Treasure have found themselves amidst something of a retro revival recently. First they lavished upon the general gaming populace the superlative Gradius V, a real return to form for Konami’s flagship shooter especially after the so-so Gradiuses (Gradii?) III and IV. Following this success, they went somewhat sequel crazy producing excruciatingly middling follow-ups to both Gunstar and Guardian Heroes on the Game Boy Advance. After the relatively muted response these games received, Treasure, with the aid of the Sega Ages series, now wish to transport gamers back to their days as a development powerhouse producing miracles on Sega’s 16-bit hardware with the likes of Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy, and Alien Soldier - the three titles that comprise Gunstar Heroes Treasure Box.
As the name implies, the real focus of this collection is Gunstar Heroes - the seminal 1993 shooter that introduced gamers to the delights of Treasure. Gunstar Heroes’ game play follows the tried and true two-dimensional scrolling mayhem that made Konami’s Contra so popular back in the late Eighties. Essentially, you have free reign over what character and weapon you select before embarking on your tour of destruction. In keeping with page 47 of the Japanese shooter rule book, the game's portfolio of characters encompasses the usual array of spiky-haired adolescents brandishing heavy weaponry, while the arsenal consists of your regular long/short reach, destructive/accurate selections. You then pick any one of the four opening levels before shooting the holy hell out of anything that dares cross your path.
A highlight of Gunstar Heroes is unquestionably the diverse range of bosses. Imaginatively designed and sporting a repertoire of outlandish attacks, they’re all very much a joy to battle and perfectly highlight the obvious imagination put into all aspects of the game. The few levels found in the game do a magnificent job of demonstrating Treasure’s flare for colour, with lush greens and blues decorating even the most mundane of props, perfectly offsetting the over-the-top action.
While there’s no question about the overall quality of Gunstar Heroes, both the other games included on the disc, however - Alien Soldier and Dynamite Headdy - are very much curios at best lacking the ingenuity and exuberance of their more esteemed older brother. With this said, it’s still worth players’ time to sample these titles, as they’re two of the most unique and bizarre titles to come from Treasure HQ since their inception over ten years ago. Alien Soldier essentially takes everything that was great about Gunstar Heroes, turns it inside out, and cranks the difficulty up to infinity. Where Gunstar Heroes was the perfect blend of frantic blasting, light platforming, and challenging boss fights, Alien Soldier is one extremely gruelling boss fight after another preceded by short intervals of standard blasting before, once again, facing another tough boss. At times it’s almost excruciatingly difficult, not helped by the fact players are unable to move and shoot simultaneously. Its unrelenting difficulty is a great showcase for the trials some gamers will endure in their quest for satisfaction, but will ultimately frustrate most. Dynamite Headdy, meanwhile, is a complete departure from the run and gun shenanigans displayed by the other games on this compilation. While different from most platformers (the use of the protagonist's body to catapult explosive projectiles at enemies is quite peculiar), Dynamite Headdy still travels the same road that all two-dimensional platformers follow resulting in a unique though equally routine experience that feels all too familiar.
While all the titles included within this collection are suitably playable, especially when compared to titles on similar retrospectives, none seem to have stood the test of time at all well. Alien Soldier and Dynamite Headdy’s visuals both look terribly grainy when compared to Gunstar Heroes' bright, crisp-clean sprites, with Alien Soldier particularly looking rather drab. Also the action contained within Dynamite Headdy no longer feels as fresh or as peculiar as it once did, while Alien Soldier’s steep difficulty curve seems positively archaic by today’s gamer-friendly standards. Even Gunstar Heroes is showing its age a little, proving too simplistic in both design and game play while also lacking the longevity of other shooters many years its elder such as Midway’s equally influential Smash TV. A two-player co-operative mode ensures repeated play-throughs but over time this gimmick will tire even the most die-hard of fans.
The biggest problem with this package that isn’t restricted to any one game is control. For whatever reason, the Dual Shock 2’s D-pad isn’t particularly trustworthy when it comes to diagonal motions, resulting in many instances where you have to overcompensate by taking unnecessary damage. This is most apparent during the numerous boss fights throughout the games where frequently the only way to injure your oversized foe is to hit them dead centre. All this could easily have been remedied to some degree by including analogue stick support, but this feature is conspicuously absent making third-party controllers (such as Sega’s own PS2 Saturn Pad) a necessity for players looking to get the most out of this title.
Aside from the games, Gunstar Heroes Treasure Box also includes a plethora of extras that will plant a smile on even the most hardened of fans. Among these is the option to play either the original Japanese versions or their Western equivalents, allowing fans to spot cosmetic changes administered between releases. The ability to output all games in 480p (progressive scan) allows the vast array of colours on offer throughout the three games to just pop out at the player. However, with the exception of Gunstar Heroes, this option does more harm than good showing off some patchy design work on Treasure’s part, though this is a very small issue and will only annoy a minority of players. Unlockables such as artwork and, best of all, the really obscure Game Gear version of Gunstar Heroes ensure fans keep toiling away at all aspects of this compilation.
Treasure has shown the world how to construct a quality shooter many times over and now with Gunstar Heroes Treasure Box, they've shown the video game industry how to compile a worthwhile retrospective. Despite the relative lack of titles on offer, Gunstar Heroes Treasure Box is well worth the small amount of dough it’ll set players back.
Text: Adam Gellatly
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