Guardian Heroes HD
For the most part sidescrolling brawlers have failed to withstand the test of time. Nostalgia can easily cloud our judgment when it comes to X-Men, The Simpsons, and even Turtles in Time, but each was a product of its time and environment; the arcade brawler was designed to eat your money. The genre cared little about actual gameplay, instead offering a series of prettier stages, with nothing else to do than dodge in the Y-axis and punch criminals in the face. Unrestrained by the arcade template, Guardian Heroes is the rare beat ‘em up that plays as well as you remember.
Originally appearing on the Saturn, Guardian Heroes was arguably the pinnacle of the genre – and could still make a viable claim for that thrown. It demonstrated Treasure’s grasp of what made the genre fun. It was easy to pick up and play, flashy, and like any good arcade game, could be beaten in under an hour. But it also illustrated their willingness to go beyond genre expectation.
The first major alteration Treasure made was in the playfield, restricting players to three separate 2D planes of movement. Like the old Fatal Fury fighting games, planes could be jumped between on the fly, allowing for a variety of character movement but eliminating some of the funniness inherent to the hit detection found in older arcade titles. The other benefit to plane restricted movement was the elimination of up and down inputs, freeing the directions for other potential uses.
One of the staples of the genre has always been character specific special moves, and Guardian Heroes was no different. What did differ were their implementation, which used traditional fighting game commands and required magic points. While it’s true that titles like Final Fight used command specials and others such as Golden Axe have utilized magic, no other brawler previous used them to the extremes that Guardian Heroes did.
Perhaps the single most evolutionary aspect was the branching narrative. As I mentioned earlier, a great beat ‘em up has to be short, breezy, but still challenging. The brawler doesn’t take breaks for exploration or random gameplay variance, and thus, it has to be something quickly digested before the tedium of combat wears in. The great thing about an excellent brawler is you’ll want to come back to it, just to run through it again, and finally, thanks to Guardian Heroes’ numerous endings, there’s a legitimate reason to do so – not to mention to play and level up all the characters.
For this new iteration, Guardian Heroes HD, Sega has had the narrative relocalized. The new translation is clear to follow and frequently funny – the former being one of the only knocks on the original domestic release. The other obvious changes are the new filters that let players HD’ify the game to varying degrees of success. As with every old sprite based game, the unfiltered graphics are quite pixelated, but it’s rarely distracting and looks much better than the faux HD options available.
The other significant revision involves the classic, totally manic, insane versus mode. Back on the Saturn, Guardian Heroes allowed up to six players to duke it out at once in teams or free-for-alls. The new XBLA incarnation doubles that, allowing twelve players to go at it online or off, making necessary use of the new widescreen presentation. How enjoyable this player increase may be will hinge on how seriously you take the mode. The versus mode has never been balanced, allowing players to select from dozens and dozens of characters as they’re encountered and beaten in the campaign, including the heroes, the bosses and everything in between. Some characters have a single attack and no magic, and some have screen filling lasers, but that never detracts from the absurd enjoyment of taking Nando or one of the villagers into a fight against Valgar and the Golden Warrior. The versus mode is a hilarious distraction, and if perchance you want to play it competitively, there are tons of handicap options to tweak character levels.
If there is any one real complaint to level at Guardian Heroes HD, it’s the fact that people will have to experience it with the 360’s long maligned d-pad. Double-tap dashing and circular sweeps of the pad are just as uncomfortable as they’ve ever been – I can’t remember lusting for my old Saturn pad as feverishly as I did during my time with HD.
If you’ve never had the fortune of playing Guardian Heroes before, HD is an essential purchase. Treasure has a spotless record and this long forgotten beat ‘em up is easily one of their crowning achievements. Guardian Heroes in many ways was the apex of the genre, borrowing from the classics that came before it, but progressive enough to update and tweak the formula to make one of the few beat ‘em ups that is actually still worth playing today.