Sunday, September 11, 2016

XBLA Look - Guardian Heroes

Note: This is another old review. If this game ever gets another re-release (Steam perhaps?) I'll try to write up something that's less than 2,000(!!) words. Oh and maybe a little less gushing.

No promises though.

Would you ever be able to understand just how difficult is for me, to write a review of Guardian Heroes? This is a game that is so wrapped up in nostalgia and history that I don’t think I’d ever be able to give it a review that even remotely approaches objectivity. All of the times I have purchased and re-purchased Guardian Heroes are chance encounters, like the kind you’d see in a poorly written romantic-comedy. Choosing to go to the mall instead of dealing with a mouse, a random trip to the local game store, likely prompted by some other bit of reality I was in the midst of escaping. Growing up I always thought games like Super Mario Bros. 3 or the original Sonic the Hedgehog were going to be what defines me, but it has turned out to be Guardian Heroes. It is by no means the perfect game, but I hold it above all others.

I assure you all however that Guardian Heroes will not disappoint, no matter how over-hyped I may make it out to be. Treasure has always walked the fine line between creating games that are solely for the hardcore, and for those who enjoy the occasional mindless entertainment. In many cases Guardian Heroes is the latter, an unbalanced brawler where a lot of the fun comes from exploiting its systems, breaking all of one’s opponents in half, and then shattering the remains like a cheap desk. Still there is that element of finesse, of refinement, the kind that can only be found in some of the best beatemups. While this game is a bit dated, and it can't compete with a competent fighting game, it has a certain appeal to it that is impossible to ignore. It’s a game that tries everything, and even its failings can be considered successful, depending on how you look at them. Treasure has saw fit to give this game new life, in what I think is the best HD remake this generation has produced.

A mysterious sword, a long-dead but still standing warrior, the eternal struggle between the Spirits of the sky and the underworld, and a small band of could-be heroes are caught in the middle of it all. The story to Guardian Heroes is well-developed and has a good cast of characters, but you’ll get sick of it after several play-throughs. There are multiple paths that will lead to encounters with five different final bosses, though there are all sorts of other characters to engage, some more wacky than dangerous. Some paths are easier while others are a better fit for certain characters. One of the most welcome aspects of this remake is that cutscenes can be skipped through very quickly, including Kanon’s ridiculous history lesson. Anyway, your goal is to defeat all of the enemies that accost you, punish a handful of villains, and maybe you’ll break the chains that bind humanity, stop the robot menace, or you’ll simply die in obscurity. With five playable characters, each accompanied by their pet Undead Hero, you have more than enough variety, and plenty of play-throughs are required to unlock all of the playable characters for the other modes.

The basis for Guardian Heroes’ combat system can be traced back to the Mega-drive fighting game, Yū Yū Hakusho: Makyō Tōitsusen. In this licensed fighter, up to four-players could fight one another, and they could switch between two planes to dodge attacks or out-maneuver their opponents. Guardian Heroes offers up three planes, six players, weapon-based fighting, and all sorts of other differences. Around a decade later Treasure put out the first of two Bleach games, which offered their own changes to the formula they’ve created. I bring this up because aside from the original and almost unchanged version of the original 1996 Guardian Heroes, there is the new remix version, which includes a number of changes and additions. Whatever the case, Guardian Heroes features a large cast with diverse move-sets and moves to handle every situation. This includes abilities such as air-blocking, back-dashing, and others that were a rare sight a long time ago. Admittedly many of these features aren’t so fresh today, but aside from some of Capcom’s best efforts, and a handful of other games I can’t recall the names of, Guardian Heroes has little in the way of competition as far as its systems are concerned. In short, a good beatemup is built on the foundation of a good fighting game, and vice-versa. Guardian Heroes also employs a leveling system to give it a bit of an RPG flavor. Level-ups allow the player to raise stats between each stage, though it’s best to focus on the strengths of the character. Raising Han’s intelligence is not going to make him very effective, since he’s the guy with the big sword.

For a game that I’ve been playing off and on for almost fifteen years, I’m not exactly receptive to change. Thankfully, the port of the original game is flawless. As far as I can tell the mechanics are absolutely solid, the classic graphics are translated well (if you don’t mind retina-scarring pixels), and Treasure has done an all-around excellent job. Now as concerns the remix edition, all I have to say is: phenomenal. The new graphic mode features characters that make some impressive usage of shading, giving them a look that reminds me of the SNES game Kirby’s Dream Land 3. The backgrounds have been touched up to give a slight water-color effect. To top it off there is zero slowdown, none, no matter what is happening on-screen. Sure the Xbox 360 is slightly more powerful than the Saturn, but I was expecting at least a little slowdown, when dozens of huge sprites toss explosions at each other. This isn’t the case here, because the game performs like a dream.

Where the remix really shines is in what matters most, the game itself. One of the most noticeable changes is the cap on the character’s MP. MP in Guardian Heroes is used to cast spells, and for a number of characters is the biggest source of damage. What the MP cap in Remix mode does is makes certain characters a bit weaker, but also makes everyone far more viable, whether it’s early in the game or towards the end. While I miss out on Nicole having a massive pool of MP to heal herself at every opportunity, she has more chances to make use of her ultra-powerful barrier spell. Randy can toss out high-powered spells as early as the first stage, and as long as you have the combinations memorized you can fill every hole in the enemy’s defenses with tornadoes, lightning, or whatever other destructive force tickles your special place. This makes for a much more dynamic game. This dynamism is matched by more aggressive behavior by the enemies. Rushing into a bad situation is a fine way to get rocked, because enemies have no problem doing combos and surrounding anyone playing the fool. If there’s enough MP available you can break out of even the worst situations with a push-back move, but if you expended it all trying to do a big move that fell flat, well... you’re dead. Expect to spend a bit of time finding the zone and maneuvering the battlefield to get enemies into position. Oh and don’t forget to block, unlike most other beatemups, none of the Heroes are going to find a cooked turkey in a barrel to get their health back.

Further rounding out this remix mode is a revised offensive system. Air-dashing is now possible and is a good way to follow upper-cut specials and other moves that throw the enemy into the skies. Also there are three attack buttons instead of two, and the strongest attack button doubles as a spell button when the proper controller motions are performed. Normal attacks can be strung together into chains, and this makes for greater combo potential, especially if crouching attacks are mixed in. The back-dash has also been given its own button. While repeated use drains MP it is has more evasive properties, making it an effective tool to consider when dealing with opponents. The main thing to take away from all these changes; is that they make a great game even better. There are more buttons to keep track of, which can be a pain depending on your controller preference. You’ll figure out a way around it, just because the remix mode is that good.

While the story mode is fantastic, the bulk of my time playing Guardian Heroes has always been spent in the Versus mode. Now the thing to keep in mind here is I’ve never been huge on fighting games. What makes the Versus mode stand out are the customization options, and the possibilities they create. Whether I want to have a bunch of wolves and orcs battle it out, or the heroes turning against each other, this mode is where it’s at. Actively participating in these battles is a lot of fun but it’s also entertaining to experiment with combinations and see how the results play out. The remake heavily expands on the feature-set by allowing all sorts of editable rules and the aforementioned support for up to twelve participants. Six-player Guardian Heroes is already total chaos, so twice that number creates something I can’t even think of a word for. It will be interesting to see how this game works out when players start going against each other online. I get the feeling that everything is still in the testing phase, and even with the changes remix brings to the table there are still some unbalanced aspects to the affair. I’m not all that concerned about this game being taken seriously, especially when I like to play all random match-ups. Random teams, random experience levels, random characters, needless to say my most heroic playing won’t stand up to Lady Luck. Still it’s definitely worth looking into. The newly-added training mode is also quite nice for familiarizing oneself with the basics and practicing.

The arcade mode strikes me as the sort of addition that was approved solely to meet Microsoft’s XBLA guidelines. In this mode one player stands alone against a deluge of foes. More than twenty enemies on-screen is a frequent occurrence, and one or two hits will lead to death. Survival is obviously out of question so all that can be done is to take down as many as possible. Every character is playable in this mode and there are separate leaderboards for all of them, though you probably deserve a medal if you get any kills with characters like the old man, who attacks solely with a coughing fit. Again, the Spirits are most likely to control this mode since almost all of their moves are screen-filling and high-damaging, though I’ve had a bit of success with certain characters thanks to some very useful moves. Given the choice I’d rather have seen leaderboards being used for the story-mode, but that’d probably require a substantial effort that could just as easily not pan out.

This is the ultimate package for fans of Guardian Heroes. At a mere $10 this is an absolute steal, a required buy for anyone who owns an Xbox 360 and has at worst a remote interest in the concept. I’m one of if not the biggest fan of the game and nothing short of a perfect port would be enough to satisfy me. This remake not only knocks it out of the park; it also makes me wonder just what the heck other remake-developers out there have been doing. Guardian Heroes is little more than a cult hit and yet it has gotten a remake so stellar that it shames almost everything else out there. Treasure and Sega ought to be proud of themselves for putting out such an incredible package. Hopefully their hard work is rewarded appropriately because as far I’m concerned they deserve it.

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