, of course, Guardian Heroes. I had missed out on many of Treasure’s other games, since I had also sided against Sega in the 16 bit days. Even so, I knew just what kinds of incredible things the quirky Japanese developer was doing with animation and sprite work, and for me, Guardian Heroes was a system seller. Now, 15 years later, Guardian Heroes returns for XBLA with an HD upgrade. Does the game hold up after all these years, and is it worth the 800 MS point asking price? Read on, brave warriors, read on.

Guardian Heroes got a lot of buzz when it was first released for two core reasons. The first was the aforementioned 2D art. In the transition to polygons, there was a great deal of pushback from some hardcore fans and enthusiast writers bemoaning the admittedly blocky and poorly detailed character models that were fast becoming the norm. The art of 2D, hand-drawn sprites was on the rapid decline, and anything like Guardian Heroes reminded people that 2D wasn’t dead and in fact could do things that polygons simply couldn’t. While the sprites in the original game were extremely pixelated and the particle effects were overdone in the way that only Treasure could manage, the animation was smooth, the characters were big, and the sheer number of sprites on screen was impressive. This remains the case today. The new, HD visuals may be divisive, but I admire the painterly quality to the game that has been applied here. The characters look as if they were sketched on the fly for your enjoyment, and the backgrounds have an ethereal, almost watercolor look to them. If you are a fan of old-school sprites (and I don’t blame you), you can switch to the original art style. The game still looks crisp and clean in this mode, but keep in mind that the game does a lot of zooming in for effect, and that’s when the sprites look their absolute worst, especially on a 42 inch screen.

The other huge reason for Guardian Heroes’ hype and popularity was the fact that the game was and is a fusion of the arcade beat ‘em up and the RPG. At the time, this was revelatory; playing a Final Fight (or Streets of Rage, if you like) type of game where you could level up and put points into stats was something that hadn’t really been done before. We may be used to XP bars and upgrading our characters in everything from sports games to shooters today, but in the mid-90s this was a big deal. And for my first couple sessions I was enamored with the RPG elements of Guardian Heroes, as well. But once I took a step back, I realized that all the experience points, damage points, and skill points were really just a superficial way of keeping score. You start the game with all of your abilities, and even though deciding where to allocate your earned attribute points does have a small bearing on the survivability of your character, it doesn’t change how you play or how your character develops. All it means is that you have more hit points and magic points at the end of the game than you did at the start, and you hit harder. It would have been nice to have to decide what skills to unlock as you go, but at the end of the day, the RPG elements only somewhat flesh out the notoriously shallow gameplay of the side-scrolling brawler.

Fortunately, the gameplay of Guardian Heroes is really good. While your first time with the game will likely be a session of old-school button mashing, you’ll eventually delve deeper into the fighting mechanics and find quite a bit to learn and utilize. GH plays more like a fighting game than a brawler, with special moves that would feel right at home in a Mortal Kombat game. There’s also magic that you can wield, which can range from tiny little fireballs to area of effect lightning to Dragon-Ball-in-magnitude beams of energy. You’ll also want to learn the ins and outs of the blocking, countering, and Forceback moves, because Guardian Heroes can be almost punitive in its difficulty at times. The screen fills up with enemies and can get so hectic that it is far too easy to lose track of your character in the chaos. On top of that, some enemies have attacks that, should you fail to block or counter, can drop you to zero HP in a flash. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if you didn’t have a limited amount of lives before game over. And that wouldn’t even be much of an issue if you could at least keep your leveled character, but lose all of your lives and you’ll go right back to the beginning. Even completing the game won’t get you the New Game Plus mode that players expect these days. At least there are multiple paths through the game, with different enemies, bosses, and endings to find. I played through the game three times from start to finish and have yet to see everything, which is certainly more than can be said of, say, Streets of Rage or X-Men: The Arcade Game. You can also bring a buddy to help out, but keep in mind that friendly fire is always on, and you share lives. Playing over Xbox Live is an option, too, but I suggest playing with a friend from the start, as joining someone mid-game throws you in with an under-leveled character.

Beyond the normal story mode, there are a few different diversions on offer here. In addition to the co-op play, you can participate in a versus mode of up to 12 players. Please note that I had internet connection issues at the time of review and could not participate in the versus mode, but you can set a pretty good number of rules for each match. There’s also the arcade mode, which is basically a survival battle. The only problem with arcade mode is that it starts off by throwing as many enemies at you as the game can handle from the outset. My best record was 40 kills, but most of the time I got slaughtered about ten seconds into the match. These modes aren’t anything earth-shattering, but they are nice additions to an already fun package.

Guardian Heroes was a fine game back in 1996, and it remains a fine game today. While the game is only slightly less shallow than other beat ‘em ups, it is enough of a difference to put it a step above popular brawlers like Streets of Rage and Golden Axe. This is most assuredly a game for the people who were around the first time around, and probably won’t give younger players as much satisfaction, but I can say that after three complete runs through the game I was still having fun. This is the type of game I like to keep around for those fun trips down memory lane, especially when I have a friend along for the ride. It is a fun diversion that is worth revisiting from time to time, but you’re not going to find Guardian Heroes to be the breathtaking wonder that it was when it came out for the Saturn.

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.

These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.

This is our middle-of-the-road ranking. Titles that receive three stars may not make a strong impression on the reviewer in either direction. These games may have some faults and some strong points but they average out to be a modest title that is at least worthy of rental for most.

Games that are awarded two stars are below average titles. Good ideas may be present, but execution is poor and many issues hinder the experience.

Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.

A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.



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