A revised version of this article, with pictures, can be found here.
: Gunstar Super Heroes (European title: Gunstar Future Heroes
: October 6, 2005
: Game Boy Advance
: E / 7+
Gunstar Super Heroes is a pseudo-sequel to Treasure's breakthrough hit Gunstar Heroes (Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, 1993). As the title suggests, the game is a retelling and technological upgrade of the first game (in a similar fashion to Super Metroid, Super Street Fighter II, etc.), sitting somewhere between a remake and a true sequel.
The game is a scrolling platform shooter (with a dash of melee combat) in the vein of a less clunky and more acrobatic Contra. Many elements of the game will be familiar to fans of the original, although there is no direct re-use of content. The game was originally intended to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the original (although obviously it arrived rather too late for that - regardless of what Sega of America's poorly-researched press releases might tell you) and was highly anticipated by Treasure and Sega fans and critics alike, picking up several 'best of show' awards at E3 2005.
Gunstar Super Heroes takes up the story several years after the events of the first game. Following the defeat of Golden Silver (a.k.a. the Destructor) by the original Gunstar duo, the Moon (the staging ground of the climactic battle) was destroyed and reformed as four smaller moons, each housing one of the Treasure Gems that powered Golden Silver. Time passes, the people of Earth colonise the new moons and everything is generally peachy. Then one day, a fifth moon appears - a man-made satellite which serves as the headquarters of the Empire (the bad guys from the first game). The Empire, under the leadership of one General Grey, once again seek to reunite the Treasure Gems and re-awaken the Destructor. So it's up to a team of secret operatives from the '3YE' organization, styled after the original Gunstar Heroes, to put a stop to the Empire's plans. This rather convoluted plot is basically an excuse to bring back virtually all of the major characters from the first game.
The game consists of seven main levels, each containing several distinct stages. The game can be played through as either Gunstar Red or Gunstar Blue (although the differences between the two characters are minimal - effectively only the graphics of their primary weapon, and some of the cutscene dialogue) at three difficulty levels.
The first level (Earth) is a short tutorial-like level which introduces the player to the standard enemy types (different types of empire troops and small flying robots) that are seen throughout the game. The level culminates in a battle against a huge flying robot who is trying to kidnap Yellow, the Gunstars' C.O. and pilot. This battle is the first graphical showcase of the game, featuring slick scaling and rotation effects on the boss itself as well as impressive explosion, smoke and flame effects.
Once this level is completed, the player may attempt the next four levels (or moons) in whichever order they chose. Each of these levels is loosely based on one of the first four levels from the original game, with the addition of several new stages, several of which are homages to other classic Sega games.
The first moon is the longest level in the game with five stages. The first of these is a 3D, into-the-screen (or rather, out-of-the-screen) flight on the back of the Gunstar's jet aircraft, which seems to be intended as a tip of the hat to After Burner. Later in the level, there is an ingenious stage based on Flicky: our hero is trapped in a cave where they must rescue a number of chicks and lead them to the exit hatch, while avoiding being attacked by caterpillar-like creatures. This is made more difficult (and visually impressive) by the fact that the entire cave rotates as the player moves left and right (affecting gravity accordingly). The stage ends with a boss battle against another giant robot, this time one being piloted by Pink and her lackeys Kain and Kotaro, which is stupidly easy to beat - but in true supervillain fashion, this isn't the last you've seen of them.
Moon number two is shorter and less extravagant than the first, consisting of only two stages. The first stage is a vertically-scrolling shoot-'em-up where the player must pilot a helicopter (which can be rotated clockwise and widdershins using the shoulder buttons) and destroy ground and air targets. (This level is based on Thunder Blade.) Trying to plough through this stage with guns blazing routinely ends in disaster, instead the player is forced to pick their way through the level, dodging back and forth to get a clear shot at the smaller and more awkward targets. In the second stage, our intrepid Gunstar boards an airship/flying fortress and squares off against Orange, a muscle-bound soldier, on the wings of a stealth bomber.
Onward to moon three, which is perhaps the level that most closely follows the structure of its inspiration, the celebrated mine-cart stage from Gunstar Heroes. For those who haven't had the pleasure, this level consists of hurtling down a mineshaft at high speed on a small 'hovering robot thing', blasting troops on wheels and trains filled with more troops. The boss of the level is the Seven Force, a robot that can transform into seven forms. This battle is pretty much identical to the original (see the Seven Force writeup) with the exception of the graphical enhancements afforded by the use of true sprite scaling and rotation.
Moon number four sees the return of the Dice Palace stage from the original game. This level is essentially a Snakes and Ladders-style board game where the player must roll a dice to get around the board, with each square they land on representing a different mini-stage where they must complete a challenge or fight a miniboss. Unfortunately the structure of the level has been changed for the worse. The dice is represented by a moving cursor instead of being truly random. Likewise, the stages represented by each of the squares is not random, and the proliferation of backward steps result in the player having to visit nearly all of the squares every time they play through the level. Some of the new challenges are excellent (such as the giant mangy teddy bear) but some are uninspired and annoying (for instance the boring platform assault courses that have replaced the item rooms).
On completion of the first four moons, the fifth, Death Star-like moon becomes available. This level begins with a reprise of the 'long road' section from Gunstar Heroes (although the various vehicles and robots that the troops attacked you with in the original are sadly absent). This is followed by a horizontally-scrolling spaceship shoot-'em-up section which introduces the novelty of allowing the level to be rotated using the shoulder buttons, but feels a little awkward as it doesn't allow the player as much freedom of movement as might be expected. The level is finished off with another After Burner sequence, this time heading towards (and into) the Empire's final base.
The final level ('G-Arc') consists of a series of boss battles against all the characters you met during the course of the game (Pink, Orange, Black and Green), this time equipped with new death-dealing vehicles and attacks. As with the original game, this stage is presented as being viewed on a monitor screen being watched by the other evil characters. On completion of this marathon stage, our heroes must then fight the God of Ruin himself, Golden Silver.
Gunstar Super Heroes is an interesting and not entirely unsuccessful attempt by Treasure to revisit one of their best-loved games and update it for a modern audience. While the original game was widely criticised for being too easy, Gunstar Super Heroes requires dexterity and planning on the part of the player to get very far (at least, on the Normal and Hard difficulty levels).
The most disappointing thing about the game (apart from the lack of a two-player mode) is that it now feels very compartmentalised. Instead of the flowing, uninterrupted experience of the original, the game is now broken up into very short stages with no thematic connection between them. Whereas the original game wrung every drop of gameplay from each of its scenarios, Gunstar Super Heroes prefers to burn through piles of unique graphics, enemies and levels without putting them to good use. There are several scenes in the game that feature huge, animated backgrounds which are simply run past in a couple of seconds to get from one area to another, and serve no other purpose. Similarly, the dialogue sequences (complete with screen-filling portraits, a la Astro Boy, and surprisingly well-executed voice acting) that bookend each stage, while not unwelcome, seem like a rather incongruous excess.
Lastly, if we take off the rose-tinted glasses for a second, we might also ask whether the technical improvements on display are really all that impressive, considering the twelve year gap between the two games. Gunstar Super Heroes is a very pretty game, but at no point does it ask anything of the Game Boy Advance that conventional wisdom says shouldn't be possible.
Even with these criticisms, Gunstar Super Heroes is still a well-made game and probably the best example of its genre on the Game Boy Advance. The controls are responsive, the game feels fair (with the possible exception of the rather random attack patterns of the final boss) and besting particularly challenging stages is very satisfying. It would have been nice if Treasure had concentrated their efforts on blowing our minds instead of lightly tickling our nostalgia glands, though.