Retro Game Curation: Gunstar Heroes!

We’re back with another Retro game highlight, per my namesake for once! This time, I’m looking at one of the best Run and Guns ever made on any system, though in this case it’s the Genesis/Megadrive.


Also part of the Megadrive & Genesis classic bundle on Steam and via Nintendo Switch Online

Yeah, Gunstar Heroes is such a big deal that it gets its own article as opposed to being part of a list of retro games. It’s that damn good.

Gunstar Heroes comes to us from Treasure, which is a dev group that very much embraces the saying of “Quality over Quantity.” Treasure does not have a large roster of games under its belt compared to some AAA devs and publishers, but what it does have in every game it makes is a ridiculous amount of quality, love, and absolute fun. And in my opinion, Gunstar Heroes is their magnum opus of the 16-Bit era, taking the Run and Gun formula and turning it up to 11 in a way Contra could never hope to match. …Contra’s still good though, I just think Gunstar Heroes is, well…Better.

Gunstar Heroes’ story is a very simple one: An evil empire is out to take over Planet Gunstar 9, and you play as one of the titular heroes out to stop this evil empire by collecting the mysterious gemstones they’re after. But let’s be honest, we’re not here for the plot. We are here to BLOW. STUFF. UP. And my goodness are we going to.

Not pictured: The explosions that you’ll be seeing. There will be many.

The start of Gunstar Heroes is a bit different from how you would usually expect a run and gun to go. Usually you just start shooting from the getgo: But Gunstar has you make some important choices first. Choice #1: Your character. You have two “types” you can play. Type 1 gives you free movement while shooting, while Type 2 locks you in place while holding down the fire button. This is a big deal because in Gunstar Heroes, you have contra-style 8 way aiming, and in some cases locking your position makes aiming and shooting much easier, but there’s also plenty of times where mobility can be far more important: So choosing which of the two types you’re going to use is a huge decision. After that, you also get to pick a starting gun, of which there’s four:

Rapid provides, well, rapid fire. While not powerful per shot, you fire a LOT of shots.

Laser is a high damage beam with a lower fire rate.

Homing lacks power, but seeks out enemies for you, reducing the need to aim

Flame lacks reach, but has absolutely devastating damage up close.

But here’s the kicker: You’ll also find weapons in levels, and while you can swap between them Contra 3 style, the real meat of the game is that weapons COMBINE. When you get two weapons, you get a unique fusion of the two as a third weapon option, depending on what two weapons they are. For example, Laser+Flame gives you what is basically a beam sword that is absolutely ridiculous up close, while Rapid+Flame gives you shots that explode on contact, causing continuous damage to anything in the blast. And then there’s my personal favorite: Rapid + Homing, where you basically get a weapon with the fire-rate of a minigun that perfectly seeks out and destroys targets with ridiculous target-tracking. It’s like the Smartgun from Aliens on steroids. Of course, if you like a particular individual weapon, doubling up on it is also an option, as fusions of the same weapon are basically just that weapon but stronger.

Another twist is that the first four levels are tackled Megaman style. You pick the order you do the levels in, and each one of them has their own thing going for them. Rather than just all being straight forward run and gun affairs, every level in Gunstar heroes does something completely different to give you a ridiculous amount of variety. The forest and airship levels are pretty straightforward run and gun affairs, yes, but the Mine and Fortress levels are something else entirely.

You really need to see the mines level in motion, a still screenshot doesn’t do it justice.

The mines stage is technically an auto-scroller, but it’s an absolutely insane one. You ride a minecart that can effectively change gravity, attaching to the floor or ceiling (Or the left/right walls in sections where that’s a thing) at any time. All the while you’re zooming through tunnels at high speed, blasting away at enemy soldiers and vehicles, until you eventually reach one of the best bosses in the game. But more on that later.

The Dice Fortress on the other hand, after a brief classic run and gun section, suddenly turns Gunstar Heroes into a super violent boardgame:

A 1d6 shall determine thy fate…

In this sequence, you have to roll a die to determine where you wind up. The various FIGHT squares are all miniboss fights, varying in difficulty. The TAKE AN ITEM spaces are a breath of fresh air that give you a chance to swap your guns and possibly recover some much needed health, while the “NO GUN” symbol leads to a fight that has to be done unarmed: Yeah, that’s a thing in this I should mention. While your guns are indeed your primary weapon, the titular Gunstar Heroes are also extremely adept at close quarters combat. Their jump kicks and tackles done with a double press of the jump button can absolutely wreck a fool, and pressing the fire button while right next enemies your size or smaller will let you grab them and then throw them as living projectiles to absolutely demolish whatever they hit. This mixture of shooting with the occasional melee attack or throw is something that definitely sets Gunstar apart from other games, because my goodness, I would never have expected my hands and feet to be just as deadly as a laser cannon. Yet here we are.  Now then, I think it’s time we talk about one of the biggest highlights of Gunstar Heroes: Its boss battles.

PICTURED: Seven Force. AKA the best boss in the game without question.

Gunstar Heroes has a *LOT* of bosses. But each and every one of them is absolutely fantastic in its own way. You’ve got some pretty standard big baddies like giant robots, a muscle-head who literally uses a spinning rotor blade to propel himself at you in a devastating tackle, and then you’ve got Seven Force. Oh my lord, Seven Force. A machine used by brainwashed Gunstar Green, the Seven Force is in fact, SEVEN BOSSES IN ONE. Though you’ll only face 3/5 of them on Easy/Normal, and have to play on Hard if you want to see all seven forms of it in a single fight. With each depletion of Seven Force’s health, it takes on a new form with completely new attacks. You’ve got the running robot version seen above, but it also has forms such as a giant gun (Complete with reload animations), a giant bird, a quadruped beast, a wall throwing nonstop obstacles at you…Yeah, it’s a lot. All the bosses have distinct designs, and even have names for their signature attacks that are shown during their intro-text. In most cases those attack names won’t necessarily tell you what to really expect, but it’s still absolutely cool to see that every boss has its own named moves it’ll be using to kill you.  And with minibosses dotting every level before the big boss fights, there are, again, a LOT of them to fight, but frankly I’d call it one of the highlights of the game. Treasure enjoys boss rushes a lot, as some of their other games like Alien Soldier and Radiant Silvergun have shown, and that’s because these guys know what goes into a good boss battle. So I absolutely get the fact they want to cram as many  boss battles in as they can. The fact they’re all so fun is just icing on the cake.

Now, is Gunstar Heroes a hard game? Yes, but it’s “hard but fair” in a way that shows that Treasure *wants* you succeed, rather than just stomp your face into the dirt repeatedly. This is particularly shown by the fact you have unlimited continues in Gunstar Heroes. If you die, you just try again. And typically get a reasonable chance to get back on your feet with at least one or two weapon pickups at any given continue checkpoint. This means that persistence can pay off, as you can just keep trying, keep learning, until you overcome a hard spot, instead of running out lives/continues and having to start over like a lot of games in this genre would do.  And there’s absolutely no shame in starting on Easy to learn the game, and work your way up to Normal/Hard as you get more confident at it. Gunstar Heroes was designed to be a challenge, but a challenge that makes sure you have a fair chance to learn it and overcome it. In a game that was of an era infamous for limited chances to try again, Gunstar Heroes’ unlimited continues is definitely a breath of fresh air.

We also need to talk about how hard this pushes the Genesis/Megadrive. Treasure is known for pushing systems to their limits, and this is a prime example. Rather than just simple sprites, many bosses are made of multiple parts, allowing for much more fluid looking animation than basic sprite animation would allow. Seven Force is a prime example with limbs made of multiple sprites that all move and rotate to give a fluid look you couldn’t do with simple frame by frame animation. And *lots* of bosses use tricks like this to make them far more fluid and animated than they could be otherwise. And somehow the gameplay remains mostly smooth throughout when it’s doing things like this, or making big explosions, or just having a lot of onscreen chaos with enemies, bullets, and your own gunfire and explosions on top of it all. That said, people with epilepsy will unfortunately need to avoid this one due to all the onscreen stuff.

There’s really not much else I think I need to say at this point. Gunstar Heroes is honestly a masterpiece, and probably one of the best games of its era. It pushed the Genesis/Megadrive to its limits, and the result is one of the best games on the system, and one of the best run and gun titles ever. It’s absolutely a game that any retro enthusiast or retro-curious game needs to check out, and I say that with no hesitation on my part.

In conclusion: Have the second best boss of the game (Seven Force is still best).

Also much better in motion, a screenshot doesn’t do this moment justice. But I had to include it.

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