Almost 25 years ago, long before the excellent Streets of Rage 4, the cult Japanese developer Treasure restored its letters of nobility to beat them all with the unforgettable Guardian heroes.
“Never in the trend, but always in the right direction”
“Treasure”. This name may not mean anything to you, and yet it is arguably one of the largest Japanese video game development studios in history. Behind this name are hidden memorable titles such as Gunstar heroes, Bangai-Ô, Radiant Silvergun, Ikaruga, Yu Yu Hakusho, Gradius V or Sin & Punishment. Titles whose notoriety is inversely proportional to quality, but which all deserve to be discovered even today.
Among the most sparkling wonders forged by the brilliant Japanese studio is a certain Guardian heroes, without a doubt one of my favorite tracks by Treasure and the one I have the best memories of when I was able to rub myself there for the first time. And yet, we cannot say that the title of Treasure came out under the best auspices.
We are in 1996 and the kind of beat them all fell into disuse after having known its golden age at the end of the 80s. Saturn and PlayStation have been available on the market for hardly more than a year and at the time not everyone has eyes only for 3D games revisiting genres hitherto confined to 2D and opting for an approach that is intended most often to be realistic.
And yet as the first title on a new generation console Treasure chooses a beat them all populated with big sprites well-colored carried by an artistic direction anchored in the standards of Japanese animation of the time. A bias for the less daring, totally against the current, not to say a little crazy! However, the title of Treasure is quite like the Saturn which quickly established itself as the best support for fans of 2D games in the era of the reign of 3D.
For the record, the Treasure studio was founded in 1992 by young programmers working before that on behalf of Konami Tokyo. The fabulous Axelay shoot’em up released on Super Famicom is the last title produced on behalf of Konami by some of the future pillars of the studio and is reportedly considered the first Treasure game.
A little genre revolution
Guardian heroes could therefore be summarily defined as a beat them all anachronistic, but that would not do honor to its immense qualities. The title immerses us in a universe heroic-fantasy a bit wacky as Japanese animation produced a lot at that time. His colorful and slightly crossed universe seems straight out of a cartoon, with his charismatic heroes and his evil villains. The introduction of the game puts us directly in the mood since it is neither more nor less than a generic in good and due form.
Five fighters are offered to us at the start of the game, each one having a unique style of play, but also obviously attributes and special moves which are specific to it. And this singularity is not just there to look pretty because the gameplay of Guardian heroes borrows from the fighting game as well Street Fighter than RPG.
Long before Streets of Rage 4, Treasure has reinvigorated the formula of beat them all 2D by taking over a few game mechanics proven by the big names in the fighting game. Each protagonist thus has a list of special moves associated with classic manipulations of a Street Fighter : quarter circles, semicircles or shoryuken for example. But that’s not all. The possibilities of combos are numerous and can give link to endless and devastating sequences. Between normal and special moves, magic, juggles, there is really enough to have fun and inflict monstrous damage on the hordes of enemies surging on our heroes. Above all, the margin of progression in the mastery of his character is at the time of an unprecedented scale for a game of its kind.
The title is based on a combat system of unprecedented richness for a game of its kind at the time
The Guardian Heroes combat system is in line with that of Yu Yu Hakusho on Megadrive, also developed by Treasure. Still considered to be Sega’s best 16-bit fighting game, it was only natural to be inspired by it to imagine the excellent Guardian Heroes hybrid formula.
Another welcome loan, the play areas are divided into three levels of depth between which it is possible to jump, a bit like the first Fatal Fury. This may seem somewhat artificial and laborious, but this division of space has the enormous advantage of placing our character in alignment with the enemy facing him and of avoiding the poor appreciation of the distances very often induced by the perspective adopted in the beat theam all in 2D.
However, this does not prevent the action from sometimes lacking in legibility as the battles can quickly become dantesque! Between the number of enemies displayed on the screen, often unreasonable for the Saturn’s resources, and the unleashing of pyrotechnic effects of all kinds, the parts of Guardian heroes never take long to turn into a joyful bazaar not always easy to follow!
Battles can quickly get chaotic!
Castagne with RPG sauce
As for the RPG, its influence is also evident here: each hit is accompanied by a small nest egg of experience points which it is possible to spend at the end of the level to develop your character. This has six attributes between which to distribute points and their impact is evident in combat. More damage for normal attacks, evolving magics, increased speed or even sharper jumps are some of the notable improvements after each level gain.
The screen for assigning characteristic points at each level end
But Treasure goes even further by imagining a progression unfolding according to several branches. Each end of level offers us several choices to decide the continuation of our adventure. And depending on the decision made, the environments explored, boss and mid-boss faced, but also the events punctuating the quest for our heroes and the conclusion of it will be different. Each part is thus potentially different from the previous one and there is therefore a real pleasure in remaking the game from one end to the other with a character and different branching choices.
Especially since the game is not lacking in humor, that the story is really fun to follow thanks to its colorful protagonists, and that in order not to spoil anything it shows great inventiveness in its bestiary and its decorations . The game soundtrack is also a little gem of tones nineties, sometimes synthetic, sometimes rock, sometimes jazzy, a pure product of the time which immerses us immediately in the atmosphere and has lost absolutely nothing of its charm.
The end of a level is an opportunity to choose the next step in our progression
Like all titles offering game modes with four or more players, Guardian Heroes required the acquisition of the famous multitap of the Saturn. The latter had the distinction of adding six controller ports to the console. The operating games were rare and the best known of them is the legendary Bomberman from the Sega console, allowing 10 players to compete, a madness!
The big marrade with several
Most of the big names in beat them all owe their success to the possibility of going on a spit with friends. Otherwise, their linear progression and their gameplay bottom of the forehead probably would not have made recipe. Because playing it alone quickly highlights its limits. It is quite different from Guardian heroes to which the richness of its gameplay, the challenge it offers, the multiple branches to borrow and the character evolution system gives interest even for the solitary player. Especially since the latter will in any case be accompanied from the start of the game by a zombie knight to whom it is possible to give simple orders and whose help is also often invaluable.
I remember our wild games in the Versus mode of the game. We ended up not playing in the mode anymore Story to unlock new fighters to try them out Versus. And if we had to do the accounts, I’m pretty sure that my friends and I spent at least ten times more time on it than on the main quest!
However, it is obviously to many that the title of Treasure gives the full measure of its potential. It is thus possible to play up to four in mode Story and even up to six in mode Versus. And unlike many others beat them all of the time also offering a mode Versus, that of Guardian Heroes is a real game in the game.
Versus mode gives rise to completely delusional general fights
Every enemy faced in the mode Story joins the fashion cast Versus until reaching a total of 45 fighters! Sort of Super Smash Bros before the hour, this totally delusional game mode gives rise to general fights often hilarious and therefore considerably extends the already comfortable life of the game.
In short, you will understand, Guardian Heroes is a classic that has lost nothing of its interest. The title was also remastered in 2011 for the Xbox Live Arcade and a reissue today would not be refused!