Traditionally, beat-em-ups have all been about strutting forward, punching some dudes (and in the case of Final Fight, chick-dudes), and then walking forward some more. Their depth usually lies in the playable characters, variety of moves, and types of enemies, but there are a mere few games that deviate from this. Some of the most well noted include River City Ransom and Capcom's Dungeons & Dragons arcade titles, both which introduce RPG elements to liven things up a bit.
Famously rad developer Treasure - they of the magnificent Gunstar Heroes, still one of the best side scrolling shooters ever - looked at the landscape of beat-em-ups, and decided that they could do better. Their game, dubbed Guardian Heroes, includes experience building elements with a variety of statistics that can be upgraded, a relatively large story with a number of NPCs and plenty of dialogue, a number of branching paths that lead to multiple different endings, five playable characters with their own distinct movesets, a number of magic spells, an AI controlled monster that you can command, and game mechanics that borrow closely from 2D fighters like Street Fighter II. And all of this comes together using the impressive sprite handling capabilities of the Saturn, allowing for nearly a dozen characters on screen at once, along with screen scaling effects. Yeah, that's pretty awesome.
The character designs were done by HAN, Treasure's resident artist, so some of the characters look a bit like the cast of Gunstar Heroes. Instead of that game's futuristic landscapes, Guardian Heroes takes place in a medieval fantasy universe, filled with swords, sorcery, and the occasional laser-spewing robot to mix things up a bit. The story begins when a gang of adventurers discover an ancient sword. Little do they know that the Kanon, the scheming advisor to the king - is hunting for this very same artifact, and is using the Royal army to do his bidding. After being chased out of town, they discover that the sword can summon a fearsome undead creature called the Golden Warrior, who takes up arms to fight alongside you in the conflict.
Guardian Heroes' resident tank, Han carries a damn huge sword. The fact that he shares a name with the character designer is probably not a coincidence.
Randy M. Green
Randy is the resident mage - physically weak, but with the best magical spells. He also has a little rodent for a pet, which shadows his every movement.
The martial arts expert who moves and attacks like a ninja. He can create hugely long combos and even has some decent magic spells.
Nicole is primarily focused on defensive magic, but she's a good all around character too.
This badass knight warns the Guardian Heroes of the power of the sword, and fights alongside them in a few levels. She's only playable after beating the game.
The main bad guy, Kanon is after that sword, and will do anything in his power to get it.
Kanon's idiotic right hand man, Zur is a clownish jester who nonetheless continually torments our heroes.
A member of the evil kingdom's knights, who eventually switches sides to help you out.
The fighting in Guardian Heroes is heavily based on the Yu Yu Hakusho fighting game that Treasure developed for the Mega Drive. While that capped the experience as a match-based four-player rumble, Guardian Heroes transforms it into a sidescrolling brawler. The B and C buttons execute weak and strong attacks respectively, while the A button is used for blocking. It's a very fast and friendly system, and it's very easy to execute combos, knock enemies skyward and juggle them in mid-air.
The playing field is divided into three planes - the foreground, middle ground, and background, similar to SNK's Fatal Fury. By pressing the trigger buttons, you can leap between the planes. In your typical beat-em-ups, you'd normally just push up or down to move around the scenery, but this frees up the controls so it can play more like 2D fighting games. Pressing Up will jump, and most characters have the ability to double jump as well. Each character also has a number of special movies that are executed with command motions, allowing for a larger moveset than your typical Final Fight clone. Altogether, the whole experience feels like a predecessor to Arc System's Guilty Gear series, which actually implemented similar mechanics to Guardian Heroes (with less than stellar success) in a spinoff title, Guilty Gear Isuka.
The X button is your Magic button - you can bring up a menu to select a spell, but it's generally much easier to memorize a command motion and cast them that way. The Z button commands the Golden Warrior, giving him vague orders to defend your character or attack all out. You can also order him to go out all berserk, triggering a minor nuclear explosion to beautifully wipe the screen clear of dies. Trying to tell your undead pal what to do can get a bit hectic though - you need to run off to an empty corner of the screen before you can even hope to issue a command without getting knocked to the ground first.
Lots of people like to classify beat-em-ups as mindless button mashers designed to milk quarters from gullible arcade goers. It's true that a number of poorly designed games fall into this category, but in order to succeed in the better beat-em-ups, you need to learn the concept of crowd control - this is, being able to position enemies so you don't get attacked from all angles. Most beat-em-ups only allow you to attack one or two enemies at the same time (not counting super moves to wipe out numerous enemies.) However, due to the multi-plane system and powerful attacks, Guardian Heroes lets you take out a number of foes - potentially half a dozen or more - with a single, well timed strike, and that immense power is largely what makes the pummeling so satisfying. The thing is, within Guardian Heroes' greatest strength also lies its greatest weakness - with its constant state of madcap havoc, there are only a few sparse moments where the screen isn't flooded with enemies. As such, it's tough to see exactly what's going on, especially if you're on the background plane.
The fighting engine is more than solid, but Guardian Heroes adds a number of RPGs elements that greatly expands its depth. As you wail on enemies, you'll gain experience points, and eventually level up. At the end of each stage, you're allowed to increase one statistic per each level gained. These include the usual strength, defense, magic, luck and agility statistics, and allow you to customize warriors to better suit your tastes. Han, for example, has low MP at the beginning of the game, but you can fix that, if you want. Given that there's a limited amount of enemies in the game, technically the amount of experience you can gain is fixed. However, if you continue to juggle dead foes before they hit the ground, you'll continue to rack up experience. To counterbalance this, there's a karma system, which will drop whenever you juggle bad guys or destroy civilians, or increase whenever you let an enemy retreat. Although there are seven basic endings, your karma will alter a portion of the dialogue at the end.
There's also a pretty sizable storyline, with a number of recurring villains. It's all pretty much standard fantasy stuff, and the dry English writing doesn't help make things any more interesting. However, the most interesting feature is the branching paths. After certain levels, you're given a variety of choices that affect the route through the game. There are a total of thirty stages, complete with seven endings and five different final bosses. Unfortunately, there's no way to skip the cutscenes, which grows bothersome. All of the paths intersect at one point before diverging again, and with each playthrough, you'll have to sit through the same, long winded speech about the history of the game universe.
If the expansive story mode weren't enough, Guardian Heroes offers up an awesome multiplayer mode. Although there are only five playable characters available in the regular story mode, Guardian Heroes goes all out with its battle royale feature, where you can play as ANY character once you've unlocked them in the regular mode. This includes a total roster of over forty characters. Naturally, it's incredibly unbalanced when you're playing as Natto, Randy's tiny rodent with next-to-zero HP, and your opponent's playing as a giant planet boss character that takes up half the size of the screen. But if you've got a Saturn multiplayer adapter - and enough controllers - up to six people to can join in to pummel each other ruthlessly. It's a fantastic party game that foreshadowed the popularity of Super Smash Bros. and other similarly themed games.
It's interesting to see how Guardian Heroes evolved out of Gunstar Heroes. Most of Gunstar Heroes' stages were punctuated by huge boss fights and fast paced setpieces, with the exception of a single stage. This stage, the fifth level, simply commands you to "DESTROY THEM ALL!", and is a fairly long playing field consisting of nothing but bad guys pouring out from every corner of the screen. Guardian Heroes borrows its philosophy from this stage, as the levels are little more than brief, flat playing fields. The game simply pumps out more and more enemy soldiers until its satisfied itself, and then you move on. There are boss battles to fight, but they're hardly the calculated showdowns that Treasure is known for - they're usually just like regular foes, except larger, with fancier attacks and more hit points. In fact, there's really no single moment that sticks out as being particularly memorable. But, in the end, that may not necessarily be a bad thing - Guardian Heroes is about emerging battle techniques amidst chaos, and a rigid structure wouldn't serve the game well at all. Anyway, even if the game does grow a bit repetitive, the game saves after each level. If you get tired, you can always take a break and come back later, since it saves your progress after each level.
The levels consist of the usual fantasy fare - towns, graveyards, castles and caves - and generally lacks the imaginative flair that come to punctuate most Treasure titles. At least the character sprites are decent. They're drawn with bright colors outlined in black, which adds a nice animation-quality look to the visuals. However, with all of the sprites scaling going on - either when you leap between planes or when the screen zooms out - the characters get pretty pixellated and jaggy, but that's to be expected. The number of sprites on the screen will occasionally slow down the action and completely bring the Saturn to its knees, but it's not consistent enough to ruin the action, and something like this would've undoubtedly choked on the PlayStation.
Since Guardian Heroes is Treasure's first CD-ROM game, it gave the Nazo2, the composer, the chance to graduate from the staticy Genesis sound chip. The music is the type of synth rock you'd find on early 90s PC Engine games. Some tracks break out a guitar to lend them a heavier edge, and a few even utilize a saxophone, bringing a bit of unique jazz flavor to the beat-em-up action. None of the lines are voiced, outside of some exclamations made by certain enemies.
The American and European Saturn versions of Guardian Heroes command sizable prices on the secondary market, but the Japanese version is a bit cheaper and easier to find. Although you may need a FAQ to read the stats at the level up screen or need the script to understand which branch you're taking, it's still perfectly playable in Japanese. The only other real difference is that the voices and sound effects in the intro movie were removed for the English version, leaving only music.
In 2011, Treasure ported Guardian Heroes to the Xbox 360, sold exclusively on the Xbox Live Arcade. It's no quick and dirty emulation, though, as it features a number of enhancements. The playing field has been extended to fit the full 16:9 widescreen ratio, with an option to use the original low-res graphics, or updated high def visuals. Though most upscaling filters look quite ugly, the one in Guardian Heroes is actually pretty decent, as it gives the sprites a pencil shade look, and some of the larger monsters have been redrawn. The backgrounds, however, are still blurry. The character portraits have been redrawn, and there's a brand new GUI with new artwork as well. The Saturn intro is hidden away in a menu, though it runs at its original resolution and suffers from blocky compression, though the sound effects and voices have been restored. The script has been retranslated and is generally much better than the original. The dialogue is much livelier, with everyone having goofier character quirks, like Genjiro's vaguely silly metaphors.The Earth Spirits are now nown as Earthblood, and the Sky Spirits are now Skyborn, taking less literal but better sounding monikers. A comparison example of the introduction is below:
Han: Heh, heh! This is great! I never thought we'd find such a great sword by ourselves! I wonder if anyone else is looking for it.
Randy: Hey! Be careful! It is an old sword! What will you do if it breaks?!
Genjiro: Don't worry! A great sword doesn't break easily.
Randy: Is this really the sword we've been looking for? Let me see it!
Nicole: I don't care about that sword! I'm tired! Let's eat now.
Serena: The royal knights are coming!
Randy: The royal knights have arrived. There's no way we can get away from them!
Genjrio: Everybody split up! We'll be able to lose them.
Serena: They are after the sword.
Nicole: But where do we go from here?
Han: There is no time to talk! Let us meet at the graveyard ahead.
Han: You were right, Randy! The Sword of Legend WASN'T just a fairy tale! Doesn't seem all that -- HYAH! -- special, though.
Randy: Wh-Whoa! Han, be careful! That's centuries old! What if it's fragile?
Genjiro: Bah! A sword that breaks is like a dog that meows.
Randy: Um, what? A-Anwyay, there's no proof we've even got the right sword yet.
Nicole: You know how to find out: Go stab us some DINNER. I've got legendary hunger.
Serena: The royal knights are coming!
Randy: Um, how are we supposed to outrun an army?
Genjiro: Split up. A hundred kittens bite harder than one lion!
Serena: It's the sword they want.
Nicole: But we WORKED for that sword.
Han: We can discuss it later. Just run! Meet you at the cemetary outside of town.
The "Original" mode uses the same controls and mechanics as the Saturn version, but the "Remix" mode makes several tweaks to the action. Amongst the many additions: three attack buttons for light, medium and heavy attacks, rather than just two; a whole button is now devoted to back dashing, which has a larger invulnerability window than before and can pass through characters, though it can now drain magic; all characters can now air-dash; you can now actually run as long as you want instead of just sprinting short distances; and a number of other tweaks. As you replay the game, it also keeps track of the plot branches, so you can easily tell which routes and levels you have yet to visit, plus you can fast forwarded through cutscenes. The status screen even keeps track of your karma now. The multiplayer mode features online play and expands the number of simultaneous players from six to twelve. There's also a new Arcade mode, which challenges you to see how long you can last against a gamut of enemies, along with the ability to post your score to the leaderboards. Overall, it's a brilliant conversion, paying respect to such a classic game while actually improving it as well.
Guardian Heroes is not technically related to Gunstar Heroes - it does, however, share the same spirit, where "spirit" is defined as "the incredible feeling one gets from causing extreme amounts of destruction with relative ease." However, the final boss from Gunstar Heroes, Golden Silver, does make a cameo appearance in one of the penultimate conflicts. Additionally, the main bad guy from Gunstar Heroes is Emperor Gray, while the main foe of Guardian Heroes is Kanon G. Gray. Randy's mentor is also named Brown, just like the assistant in Gunstar Heroes. However, they're more for fan service than anything else.)
Eight years after the original Saturn game, Treasure released Advance Guardian Heroes for the Game Boy Advance. It's proven to be one of Treasure's most controversial titles, for a number of reasons. It's technically the first "true" sequel to come out of the company, and yet it's so far removed from the Saturn title that, at first, it may as well be a completely different game.
The story takes place hundreds of years after the original, long after the cast members of original game have died off. Technology has matured in the world of Guardian Heroes, and now the planet is filled with spaceships, floating fortresses, and even more robots. However, not all is right in the land. Kanon and Zur have somehow been reincarnated, and have possessed the souls of the old protagonists. There's some kind of master plan at work to take over the world, but that's anyone's best guess, because the storyline is a complete mess. This is largely due to the incredibly poor translation, the likes of which haven't been seen since the 16-bit days. It's full of awkward phrasing, overtly literal translations, and just plain confusing language. They didn't even bother to keep the spelling of the names consistent with the original game. However, the setting is actually meant to bridge the timeline between the original Guardian Heroes and Gunstar Heroes. Professor Brown from this game eventually grows into Professor White, your commander from Gunstar Heroes.
A lot has changed for this sequel. The multi-plane system has been ditched and changed to a traditional beat-em-up playing field where that you can move up and down freely. There are still stats to upgrade, but the multiple paths have been removed completely. The Golden Warrior itself is completely gone, and there's no other AI companion to take its place.
The fire dude.
The wind dude.
The ice dude.
One of the primary antogonists working on conjunction with Kanon and Zur, whom you'll fight several times through the game.
The new characters are dorky, stick-thin little scamps, without even the common sense to carry a weapon. They have no personalities; they never speak; and their names and characteristics are a little too close to the girls from Magic Knight Rayearth. The only real difference between them, other than their color and starting statistics, are their magic attacks. In other words, they're all pretty lame.
But looks, thankfully, are deceiving, and the new generation of Guardian Heroes can still pack a bit of a wallop. By standing still and pressing the B button, you'll execute a flurry of punches, but hold right or left, and you'll use a power attack that wallops enemies across the screen, hurling their limp bodies and knocking over other foes.. If you hold down and press B, you'll slam your fist into ground, causing all enemies surrounding you to be knocked off their feet. You can also cast magic by holding down the R trigger and pressing B. These attacks are weak at first, but can be slowly powered up over the course of the game. There's also a hyper gauge that builds up as you take damage - press both buttons simultaneously, and you'll tempoarily turn into a blazing fast enemy beating machine. Button mashing while you're being attacked actually fills this gauge faster.
These attacks are powerful, but your character's mobility is what sets this apart from other beat-em-ups. By holding Up and pressing the B button, you can knock your foes into the air, leap into the air with a flying uppercut, and continue to kick them in mid-air until they hit the ground. By far the most useful are the homing attacks. If you're in the air, you can press Down and B to hurl yourself into the nearest foe. If you're on the ground, you can double tap forward and press B to launch a flying punch, which will automatically target the closest foe and pummel through them. Although you never quite face as many foes at once as you did in the Saturn game, these techniques allow you to easily clear the screen of enemies, regardless of their position. It's interesting on how Guardian Heroes played a role in inspiring Arc System's Guilty Gear, but these homing dashes are essentially the predecessor used in later fighting games such as Arc System's Hokuto no Ken (2006) and Examu's Arcana Heart (2007).
Almost as important as the homing strikes is the ability to counter and parry enemy attacks. Normally, you can press the R button to block. However, if the enemy is about to attack and you time your block just right, you'll stun them and leave them open for a counter attack. If you can properly block a projectile, you'll reflect their attack right back at them, similar to the melee move from Treasure's Sin & Punishment for the Nintendo 64. The catch is, you need to time it exactly right. The timing is generous, since the enemies will usually pause with a little exclamation point over their head before they attack. But if you keep mashing the block button, you'll eventually drain your magic meter, effectively leaving you helpless. The final encounter features a harrowing segment where you need to counterattack within tenth of a second - miss, and you need to restart the battle. Rough, perhaps, but undoubtedly tense.
Some of these changes may seem pretty drastic, and while they're well intentioned, they're not as well implemented as one would hope. The action is missing the frantic pace of the original Guardian Heroes, so the game feels a bit sluggish, and almost all of your moves have fairly long charge and recovery animations. There's some notable slowdown at certain points that tends to hampers certain segments, but it never gets as bad as the Saturn original.
Apart from the unique fighting mechanics, Treasure also decided to try some wacky experiments with the concept of player death. If you're slain, the demon lying within your soul offers to make a pact - you can either perish or give you body to him. If you perish, then you need to restart the level at the last checkpoint. If you succumb, you're allowed to play for a few moments in devil form, before fading away for good. This may seem silly, but it can potentially allow you learn enemy attack patterns or better prepare for enemies that came later in the stage. It's also the key to get the second (worse) ending. You can also upgrade your stats after each level, although you need to pick up crystals left by fallen enemies if you want to gain experience.
Although there are only six levels, they're pretty huge, and the game takes well over an hour to play all the way through. There's a bit more variety to the levels than the original game - one level takes place on a raft, showing off some impressive scaling effects, and another features your characters hovering above a highway in a high velocity chase. There are a couple of cool boss battles, but they're few and far between. Most of the major fights consist of fighting and refighting the same giant robots or cyclopses, or numerous bouts against Dylan and Zur. There are a few segments where you're falling through the sky and need to hop on various platforms to keep safe - you leap from rock to rock by hitting the direction and double tapping the A button. It's supposed to be tense, but it kinda falls flat.
At various points, you get to fight against the old Guardian Heroes folks as midbosses. These fights aren't particularly interesting, but they do set the fanboy gears in motion. After defeating them, you'll obtain their soul, which will enhance one of your statistics. At this point, it would've made sense to be able to play as them, but that isn't quite the way it works out. Like the original, you can control any of the characters, friend or foe. Unlike the original, you can use them in the standard story mode, although it doesn't affect the plot. In order to unlock them, you either need to donate crystals during the main game - thereby diverting them from strengthening your character - or repeatedly complete the Time Attack mode, which is opened up when you beat the game on Normal difficulty. After completing this numerous times, you can finally play as Han, Ginjirou, Valgar, Randy, Cerena, Nicole and Randy. They all basically look and animate the same as they did before, although they've been resized to fit on the GBA screen, and they all play differently than the main cast. This is actually one of the most rewarding parts of the game, and it's heart-breakingly confusing that Treasure buried it so deeply.
Although there are some cool graphical effects, most of the visuals are pretty average. As noted, HAN's character designs are a bit lame, and the older characters look a bit cartoonier - Nicole, in particular, almost looks like a doppelganger of Marina from Mischief Makers. The music suffers from the usual low fidelity audio of the Game Boy Advance, but the actual composition quality is quite good.
Advance Guardian Heroes tends to get shunned by fans because it removed so many of the coolest aspects of the Saturn game, and this reaction is definitely understandable. This feels like a very different game, and the absence of the iconic Golden Warrior or the expansive story branches makes it seem like Treasure was simply unaware of the reasons why people loved Guardian Heroes in the first place. But they've also refined the core mechanics and level design into a much more developed game, one that requires a bit more technique. It definitely lacks the over-the-top anarchy of the original game, but Advance Guardian Heroes is still an outstanding title in its own right, and deserves a place next to Double Dragon Advance as one of the best beat-em-ups on the Game Boy Advance.