Guardian Heroes has been heralded as one of the finest beat-em ups ever since its release 15 years ago on the Saturn. Unfortunately, its scarcity has resulted in it not being played by a lot of people who wanted to play it, like myself. Until now, we’ve had to make due with the greatly stripped-down GBA entry, and just hold out hope that the beloved original would see the light of day again. With 15 years of buildup, it would be easy for Guardian Heroes to fall to its own legend. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened - both the original and especially remade versions of the game are a blast.
Like a lot of Treasure games, it takes a core concept - in this case, a standard beat-em up - and refines and improves the concept to near-perfection. Like any game in the genre, you fight a bunch of baddies leading to a boss. What sets GH apart from the rest are the great many things it does that others don’t. It’s very plot-heavy (and you can skip the text if you’d like, although I’d recommend playing through at least once without skipping), has numerous branching paths, including some with a half-dozen options, seven endings, and includes a survival mode with a ton of selectable characters for it. You can also improve your stats, increase your character’s level, and use HP and MP as part of your strategy like you would an RPG.
The core gameplay is also more robust than “move right and hit one button” as you have fighting game-style D-pad+button combinations to input for each character’s special moves. Each one plays quite a bit differently, but you’ll never feel underpowered even as a magic-heavy character since you’ve always got an AI-controller partner with an enormous sword. GH also allows you to fight on three different 2D planes and switch between them at will. Fatal Fury did this for 2D fighting games, but this was the first beat-em up to do and it works really well at filling the screen with enemies without forcing you to take a ton of damage. You can only take damage from enemies on the same plane as you, and of course, you can only damage those on your plane as well. Going from plane to plane is easy, but it’s also pretty easy to not be able to tell which one you or your opponents are in since the two zoomed out ones, while still clearly defined, do also kind of blend into one another - especially when you’ve got translucent objects in the foreground. It’s not a huge problem though because you figure out pretty quickly that you need to go to another plane, but it is an issue.
The inclusion of online play in both party form with friends or with a more coin-op style where you can go into someone else’s game is fantastic and really extends the life of the game, which is already pretty replayable due to not only the multiple endings and story paths, but also due to the game itself being a lot of fun to play. There’s also an absurd level of replay ability in the survival mode just because it never gets old to try one more time to last just one more second against a swarm of enemies. When you’ve gone from lasting ten seconds against a swarm of goblins, knights, and plants to 30, you never can stop. The Smash Bros.-esque versus mode is also pretty insane, as it’s you versus up to 11 other opponents on-screen at once trying to fight and determine who the best is. This one takes quite a bit of getting used to because there’s simply so much going on at once, but is a blast once you get acclimated to it.
Anyone afraid of the difficulty because it‘s a Treasure game will be happy to know that there‘s an easy mode that makes things a breeze, and gives you 99 lives to lose. Honestly, if you have any experience with beat-em ups, it shouldn‘t take you more than a dozen to get through the whole game, and if you seek a greater challenge, try out the survival mode or just pump up the difficulty. If you want to play online, you’ll really need to be at least somewhat decent or else you will not be well-liked amongst your party.
The gameplay takes a bit of time to get used to since you have far more options available to you than in other beat-em ups, and it‘s easy to get confused when things go beyond having one button to jump, another to hit, and then using the d-pad to move. Thankfully, after a half hour or so, you should be used to things, even with the slight control changes made between the original Saturn version and the XBLA remixed one, which shuffles the layout around slightly. Since this is a Saturn port, I‘d definitely recommend using a Saturn-style SF IV pad for it. I‘m sure Saturn players will go with that option if they have it, but I found the game was easier to control using it since the D-pad on the SF IV pad is a lot better than the default 360 one, and the larger face buttons make it easier to control as well. No matter which controller you prefer, the controls are very responsive and you’ll pretty much always be able to do exactly what you want when you want to do it.
Visually, the original game suffers from a ton of pixilation, but still has some really smooth animation and nice-looking portrait art. I’ve gotta say though that the step up in animation compared to what the genre was used to back then is pretty big. Keep in mind that the standard was one to two frames of key animation per move, and here, you’ve got silky-smooth animation that moves in a realistic manner. Just watching the characters run is pretty impressive since they all move differently and have different body language.
Those turned off by the pixilated look of the original will want to try the remixed version of the game. It includes completely redrawn graphics that stay true to the original style while also giving them a clean look that players of HD remixes of 2D games have come to expect. All of the characters look super-crisp, with sharp black outlines and rich colors inside of them. The only real issue I have with the remade version is that the backgrounds don’t look as good, and can get kind of muddy-looking at points. Otherwise, the graphics are incredible. The game’s soundtrack is full of stirring arrangements that get your blood pumping, along with some slower tunes that fit the few moments of downtime throughout the adventure.
I was pleasantly surprised at just how good Guardian Heroes wound up being. The original game’s gameplay has held up really well even if its graphics haven’t, and the remixed version is outstanding. The additional modes are a nice bonus, but a bit too hectic for many to play for extended periods, even if they are a must for those craving a challenge. If you like classic beat-em ups like Final Fight and Streets of Rage, but wished there were more options for those with some real meat to them that isn‘t lying in the middle of a street, this is the game for you, and at only $10, it’s a great value. It’s even more of one when you consider that the Saturn game regularly commanded $50 on eBay until this was announced.