Guardian Heroes, just about the last Treasure game without a retro remake, is finally on Xbox Live Arcade. With its release I figure we’re pretty much done with companies selling our nostalgia back to us. Shut off the Virtual Console (it was limping along anyway), close down the PSN. Aside from a conspicuously absent port of Chu-Chu Rocket, we’ve got everything we need.
In a time before anyone put the words “RPG” and “Elements” together, this game was doing it. Nominally, it’s a brawler, but it’s also sort of an adventure, and it’s sprinkled with character progression morsels. Guardian Heroes has it all. A selection of characters made of anime/D&D hybrids fight their way through castles and swamps and the lairs of underground demons using brute force and mystical techniques. We have a fighter and a wizard and a cleric. Ginjiro, the purple-haired ninja, doesn’t really fit a classic D&D mold, but it’s okay. His down-down-attack move launches him into an explosive frenzy that electrocutes all nearby enemies (and often his friends too), so we let him slide.
Down-down-attack? Indeed: in addition to the leveling up and the multiple secret paths, Guardian Heroes features a fighting game-style combo system where quarter circle motions send your character rampaging across half the screen, scooping enemies up with a blazing sword. And for those who never really grokked a Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, button mashing will produce enough in the way of cool results to keep you satisfied. Repeated forward taps while playing Ginjiro cause a lightning-quick teleport or a Ninja Gaiden-style guillotine throw. Even Nicole, the cleric whose character traits are summed up as ‘girl’ and ‘clumsy’, requires only two button presses to unleash a devastating pillar of light. This deadly and explosive maneuver almost makes up for her embarrassing dashing technique where she trips herself and hurtles into the ground face-first in a spastic fashion that inexplicably damages oncoming enemies.
And for once, the clumsy girl is kind of endearing instead of feeling like half-assed sexism. It helps that her repulsion and healing magics are some of the best spells in the game. It also helps that the standard of animation in Guardian Heroes is better than just about every other sprite-based game ever. That’s why we’re not bothered when Nicole falls flat on her face, because it’s one in two dozen excruciatingly detailed sequences for her character alone, many of which have her careening through the air, expending more frames of animation on firing magical sparkles out of her hands than the animators of Dragon Ball Z used on an entire episode. These days, in high definition, the characters are a little blocky around the edges, but it’s a reasonable price for seeing the pinnacle of Treasure’s craft. And this is not treatment reserved solely for the main characters. Each enemy defeated in the main game can be placed into a battle arena, where even the lowly civilians have slavishly animated walk cycles.
Balance in the multiplayer arena is nonexistent, proving that the game’s fighter-style combination moves are mostly for show and not serious competition. However, all is not lost: characters like Nando, a six inch tall rabbit, make for excellent griefing and sometimes it’s nice to sit back and see if five max level computer-controlled villagers can take out a flying, laser-shooting robot.
(They usually can’t.)
Guardian Heroes doesn’t jibe with what today’s game design holds as sacred. It’s unconcerned with mass market appeal, DLC character skins, or a 6-8 hour campaign. It’s a game that’s simply fun to play. It has secret paths hiding a magical sword, it has an unlockable girl character who, shockingly, is not prone to pratfalls, it has a giant golden skeleton sidekick who can explode in a blast of nuclear destruction at just about any moment. Everyone loved this game and nobody actually owned it. Now you have a second chance and you don’t even have to leave the house.
For many, this game was the major reason to keep a Sega Saturn around. Well, sleep tight, noble console. It’s been fifteen long years, but Guardian Heroes finally has a home again.
System: Xbox 360 (XBLA)