The Sega Saturn is a strange system. There wasn’t exactly a lot of love shown for the console when it first launched but it achieved an almost cult-like following after it officially died in the retail market. The Japanese market in particular was more accepting of it during its retail lifespan and has given it the most support and success during its afterlife. There are a handful of titles from the system’s releases that still, to this day, garner a ton of praise and support from gamers worldwide. Among those are the Panzer Dragoon games and of course, Guardian Heroes (GH). Treasure and Sega have teamed up to bring the latter back for a whole new generation of gamers. It has been 15 years since the original launched and one has to wonder, can the game still hold up after all of these years?
While the story of Guardian Heroes falls in line with plenty of other Japanese RPG games, it is its presentation and gameplay style that set it apart. You play as one of four warriors, Han, Randy, Nicole, or Ginjirou, who find a mystic sword during their adventures. Soon they discover that the sword is more than it seems and something that the royal family desires and will stop at nothing to get a hold of. The foursome are soon joined the former owner of the sword, who joins them in their journey. There are a ton of characters as well as a bevy of twists and turns that are introduced along the way. Does it sound familiar? Well it should, but don’t let that turn you off from the game as it is the manner in which this story is presented that truly sets Guardian Heroes apart from other games.
It will be up to you to choose how it all unfolds though as the game presents the player with numerous branching paths and choices along the way which helps to create a different experience each time you play. The choices that you make aren’t anything drastic when compared to current-generation games that offer you similar choices, but at the time of the original release it was a rather groundbreaking concept. Your decisions will basically determine the order of progression of the stages that you experience. Each one varies in locale and the enemies presented during your battle(s) and will lead to a different ending.
Gameplay wise, Guardian Heroes is an action RPG with fighting-game elements presented as a choose-your-own-adventure story wrapped up in a classic, sidescrolling beat’em up shell. Does that make sense? Let me explain. There are a variety of RPG-style elements present in the game but the most notable is an experience and leveling system. As you defeat enemies throughout your adventure, your selected character will earn experience points that raise their individual levels. Earning a level awards you with an individual attribute point which can be distributed into one of 6 categories: strength, vitality, intelligence, mentality, agility, and luck. Each of the playable characters will be affected differently by the various categories as some become more effective by increasing their strength versus increasing the magical and agility aspects.
These slight elements of depth are hidden behind a presentation that resembles a classic beat’em up. Things are a little bit different than you might be used to compared to other games such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Streets of Rage. First off, there are 3 separate planes on the battlefield that you will need to switch between on the fly. Enemies and objects will be scattered across the back-, middle-, and foreground. Additionally, each playable character also has a variety of special maneuvers, not just the typical punch and kick options included in most beat’em up games. They each have a full repertoire of special attacks which can be triggered using a variety of input strings such as fireball and double-tap maneuvers on the joystick(s) / control pad(s). This is where the characters really show their differences between one another as you will find that some like Han are more apt to brawling and hand-to-hand combat while others such as Nicole use a variety of magical spells and abilities.
The XBLA version of the game features a wide variety of additional features not included in the original release. For starters, the graphics have been completely redone to offer a full HD experience. I really like the art style that has been used to update the game as it looks almost hand-drawn and has sort of a “sketched” look to it. Purists can choose to utilize the original graphics which are highly pixelated and just lack the style and smoothness of the modern look. The control scheme is slightly modified in the updated version of the game as well, although it really just rearranges the button layout to a more convenient setup compared to the Saturn original. Just as with the graphics, the control options can be set to the original style in the game’s options.
All of the original multiplayer modes are still present but have been improved as well. Not only are they all available online but the competitive arena has been expanded from 6 players up to 12. This mode in particular lets you choose from a wide variety of characters, including the various enemies and bosses, to face off against one another in a Smash Bros. style versus mode. It is a lot of fun and a bit frantic but it really doesn’t offer the prolonged gameplay experience that I recall it offering in the original.
Guardian Heroes is a great game that holds up surprisingly well considering that it was originally created 15 years ago. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t without its issues. First off, the gameplay screen can get overly frantic at times. The screen can fill up with enemies very quickly and when they all surround you it can become very difficult to find enough breathing room to recover. This can often lead to your character being killed, costing you a continue. Some gamers may also take issue with the aged storyline presented in the game. This isn’t an epic masterpiece and you need to remember that going into the game; if you can realize that this was something that was written more than a decade ago and be willing to forgive it for that, you can find a lot of enjoyment here.
I also find that the control scheme doesn’t feel as good using the 360 controller compared to the original Saturn layout. Once again, as with many remakes on the XBLA, the experience is slightly marred by the controller’s horrible directional pad. You can use the analog stick to play as well, but that honestly does work any better considering the various inputs required for the special moves. This really isn’t a fault of the game or the developers though; I got a ton more enjoyment out of the game when I plugged in one of my arcade sticks, although none of the preconfigured button layouts were really intended for this.
Taking all of this into consideration, I still consider Guardian Heroes one of the better games available on the Xbox Live Arcade. The game is a ton of fun and all of the various mechanics that made the title stand out back in the 1990’s still make it a noticeable offering on the market. Fans of the original will undoubtedly enjoy playing through a modernized version of the game and new players can easily get lost in the interesting mix that makes up the Guardian Heroes package. The game more than does its main purpose which is to re- introduce the series to the gaming public and set the stage for a possible sequel and continuation of the franchise. Especially when you consider the going rate for a copy of the Sega Saturn version of the game, $9.99 is an absolute steal and you will get plenty more than that in terms of the amount of enjoyment that the game will bring you.