Minna Daisuki Katamari Damacy (Everybody Loves Katamari Damacy) had the gall to profess the gaming community's affection for its predecessor in cheekily explicit terms. But whilst Treasure have chosen to simply add a "Super" in the title of their eagerly awaited sequel, they'd be well within their rights to follow suit and call it Everybody Loves Gunstar Heroes..
Because everybody does, right? At least, anyone with memories of the 16-bit original must. A feast of fast-paced, visually sparkling entertainment, even today Treasure's debut title stands as a benchmark for inventive side-scrolling shooters. It went out of its way to entertain and surprise any gamer willing to give it their attention, and, if their loyal fan base is anything to go by, left most wide-eyed in wonderment at the frighteningly talented new studio. With two players enjoying it side-by-side, the game reached new heights in a legendary multiplayer mode that is arguably still the most accessible and enjoyable in the genre. And ironically, the one big thing added to Katamari's self-congratulatory sequel is the one thing excised from Gunstar Heroes' (GH): the multiplayer mode! But let's not dwell on that just yet. It's the similarities that really define this game.
Apparently, key series programmer Hideyuki Suganami was told not to look at the original GH during development of its sequel, "so he would not be influenced and instead make something new" (the words of Treasure founder and CEO Masato Maegawa). An amiable design methodology perhaps, but somewhat flawed if the rest of the team can't keep their hands off of it. The ratio of new to old content is baffling for a company that prides itself on originality and whose goal for GSH was to take it in a new direction.
Almost every boss—as ever, the beating heart of a Treasure level—is recycled from GH. Players keep expecting some kind of pay-off for those of us willing to accept these throwbacks as 'knowing references', but it doesn't come, and they're not. They're insipid and annoying regurgitations. For a game that's supposed to be "a true sequel" (Mr. Maegawa again), that's just pathetic.
These repetitions might not seem quite as bad if the game wasn't so incredibly short. As it is, GSH gives itself virtually no time to make a lasting impression of any kind. I really do not like breaking games down into the number of hours they take to 'complete', but when that figure is better measured in minutes, the old time-and-shame seems entirely proper. Even with all the game dialogue read, a clean playthrough (no lives lost) took me about 50 minutes, and death-enforced retries would hardly extend that too much for a reasonably skilled player.
So what is there for that hour? Gaming gold? A short, sharp burst of intense fun to make you realise what you loved about gaming in the days before bump-mapped polys and specular lighting? Well, not really. The controls are tight and fun to use, but there's still too much reliance on the bland genre template (run right, hold B). The trademark shifts and jolts and surprises are here, but they feel less impactful this time around. Perhaps it is simply because they are often wholesale lifts from a 12-year-old game, or maybe it's because the GBA's cramped screen can't quite convey the drama as convincingly as before.
Or perhaps it's just that the game overwhelms itself by packing too much in so tightly. With tiny levels and a reliance on old bosses to provide the interesting combat, GSH gives itself no time to establish a fulfilling rhythm of gameplay to call its own. Launching the player into a barrage of madcap scenarios is certainly one way to liven up a game, but it's also pretty transparent, and here the results are inescapably hit-and-miss—in particular, the helicopter shooter section is staggeringly poor.
At least the controls are as pleasing as ever. Some new melee attacks also succeed at mixing things up nicely and can be tremendously satisfying. However, the combat system in general still feels like a step back from the precision and unlikely elegance of Treasure's excellent Astro Boy. Again, the game seems wedded to its own heritage, and it's truly regrettable to find GH's run-and-gun gameplay feeling so samey so quickly, in spite of the constant attempts to juggle different play styles.
Of all the things Gunstar Super Heroes could have proved itself to be, it's very unfortunate that "disposable" ends up at the top of the list. As 2D action games go, they generally don't come any more action-packed than this on GBA, and it moves and looks just as it should (despite some almost offensively uninteresting audio and visual design), but it's not enough to right the wrongs and elevate the game above time-waster status. The new weapon system (altered to emphasise the melee moves) is a bland and unnecessary update; rehashing so many old enemies quickly turns from homage to counter-intuitive cop-out and the waves of enemies seem all the less impressive for being poured into such short, simple and lonely levels.
And lonely is the word, because who could've predicted what a dent the 'single-player only' philosophy would make in Gunstar Super Heroes' ostensibly solid veneer of fun? Certainly Treasure can't have reckoned on it being so key to the title's appeal and enduring legacy. Admittedly the GBA link-up is not used by everyone and Mr. Maegawa is right to have concerns about watering down the core gameplay for the sake of multiplayer, but it's still tempting to wonder what the game might have achieved had it, like its predecessor, been designed with two players in mind, and perhaps on more capable hardware. After all, everybody loves Gunstar Heroes! It seems a shame that this inferior sequel makes us all take turns.