Metal Shark Player

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Gunstar Heroes

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Sega Genesis, 1993

Gunstar Heroes is an oft overlooked gem for the Sega Genesis, a console with many such games. Its informed design eases you into its complex and clever mechanics and it provides an uncommonly exhilarating experience in its more challenging moments.

It is a side-scrolling shoot ’em-up that, with the exception of one level, places you in control of a man with a gun. You are the member of some kind of team/family of space rangers on a mission to retrieve some powerful gems from minions and mercenaries working for an evil military leader of some sort… or something like that. The story doesn’t matter much and the cut-scenes are short and illustrative. The villains  make dramatic entrances, grand gestures, and are animated very expressively, exaggerated to the point of humor and satire. This is almost certainly an influence on the later Metal Slug series that adopted a very similar dramatic style. The lively characters add charm and entertain the player during breaks from the intense action.

One of the first and most important decisions you must make when you begin the game is between two subtly, yet drastically, different control schemes- “Free Shot” and “Fixed Shot”. Both allow you to aim in all eight directions, but one allows you to move while firing, moving you in the same direction of your fire, while the other forces you to stop whenever you fire, allowing you to shoot in any direction while stationary. This choice has a huge impact on the game and cannot be reversed later.  There are jump and attack buttons as well as a button that allows you to activate or deactivate either of the two weapon elements you are currently carrying.

To complete each level you must use lasers, flame throwers, plasma, and little green triangles to mow down enemy hoards and defeat bosses, all while avoiding enemy fire. The gun system works in a format you may have seen before in other titles like Jewel Master (another Genesis sleeper): the four “elements” can be combined in pairs to create new weapons, making for 10 unique types of fire in addition to the four base elements. I am a big fan of this system because it adds an element of discovery and experimentation to a game otherwise focused on quick reactions and precise execution. Most weapons function in very different ways. For instance, the flame thrower emits a constant and powerful flame a short distance in any direction. Combine the flame with the homing green triangles, though, and you will shoot a fire wave that you can control with the d-pad and stays on screen as long as you hold down the fire button.

These weapons are what I will call “significantly different”. They are suited to very different situations and require the player to adopt different play-styles. In Metal Slug, the machine gun shoots a fully automatic stream of  bullets while the rocket launcher shoots slower but more damaging missiles one at a time. Their range and usage is identical, the only difference is that the machine gun’s damage is done at a constant rate while the rocket launcher’s accumulates in bursts. The difference between these weapons is not significant- they don’t change how you play the game. As a result, the weapon variety in Metal Slug isn’t really as varied as it might appear. This is not true of Gunstar Heroes.

As you try different combinations you will find that you like some better than others, but all of them have their uses. In fact, the levels are often designed to facilitate the use of certain weapons while making others significantly less useful. This forces you to learn how to use different weapons as you encounter different types of enemies and stage layouts. This, in turn, distributes the learning curve across the game better- even once you have mastered your favorite gun, the levels and bosses force you to learn and adopt different strategies to succeed.

While gunplay is the obvious focus of the game, you also possess a basic set of melee attack capabilities. Pressing the attack+forward or back when close to an enemy will allow you throw the enemy across the screen and leaves you invulnerable for the length of the animation. Down+jump performs a slide that has a long active period and hits enemies multiple times. Your jumping attacks vary depending on whether you chose free-fire or fixed-fire modes. In free-fire mode, pressing jump while you are already in the air performs a belly flop attack that does not alter your trajectory and that remains active until you land. In fixed-fire mode, jumping and pressing jump again while you are still rising performs a jump kick that simply adds a hitbox onto your normal jumping sprite. It has decently long duration but will not remain active for the entire jump. If you jump and press jump again while falling, you will perform a dive kick that alters your trajectory and can damage enemies. All of these melee attacks are extremely useful. Throws do a lot of damage (often killing lower level enemies), make you invulnerable, and will send enemies that survive to the other side of the screen, getting them away from you and into range of your gun. The jumping attacks and slide are vital to movement in harder stages and difficulty levels, especially in fixed-fire mode. They provide some of the only ways to continue moving forward while clearing out enemies. All of the attacks do reasonably good damage, but they are absolutely not a substitute for guns. Their range is simply too limited and they cannot kill enemies nearly as fast.

These melee/movement options are one of the defining features of Gunstar Heroes. At its core, the game is about balancing 3 objectives: move forward, kill bosses, do not get hit. To move forward you must kill the enemies in front of you, to kill the enemies in front of you you must fire your gun, and when you are firing your gun you cannot move. Additionally, you have to move to avoid enemy fire. The game could function with just walking and firing, making the player master the art of choosing when to move and when to fire, where to stop and where to go. The melee attacks/movements add another option to this same scenario. They are the compromise between shooting your gun and walking forward, allowing you to “push” your way forward. Giving the player these strong movement options allows the game to crank up the number of enemies and bullets on screen without becoming impossible, but it also adds an element of magic to the game that blows it wide open.

Every problem, every layout of bullets and bodies has multiple solutions (they are mostly randomly generated as well). Gunstar Heroes is not about finding the “right” answer to problems, it’s about finding any answer and executing it quickly enough to avoid damage, kill things, and move forward. It’s a fast-paced, bullet-laced dance of death and explosions. It is constant improvisation and adaptation. Eventually your skills become twitchy and unconscious; to succeed at the highest level, they have to. Stage 5 is the pinnacle of this phenomenon and, as a result, the game. The level throws so much shit at you that moving forward becomes a privilege that you must earn by shooting, jumping, throwing, and kicking until you are a hurricane, steadily moving forward as you obliterate everything in your path. Your skills are forced to rise to meet the challenge you face and they both transcend what you thought was possible. This is what great games do. This is Gunstar Heroes.

UPDATE (6-18-12):

I have finally gotten around to playing the game in Free Shot mode– it is a much worse game. The combination of being able to fire while moving forward and the incredible power of the jumping belly flop attack exclusive to this control mode makes the game too easy. The belly flop is far more useful than the Fixed Shot mode’s jumping attacks, so useful that simply spamming it becomes a viable tactic.

Even more overpowered in this mode, however, is the lightning+homing triangles combination shot. Once you acquire this weapon combo, there is no reason to ever trade it for another. This weapon functions by very quickly targeting one enemy and zapping him with unavoidable lightning. You can simply hold the button down and it will continue to damage the enemy.  In Fixed Shot mode, since you cannot move forward while firing, this weapon is not always the best option as it can only hit one enemy at a time, leaves you vulnerable, and you cannot progress through the level unless you stop firing altogether. In Free Shot mode, however, running through the level while holding this button down is not only possible, it is one of the best tactics by far. Combining it with the belly flop will get you through even the most frenzied of areas– Stage 5, the highlight of the game in Fixed Shot mode, is rendered pointless and tedious by the belly flop/homing lighting combo.

Once you acquire that weapon combo, the game is effectively over. You win. Until then, the game is about as good as Fixed Shot mode. Most weapons are challenging to manage in Free Shot mode; where you want to shoot and where you want to move are not always the same, and negotiating those two goals within the control scheme is the heart of this mode– until you get the homing lightning gun, that is.

Written by metalsharkplayer

January 5, 2012 at 2:07 am