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by Nick Gibson - August 12, 2012

Guardian Force (ガーディアン フォース) - Arcade, Saturn (1998)

Japanese Saturn Cover

Japanese Arcade Flyer

Success began its life in 1978 in Tokyo, under the guidance of its founder Takato Yoshinari. Since then, the company has either developed or published a huge number of games for every platform from the Neo Geo Pocket Color to the Nintendo Wii. These days, Takato Yoshinari is still the president and the company seems to be doing well with its own particular niche of DS and mobile games. But Success will always be best known and most loved by true Hardcore Gamers for their excellent Cotton series. HG101 already has a quality write-up of the franchise, however, so today let's turn our attention to one of the company's lesser known titles: Guardian Force for the Sega Saturn and ST-V arcade hardware.

Guardian Force seems to have been originally designed as a Saturn exclusive, but was abruptly pulled from the release lists and moved over to Sega's Titan arcade hardware for a coin-op only publication. The Titan version would indeed see release in May of 1998 in Japan, but Guardian Force also found itself announced for the Saturn a second time, with a release date of August 1998. Even apart from the dangers of a final hour release for a dying system, Guardian Force might very well have confused the average Japanese Success fan. While still a shoot-em-up, in style Guardian Force is a radical departure from the character-driven, 'cute-em-up' style of the Cotton franchise. The player controls a futuristic tank, and there's hardly a human character to be seen. The enemies are realistic tanks, helicopters, jets, and armored vehicles, and the graphical palette sports a dark, gritty tone. It's an odd choice for a company that built its name off wide-eyed witches and bikini-clad fairies.

As mentioned, Guardian Force discards the genre conventions of single-seat spaceships - or magical girls – as protagonists and puts the player in control of a hyper-powered tank. It's reminiscent of Wolf Team's Granada, or perhaps the tank segments of the original Ikari Warriors arcade game. This second comparison is especially appropriate since the main hook of Guardian Force is the ability to fire and move in different directions, much like SNK's trackball shooters. The tank comes equipped with a three weapon system – the major two are an upgradeable main turret and a basic cannon mounted to the tank's chassis. The chassis cannon always fires in the direction the screen scrolls in, regardless of the rotation of the turret or the direction of the tank. Although the levels use forced scrolling as expected from a shmup, they usually scroll in several different directions until the final boss is reached. Although the chassis cannon always follows this movement, the player has control over the main turret's orientation, moving in 45-degree increments. The familiar smart bomb functionality from most shmups has been changed to a super-powerful blast of energy from the main cannon. The exact behavior of the bomb depends on the weapon equipped - but more on that later.

The controls for the Saturn version are fully customizable, allowing to map the fire, super weapon, and rotation buttons in any manner one desires. The main turret is auto-fire, which is an advantage most of the time but a disadvantage in some situations. You'll find yourself tapping the button for precise shots with weapons that fire more slowly while relying on full-guns-blazing auto fire for quicker weapons. It's preferable to map the left and right rotate commands to the controller's shoulder buttons. It's hard to get to play Guardian Force on an authentic ST-V arcade cabinet nowadays, but judging from the typical ST-V button layout it seems that the arcade version might actually be inferior to the Saturn controller. Even for experienced shmuppers, a quality arcade stick has the disadvantage of preventing easy rotation while firing, despite the ability to map functions to whatever buttons you choose. Guardian Force is not an easy game, and uses its rotation gimmick to full effect. Whatever control method you chose, make sure you're comfortable with it.

Guardian Force seems to have some kind of story, but it's all in Japanese. There are no initial cutscenes, so the plot is inconspicuously stashed away on pages 4 and 5 in the manual. Magical crystals feature prominently in the weapon leveling system and in one ending cutscene, so there seems to be some sort of futuristic fantasy vibe at work. And yes, the game actually features two endings, although few people have probably ever seen the good one. Getting it requires destroying the penultimate boss in under thirty seconds, and then defeating the hidden "true final" boss. Any other outcome gives you a duller, down-tempo ending.

The scoring system is also slightly confusing at first. It's really not that complicated once one gets a grasp of it, but it's deep enough to provide additional replay value. The main scoring devices in Guardian Force are "badges" dropped by defeated enemies. As previously mentioned, most of them are armored vehicles similar to the player's tank. These enemies can be neutralized by shooting them enough to blow up the turret, leaving a smoking chassis behind. At that point, the player can go further and reduce the chassis itself to rubble, which spawns a gold badge worth double the value of the previously collected badge. If a badge drifts off-screen before the player collects it, the next badge's value will reset to the default bounty of 100 points. This makes it worthwhile to collect badges as they appear - and also to kill enemies sequentially and collect their badges before moving on to the next one. There are a few other ways to increase score against bosses, such as killing them before the timer expires, destroying a certain part of the boss first, and even shooting at the boss as soon as it appears onscreen. Weapon powerups will eventually turn black after flipping through all the available weapon colors - grabbing the powerup when it is black gives a big bonus instead of a weapon. It doesn't really hurt to skip the powerups either, since they're mostly for switching weapon types rather than increasing firepower.

Actually upgrading the sheer power of the tank is achieved through collecting purple crystals left behind by certain enemies (as well as bosses when destroyed before the timer expires). Guardian Force features a whopping ten grades of power for the main gun, and each time it takes about three to four crystals to fill the weapon gauge and get to the next grade. Every death drops the main cannon down a grade, although the tank spits out additional crystals upon death that can be used to recover most of what was lost. Using two credits gives the tank a full-power boost as well. Because there are so many grades of power for the main weapon, it can be tough to tell if the guns are even getting any more powerful because the changes between grades are so slight. It might have felt better if there were fewer grades and more drastic changes for each one.

There is some nice variety between the weapon types, though. There are five different types of weapons - color coded for easy recognition. Feeler (yellow) is an intermittent lancing shot that is especially effective when fired while rotating the turret. Even though the player can only twist the turret in preset increments, the Feeler will sweep the entire range of angles while the turret is rotating. Fang (green) is one of the more unusual shmup weapons out there, and probably the most powerful weapon in Guardian Force. It's easiest to describe as a giant yo-yo of death, and the trick in using it comes from the vast majority of the damage being delivered in a very precise location. Horn (purple) is sort of like a timed explosive charge that erupts in several directions upon contact with an enemy. It's great for building high scores, but it's slow to fire. Beak (blue) is a missile salvo that hits hard and at full power brings bosses to their knees easily. The last is Tusk (red), the default shot for the start of the game, and an ordinary spread shot of the sort one would expect in a shmup of this kind. Using the correct weapon type is absolutely essential, and there's nothing worse than going up against a quick-moving boss with Horn's timed depth-charges.

Interestingly, weapons actually behave slightly differently for the second player's tank in cooperative mode. They're weaker, but have greater spread. The "bomb" super shot for each weapon is slightly altered as well. In addition, each weapon has subtle effects on the player's turret rotation speed, regardless of whether it is the 1P or 2P tank. Finally, there are rockets available as auxiliary weapons. These are upgradeable as well and can simply be switched between by collecting the appropriate floating power-up: an "H" for weaker homing missiles or "M" for stronger fire-and-forget rockets. There's also an "S" that acts as the extra special weapon pickup.

There's more to a shmup than mechanics, though, and many less serious enthusiasts of the genre couldn't care less about scoring systems. They will be happy to know that Guardian Force has solid aesthetics and a flavor all its own, as any gameplay clip or screenshot will show. One of the most notable things is that - like most games that originated on the ST-V - Guardian Force is laid out for the aspect ratio of home televisions. No need for tate mode (as the option to turn the image by 90 degrees for vertically aligned screens is called in Japanese arcade ports is called) or magnifying glasses here. Think Sōkyūgurentai or Radiant Silvergun. The graphics are deeply shadowed and generally dark, with hints of Battle Garegga in the attention to details. It feels almost as if the entire game takes place at night, but bullets and enemies are still easy to distinguish from the backgrounds. Explosions are satisfying and have plenty of pop. The selection of enemies avoids comparisons to the classic Raiden by mixing things up quite a bit. There are the usual tanks and flyers, of course, but also massive gunning platforms, hovercraft, and orb-like ships covered in transforming goo. Success managed to ladle in some nice details - enemy soldiers keep running after they've been hit, clothes on fire. Floating ships drift to the ground in ruin, and chain guns kick out piles of house-sized shells. Other neat effects like flamethrowers and glowing axes are just the icing on the cake. There's scaling throughout as powerups bounce up and down all over the place.

That said, the special effect of the day in Guardian Force definitely is hardware rotation. The game is all about using the rotating turret to one's advantage, and bosses either track the player down in 360 degrees or feature all sorts of scything appendages to cut off a retreat. Guardian Force really has to be commended for putting its rotation hook to good use. It's rare that you're allowed to cruise forward for any length of time as in a normal shmup - enemies spawn from all directions or turn and give chase from behind once passed, and there's always enough bullets on screen to keep you moving. Bosses especially encourage drastic action in order to avoid their heavier barrages and exploit their weak points. If there's any fault to be found with the multi-directional fire system, it's that it can be really easy to end up between an impassable object and the edge of the screen. Dying as a result of getting crushed by the scrolling is always frustrating and can happen more often than you'd think when pinwheeling around mid-bosses, trying to stay alive. Losing a grade of weapon power upon death can also be a big downer, since many enemies soak up bullets and bosses can take some time to wear down without using special weapons.

As mentioned earlier, Guardian Force seemed to have been intended (along with Cotton 2) to be a Saturn exclusive. With the initial cancellation of the Saturn version, the ST-V arcade release apparently became the lead platform. As a result, Guardian Force hit the Saturn with a PCM chiptune soundtrack instead of the CD audio most 32-bit gamers had come to expect. Success either didn't see the need to include an arranged OST for the Saturn release or didn't have the time to whip one up. It's not really a bad thing - for anyone into retro Sega systems and old-school shmups PCM audio is hardly the major gripe list - but much of the soundtrack is a somber score with big bells and muddy instrumentation. It probably would have sounded better in Redbook. Indeed, certain tracks come off like early demos for music that was intended to be fully orchestrated. All things considered, there are enough catchy tunes so that one will hardly take notice during all the action.

In final analysis, Guardian Force falls just a little short of the top of the Saturn's stable of shmups. The game certainly wins awards for its fresh take on multi-directional shooting, but it lacks the extra punch you might expect from one of the top-tier titles. There's nothing really wrong with it, technically. The game's biggest failing is perhaps the lack of surprise or variety. One stage looks mostly like all the others, and neither the art direction nor the enemy designs shake things up enough to really impress. In other words, some gamers might spend the whole game waiting for the other shoe to drop - the big moment where the game kicks into overdrive and does something really daring. But ultimately, Guardian Force never really does. It establishes the limits of its wheelhouse in the first practice stage and stays inside those boundaries for its duration. With some more unique character (not necessarily characterization - a tank is a tank, let's be honest) and a more dynamic range of experiences, Guardian Force could have been one of the must-haves for the system. As it is, it's still a very well-made game and comes highly recommended.

For anyone who has experienced the more mainstream range of shooting games the Saturn has to offer, Guardian Force might just be the perfect next step. It features a technical execution and mechanical design leagues ahead of some of the bottom-rung shmups, and it is arguably a more worthwhile experience than some of the most expensive games for the platform like Blast Wind. There's hardly anything quite like it on classic consoles, and Success put together a solid enough foundation that it probably deserves a look in person. Unfortunately, Guardian Force is not as easily obtainable as it used to be - until the advent of YouTube and resulting wider awareness of the Saturn's import library, Guardian Force was able to fly under the radar as a cheap gem. Four or five years ago one could grab a copy for a fraction of the price of the more high-profile shmups on the system. The price has been increasing steadily since then, and currently the game clears $70 or more on eBay. It seems fair to assume that there weren't many copies manufactured or sold considering the late 1998 release date, so the price tag might very well be here to stay. The game runs well in SSF for the more emulation inclined, and there seem to be no differences between the ST-V and Saturn beyond the menu options in the home version.

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Guardian Force (Arcade)

Guardian Force (Arcade)

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Guardian Force (Arcade)

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