For a long time, Treasure had professed their aversion to sequels, preferring to make each game their own. In 2004, it had seemed they abandoned that idea with the release of Advance Guardian Heroes, a continuation of their famous Saturn beat-em-up. In truth, it was related in name only, and provided a completely different experience than its predecessor. A year later, Treasure announced a new Gunstar Heroes game, this time for the Game Boy Advance. But like Advance Guardian Heroes, it’s not really a sequel – it’s actually more of a drastically reworked remake, taking elements from the Genesis game, changing around the levels and mucking around with the core mechanics to create another new, yet familiar experience.
The plot is set roughly a thousand years after the original, but it really just treads the same ground – the cast is basically made up of redesigned versions of the characters from the original game. The major difference is that Red is now a girl (at least, according to the English translation – her gender was ambiguous in the Japanese release), but that’s about it. Each level is punctuated with a bit of dialogue that’s meant to flesh out their personalities, but it’s mostly fluff. At least the text changes depending on the difficulty level and the character you’ve chosen, giving a bit of incentive to play through all available paths.
One of the biggest draws of the original game – the two player simultaneous action – has unfortunately been ditched. Red and Blue are now different characters with slightly different abilities. However, a lot has changed, and not necessarily for the better. There’s no more weapon combining, at all – instead, each character has three guns at their disposal, which can be switched at will. Red carries a Force gun, a Flame shot (equivalent to Force + Fire), and a homing gun, which is basically just like a weaker version of the Laser + Seeker weapon from the prior game. Blue also has a Flame shot and the Laser Seeker, but has a standard Laser instead of the Forge shot. The gun combos may have been a bit unbalanced before, but playing around with the different variations was part of what gave Gunstar Heroes such a sense of unbridled, chaotic joy. With that removed, it feels a lot more restrained.
The melee elements have been scaled back as well. You can no longer throw enemies, although you can tap the attack button to whack foes with your gun. There’s a flying uppercut and downward jump kick move, but neither are as powerful as they used to be. Perhaps to make up for this, your heroes are now equipped with a super laser rifle. After delivering enough destruction, you can tap the R trigger a few times to bring out the big guns and wreak mass destruction.
The levels themselves are all based on stages from the first Gunstar Heroes, but have been chopped up a bit, with tons of additional segments to add some extra variety. There’s a brand new prologue stage that has the heroes running through a base, before saving their commander Yellow from a gigantic flame monster. The forest stage now begins with an homage to After Burner and other Sega Super Scaler games from the mid 80s – it’s a 3D level as you ride on top of your ship, wildly rotating the screen to dodge enemy fire. From here, you actually land on the surface of the planet, but this section is much shorter than it used to be. There’s another whole new area where you need to run around a sphere, gathering little birds and delivering them to the exit, a reference to the old Sega game Flicky. The whole stage rotates as you move around the edges, another impressive graphical effect. Then you scale the pyramid, fight a mini-boss and then fight Pink.
Orange’s stage, the airfield, begins with an overhead action stage similar to Thunder Blade, except without the forced scrolling. You have both a standard cannon and missiles to fire at enemies on the ground. You can also rotate your ship with the triggers. This would be impressive, except the helicopter takes up way too much of the screen, and it’s hard to dodge enemy fire. From here, you begin your ascent to Orange’s battleship. This part is pretty similar, except you’re being airlifted up by your spacecraft, as opposed to chasing the battleship before it launches. The rest of the level is pretty much the same.
Green’s stage, the mines, is also pretty similar, except it’s much shorter, and you can command your bike to hover in the middle of the screen instead of just sticking to the tracks.
Black’s fortress has much more detailed graphics that make it resemble a casino. The intro segment is a bit longer, but the board game has been scaled back a bit and redesigned. Many of the obstacles are similar to the Genesis game, but there are plenty of new challenges. In one particularly odd one, you fight a gigantic teddy bear who’s been discarded in the middle of a street. A giant truck will periodically zoom into the screen, knocking it off its feet. On another, you need to blast downward through various blocks before you’re crushed by a gigantic tombstone.
After the main stage is complete, you’ll begin to infiltrate the enemy base. In the Genesis version, this was a very long, straight stage where you just ran forward and dealt as much destruction as possible. It’s much, much shorter here, and arguably not as satisfying.
The sidescrolling shooter level is still present, except this time, you can rotate the entire screen with the trigger buttons. You need to follow an arrow, which will lead you to the end of stage. Previously, you fought Green in outer space in your spaceship, but this battle has been moved to the end of the game, right before the final boss. It’s much more intense fighting Seven Force on foot.
From there, you’ll jump back on your spaceship for another segment with scaling graphics. All of the interior boss battles from the Genesis version are gone, without any equivalent. The final set of battles is similar, as the bad guys watch on from a control room, but the bosses themselves have all been changed.
The graphics are actually all pretty fantastic. Despite the squashed resolution, the Game Boy Advance offers off a larger color palette and larger ROM space, allowing for even more insane detail. The stages that looked a bit plain in the Genesis version are bursting with detail, and the flame effects in the intro stage are spectacular. Much like how Treasure was pushing the Genesis to its limits, here they’ve maximized the power of the Game Boy Advance, particular with the scaling effects. Advance Guardian Heroes had similar stages that were absolutely plagued with slowdown. Here, there’s a bit of flicker, but it’s smooth and looks outstanding. The sound doesn’t fare quite as well – nearly all of it consists of remixes from the original game, but the low fidelity GBA sound just lacks the punch of the powerful Genesis synth. The explosions just don’t have the same feeling, which is important for a game that emphasizes haphazard mayhem.
In recognizing all of the changes made to Gunstar Super Heroes, it’s easy to see what Treasure was going for – they wanted a leaner, meaner game with more variety than the standard run-and-gun. To accomplish this, it pairs back the game mechanics in favor of more of the gimmicky elements that made the original game stand out. In the end, the result is somewhat mixed. It’s still a fantastic game, but some of the additional segments are either little more than graphical flash (like the scaling, spinning levels) or just poorly implemented (such as the Thunder Blade stage). Parts of it just feel hugely unpolished, or even unfinished. So even though it’s a bit of a disappointment compared to one of Treasure’s greatest titles, it’s still a fairly decent game in its own right, and certainly one of the better action titles on the Game Boy Advance.
The game is known as Gunstar Super Heroes in Japan and America – however, in Europe, it’s known as Gunstar Future Heroes. There are quick voice clips of the bosses before you fight – these are in Japanese in the Japanese version, and in English in the American version. The English taunts are pretty awful sounding.
There’s also a curious change in Black’s dice palace. If you overshoot the boss, you’re taken to a square called “File Crash”. In the Japanese version, it shows a grave warning message stating that your save game will be deleted if you fail this section, and instructs you to reset if you don’t think you can take the pressure. The gravestone that comes pounding down reads “RIP – Save File – 2005.5.16 – Today”. Of course, it’s just an empty threat – if you die, it won’t erase your save, you just need to continue as normal. This warning message was completely removed from the English release. Instead, the tombstone reads “RIP – Gunstar – 2005.5.16 – Today”. There’s a bit of Engrish clean up too. In one level, you fight in a bathouse. There’s a sign in the back of the room with a few bodybuilders on it – the Japanese one says “Man of the Men’s”, while the English one says “Man Among Men”.
Some early screenshots and remnants left in the game’s ROM indicate that there were to be a few more references to other Sega games, including fights with characters from Altered Beast and ESWAT. There are a few unused music tracks from After Burner, Golden Axe, Thunder Blade and Galaxy Force too, oddly unused in the areas where they would’ve been appropriate (except for Golden Axe, it’s unclear where that tune would have potentially appeared).
US vs JP:
Genesis vs. Game Boy Advance