Game Description: Gunstar Super Heroes is 2D action and adventure done right. The Gunstar world expands with all-new levels, bosses, and weapons. Take characters, Blue and Red, on different paths to reveal an incredible adventure story. Precision gunplay and brilliant visuals, and all-new levels, bosses, and weapons.
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.
Comparing Gunstar Super Heroes to We Love Katamari doesn't make much sense to me. They are both cash-in sequels that rehash their originals, but I think there's a big difference between a rehash that comes out 12 months later and one that comes out 12 years later. Half the kids who own GBAs now probably weren't even born when people like Andrew and myself experienced Gunstar Heroes on the Sega Genesis. I think it's a little ruthless to hold Gunstar Super Heroes accountable for every transgression against originality it makes. Maybe within the vacuum-sealed world of Treasure fandom Gunstar Super Heroes isn't what it could have been. But for the rest of us it's quite a fine game, full of thrills, humor, and style.
I didn't find my enthusiasm for the Gunstar Super Heroes draining every time I noticed something familiar. In fact, my biggest criticism is something I missed from the original: throwing. Probably the most memorable aspect of Gunstar Heroes was how it allowed the player to interact with objects that traditionally resulted in instant death. Being able to catch a grenade and throw it back into a stunned soldier's face was one of its many unique pleasures. This element is sadly missing from Gunstar Super Heroes, replaced instead by a sword that consolidates all melee possibilities into slashing. I was put off by this change at first, but as I played I realized that its limited focus resulted in a more balanced experience. Recycled elements or not, Gunstar Super Heroes has got to be one of the most user-friendly Treasure games I've played. It eschews the sadistic difficulty of Ikaruga for an experience one could actually expect a human being to finish. I found it a pleasure to play through Gunstar Super Heroes on every difficulty mode, and I still experience the urge to pick it up now and again.
Gunstar Super Heroes does revisit many concepts from the Genesis version, though it manages to put a new spin on most of them. The design aesthetic of Gunstar Heroes has always been largely hardware-driven. The original pushed the Genesis hardware in ways you didn't know were possible. Gunstar Super Heroes does the same for the GBA, making excessive use of scaling, rotation, and every other effect Nintendo's portable can muster. Horizon lines explode into fire. Spaceships zoom through spinning vortexes of space debris. This is all stuff that wasn't possible on the Genesis. The result feels like an alternate version of the original Gunstar Heroes, an experiment to see how the same concepts would play out if molded to different hardware. I wouldn't call the new version superior to the original, but I do find it stylish and engaging in its own way.
Gunstar Super Heroes is like a classic song covered by a contemporary band. Some fans of the original might like it and some might not. I happen to like it a lot. I understand why fans yearning for a true sequel might be disappointed. On the other hand, I found it pretty easy to warm up to the idea of a whip-smart remake as appealing as this. Gunstar Super Heroes manages to bring much of the thrilling style and manic humor of its legacy to the contemporary GBA audience. Given the decade long gap, I think we can forgive Treasure's impulse to play favorites. If Gunstar Super Heroes does nothing more than to remind us why its namesake was such a favorite to begin with, it'll have done an admirable service.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Suggestive Themes, Fantasy Violence
I failed to spot the 'Suggestive Themes' that the ESRB did, but there is certainly an abundance of 'Fantasy Violence' packed into Gunstar Super Heroes' short lifespan, as the title itself would suggest. Parents only need be concerned if the concept of gunplay or hand-to hand combat abhors them in any context, because GSH is in no way explicit in its violence and only gratuitous in terms of the resultant explosions and sparks.
Fans of the original Gunstar Heroes should view this sequel as homage, if not a remake, such is the extent of the Treasure recycling plan on display. Newcomers, or those who haven't played the original for years, will have much more fun here, but even they will likely shirk at the game's lack of lasting impact, attributable both to its backwards-looking gameplay and extremely slender game length.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers will miss out on a few bits of in-game character speech, but nothing critical to the progress of either the gameplay or the depressingly awful narrative.