Title: Gunstar Heroes
Developer: Treasure
Publisher: Sega
Date Published: 1993 (First released in Japan 10th September 1993)
Platforms: Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, later ported to Sega Master System, Game Gear
Players: 1-2

Gunstar Heroes was the first1 game developed by Treasure, a team made up of ex-Konami employees who had previously worked on the Contra and Castlevania series for the Nintendo home systems. Many critics consider it to be the best game ever released for the Sega Mega Drive, and while this is debatable, there were few action games released during the 16-bit hardware generation which were as technically polished, imaginative and most importantly, fun to play.

The game is a platform shooter which inherits some characteristics from the Contra (Probotector) series. Whereas the Contra games had a gritty, militaristic sci-fi visual style, Gunstar Heroes takes a more playful, cartoon-like approach. The platforming controls are more responsive than the (somewhat stiff) controls used in Contra, having more in common with the Konami platformers Rocket Knight Adventures and Tiny Toon Adventures (which some of the Treasure team may also have worked on).

In Gunstar Heroes, the player (or players, as the game features a simultaneous two player mode) takes control of one of the eponymous heroes: Gunstar Red or Gunstar Blue. As this is a platform game, at any given time the player can run, jump, duck, grab onto ledges, and spring off of walls. (It's also possible to throw enemies and perform sliding tackles.) As this is also a shooter, the player is also equipped with a gun. At the start of the game players can elect to use either a Fixed Shot (can shoot in all directions but only when standing still) or Free Shot (can shoot while running, but only in the direction of movement) control method.

The weapon system in Gunstar Heroes is particularly clever. There are four weapon types in the game: lightning (or laser), chaser (homes in on enemies), fire (as in flamethrower), and force (rapid firing). The clever part is this: At any time, the player can hold a maximum of two of these weapon elements, and can use either of them seperately, or combine them together to make a more powerful weapon. (So there are a total of fourteen possible weapons.) The best weapon is probably the combination of Chaser and Lightning, which locks on to enemies and constantly reduces their health while the player can concentrate on dodging attacks. (In case this sounds too one-sided, the game frequently throws up 'dummy' targets that lure away the lock. Although come to think of it, even taking this into account the weapon does make a lot of the game rather easy.) Players are occasionally given the chance to exchange their weapon icons for different ones, allowing them to choose the best weapons to tackle particular enemies.

The two playable characters are part of an International Rescue style force that defends their planet2 from both domestic and alien threats. The Gunstar team is led by Professor White, who between levels gives the players their orders and invents vehicles to help them. The other members of the good guys are Yellow (the token female, who gets kidnapped) and Green (who is brainwashed to fight for the enemy before the game begins).

The story is fairly complicated (for a game of this type) and not communicated particularly well during gameplay, although the key points are made obvious as the game goes on. Many years ago, Professor White successfully defended the planet from an alien robot being called Golden Silver or the Destructor. He removed the four gems that powered the robot and buried them deep in the planet's crust, and hid the dormant robot in a base on the planet's moon. Fast forward to the present, and a tinpot dictator called Colonel Red3 has set about recovering the gems with the aid of his henchmen: Black, Pinky, Orange and Green (the traitor). Colonel Red is actually working for a galactic Emperor who wants to use the Destructor for his own purposes.

The first four levels of the game (which can be played in any order) concern the retrieval of each of the gems from the henchmen. On every level the route is populated by hundreds and hundreds of enemy soldiers and their increasingly outlandish machines.

The first level is fairly conventional, taking the players through a native village (the native inhabitants of the planet are tiny people about three pixels tall), over a stepped pyramid and through a beehive-infested forest (along the way confronting a series of minibosses) ending in a fight with a bipedal robot driven by Black and Pinky.

The second level brings vehicles into the equation leading to a different style of gameplay. The players are equipped with 'mine carts' (which are more like motorised runners attached to their legs) which allow them to travel at high speed on rail tracks through an underground mine. The tracks run on the ceilings and floors, and occasionally the tunnel will plunge down a vertical pit with the tracks continuing on the walls. The boss of this level is the Seven Force, an incredible morphing robot piloted by Green. Seven Force is a huge and complex composite sprite made up of wheels and bars like some kind of futuristic Meccano set. It can take the form of a running man, a tiger, an eagle, a sea urchin, a crab, a snake-like creature, or if all else fails, a massive pistol. All of these forms have their own methods of attack and are animated in an incredibly life-like fashion.

Level three involves climbing a docking tower to reach the deck of a massive airship that is taking off. After a brief battle on the deck, the action moves to the wings of a helicopter, where the players must fight Orange, a burly marine who swings from the rotors and charges across the wings. The main point of this level is to show off the sprite rotation effect (something the Mega Drive isn't supposed to be able to do) used to make the helicopter tilt.

Level four (The Dice Palace) presents a series of stand-alone boss battles, challenges and puzzles through the device of a board game. Players roll the dice and see their progress on the board. Each square on the path leads to a different challenge. Challenges include obstacle courses, a fight where no guns are allowed, an endurance test (see how long you can dodge the shots), and a parody of the Street Fighter 2 car-wrecking bonus game. Reaching the last square leads to the boss of the level, Black, equipped with a wall-crawling mech. In keeping with the gambling theme, he chooses which weapon to use by rolling a dice.

Having completed the first four levels and retrieved all of the gems, the players return to find that Yellow has been kidnapped. The next stage (the Highway) is a journey on foot down a long road towards a rendezvous with Colonel Red and the Emperor, where you are forced to exchange the gems for Yellow's freedom. The journey is complicated somewhat by the fact that the entire Empire army has turned up to stop you, leading to an incredibly long and explosion-filled running battle.

Now Colonel Red is out of the picture (his comeuppance being one of the better gags in the game), the Emperor's giant space battleship takes off and heads for the moon. Here the game springs another surprise, with the sixth level taking the form of a horizontally scrolling space shooter as the Gunstar Heroes give chase in their fighter spaceships. The Seven Force (now displayed much smaller on screen due to the change in scale) makes another appearance, before the players dock with the battleship. Inside the ship, the players must now disable the reactor core by defeating its defense systems (another composite sprite-based boss, this time in a cunning pseudo-3D environment generated by cycling the palette on a geometric checkerboard pattern).

In the final stage, the battleship has crash landed on the moon. The action in the first part of this stage is viewed on a giant monitor screen on the battleship's bridge, where we can see the villains watching the action. On screen, Gunstars Red and Blue can be seen traversing the outside of the battleship (under the players' control). The players battle each of the henchmen in turn (as each is defeated, we see the watching Emperor getting angry and ordering another henchman to attack). Finally, the players go through a door and emerge on the bridge itself. But is it too late? The Emperor begins the revival of the Destructor. The heroes enter the stasis chamber for the final battle, with Golden Silver himself...

As the description above hopefully illustrates, Gunstar Heroes is an unusually varied and ambitious game, managing to explore several different styles of gameplay within the confines of its genre (and on occasion switching to a different genre altogether). What this description fails to convey fully is the imaginative design of the many, many enemy creatures and mechs that the player encounters, most of which have been given personality through idiosyncratic animation and visual gags. The game maintains a frenetic pace throughout, with explosions shaking the screen and the music building up into a manic crescendo as each new threat approaches.

Everything about the game is over-the-top. This includes the humour, which is not adverse to self-deprecation with running gags about the uselessness of the cannon fodder stormtrooper enemies (After Colonel Red's army cannot stop the heroes from chasing his train, he starts to throw troopers out of the window at them in exasperation; a boss billed as the FINAL GREAT SOLDIER turns out to be a single trooper doing a silly dance, before being told off) and the sneakiness of the various bosses (even after defeat, Black throws the heroes a bomb -and turns to the camera and laughs- before giving up the real gem).

As far as the technical side of things goes, Gunstar Heroes pushes the Sega Mega Drive hardware further than any game released before that point. As with almost all of Treasure's games, it was designed to fully exploit the capabilities of the target platform. The game features sprite scaling and rotation, (very) fast scrolling, palette manipulation, composite sprites, particle effects, and pseudo-3D elements. The title screen uses a raster effect to simulate texture-mapped polygons. (More examples of Treasure's technical wizardry can be seen in Alien Soldier and Dynamite Headdy.) Even when the screen is crowded with explosions and enemies, there is no slowdown.

Although Gunstar Heroes is a brilliantly designed and technically stunning game, there are some small flaws present. Some of the artwork is a bit bland, but this is mainly down to the constraints of the relatively small cartridge size (8 megabits). The game is also quite short (although most games in this genre are, mainly due to the prominence of complicated bosses), and the ending sequence is a let down. The music is also rather annoying in places, as the tunes themselves aren't very interesting and no attempt is made to simulate real instrument sounds.

All things considered, Gunstar Heroes truly is a classic game, and one that has not aged badly. I would recommend anyone with even a passing interest in video games to experience it at least once. Needless to say, the game is supported perfectly by modern emulators such as Gens. If you want to own the original cartidge, be wary of the scammers that have sprung up around the 'cult' of Treasure. The game is not particularly rare, so you shouldn't have to pay over the odds to get hold of it.


Other Information

The game was ported to the Game Gear in 1995. As with most 'back generation' ports, this version of the game is considerably cut down, although visually it is surprisingly faithful to the original. This version of the game was also adapted to the Sega Master System by Sega's Brazilian distributor Tec Toy.

A preview version (a work in progress version sent to magazines) of Gunstar Heroes was made. It features the first five levels pretty much as they appear in the finished game, ending abruptly after Colonel Red is defeated at the end of stage five (but before the Emperor appears). This version has some minor differences from the finished product, most notably the text is not as well translated (for instance 'BOSS TIME COMING SOON' instead of 'BOSS APPROACHING').

In the preview version, the Happy Item Room in the Dice Palace has two exits- one marked 'EXIT' with a pictogram of a running man, and one marked 'HEAVEN' with a pictogram of a Hindu god. (You can't go through the Heaven door. Presumably it's some kind of joke...)

Some characters from Gunstar Heroes appear in other Treasure games. Golden Silver appears as one of many playable characters in Guardian Heroes, and the Seven Force (or something very much like it) appears as a boss in Alien Soldier.


1. It should be noted that McDonald's Treasure Land Adventure was the first game bearing the Treasure logo to be released in Japan, although it is thought that development on Gunstar Heroes began first, and the McDonald's game was developed and released in a short timeframe to tie in with a promotion that the fast food chain was running.

2. The planet is Earth, according to the game's introduction, or 'Gunstar-9' according to the lets-change-things-for-the-sake-of-it English language manual.

3. Yes, there are two characters called Red, Gunstar Red and Colonel Red. It's pretty stupid.

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