Treasure are undoubtedly one of those game studios that are the envy of their peers, not only for the sheer breadth and quality of the products they’ve produced, but also their ability to introduce esoteric concepts into the boundaries of existing genres. Now one of their finest titles, Guardian Heroes gets the update treatment for a release on Xbox Live Arcade.
Primarily a side-scrolling beat-em -up the game is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of the genre for its fighting style, but also the imaginative Role Playing aspects that persist throughout. The ability to choose what path to take directly affects the story, meaning that there’s more than one permutation to how it concludes thanks to the multiple branching paths. When it was first released in 1996 on the much-loved Sega Saturn (yes younger reader, Sega used to make consoles!) it developed a word of mouth fueled hype that spread far and wide at a time when the Internet was still in its infancy. It’s something which has given it a well deserved and highly regarded cult status with gamers that still persists to this day.
While being highly rated is all well and good, if it no longer plays well then this counts for nothing. Thankfully Guardian Heroes was, and still is, an absolute joy. Initially controlling one of four different characters (Han, Randy, Ginjirou and Nicole), each has a distinctive style and everyone can easily find one that suits their preferred style of play.
Han is a lumbering yet powerful character; Randy is nimble and imbued with magic, while Ginjirou specialises in swift, devastating attacks. Nicole will certainly appeal to those looking for a more esoteric take on the fighting as she is a fairly weak character, but comes equipped with a large selection of magic including, bizarrely enough, a smiley face attack. Accompanying the player on the journey is the Undead Hero who can be used to defend or attack with the flick of a button, a constant companion for the hack and slash ride that follows.
Characters have the opportunity to level up various skills by attacking the numerous enemies they encounter and at the level’s conclusion they can assign points to certain abilities which add another level of depth for the player to juggle; do they assign more points into strength or pour them into vitality? The flexibility is there to tweak as the player sees fit and even though neither the level nor skills acquired carry over in subsequent playthroughs, the overriding sense is one of experimenting with the framework presented and finding the hidden depth within.
Even if the player tires of the story mode, they can revisit it with a friend in co-op. The multiplayer modes continue to be fleshed out with the ability to jump online and play against others over Xbox Live in Versus mode which can support up to twelve players, something which is both ludicrous and impressive all at the same time. While at the time of writing the game was pre-general release and there is naturally a dearth of players, there is certainly the propensity for many multiplayer skirmishes.
While the original sprite work is still in full effect Treasure have updated and remixed the graphics, giving the player the choice to either indulge in a spot of nostalgia or take in the new art style. The new look is more akin to a sketch effect, almost pencil/crayon with a hand-drawn look and it fits perfectly. It certainly sits a lot better than if it had been given a more traditional polygon makeover which must have been tempting. In typical Treasure style the visual tweak breathes new life into the title , actually accentuating it without taking anything away from the original.
Guardian Heroes is as much fun to play today as it was all those years ago. It still has that that certain `je ne sais quoi` that is hard to pinpoint, but it’s undeniably down to it being a finely crafted mix of action and RPG that makes it feel like more than the sum of its parts. It’s a rare game which feels like something special from the moment it starts, but Guardian Heroes certainly has this and, more over, it’s a feeling which actually permeates throughout.
Here’s to Treasure porting across more of their work… Mischief Makers anyone?