Review: Gunstar Heroes (Sega Vintage Collection)

Treasure is home to a library of some of the most beloved titles in gaming. When Gunstar Heroes was granted a release on the Xbox Live Arcade via the Sega Vintage Collection label, I shrieked in fangirlish glee. While it should have been released on the Sonic Genesis Collection compilation disc, it wasn’t, and I was severely disappointed. What to do save from playing the original or some shoddy applet online? Straight to the Xbox Live Marketplace I went to download this classic ASAP. All I have to say is one word: co-op.


If you’ve never had the pleasure of playing through Gunstar Heroes, it is, at a glance, your typical run-and-gun shooter, originally released for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. If you’ve ever played Contra or Metal Slug, then you should feel right at home. Gunstar Heroes has a decidedly more cartoony look than its competitors in the sideways-scrolling shooter, and that’s part of its charm. You can enjoy the game solo or with a friend across seven different levels packed with terrifying mechs, boss fights, and hundreds of nameless henchmen that you will likely wipe the floor with. The game is simple – just run and shoot! Couldn’t be any easier than that, right? Well, it gets much easier: unlike Contra or Metal Slug, you’re not forced to carry on with one singular life. That part makes Gunstar Heroes decidedly easier for you gun-shy rebels who can’t seem to stay alive longer than five seconds amidst all the gunfire.

Booting up the game grants you the choice between the first four levels to choose from, as well as your weapon of choice out of Force, Chaser, Lightning, and Flame. It’s here that you can also choose a control option such as “free shot” which allows aimless gunning while running around like a chicken with its head cut off, and “fixed shot” only allows you to shoot while you’re standing still – however, you can then fire in all directions. It’s really up to you in the end to choose a method that’s good for your playstyle, as both have distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspect of Gunstar Heroes is the fact that you can combine weapons – begin a level with one that you’ve chosen, and throughout the levels you’ll find random pickups that can combine with your original weapon to create a destructive hybrid. For instance, take a Chaser and Lightning to obtain a special homing laser, or take Flame and Force to forge some rather explosive bullets. Because there are various combinations to discover, you’ll find this aspect to be half the fun as you mow down through the baddies. Of course, aside from weapons you can utilize some powerful melee attacks such as throws and kicks. With that kind of arsenal, they’ll think twice about crossing you! Er, well, maybe.

gunstar2While the controls, weapon combinations, and run-and-gun action are rather sweet, the level design is fantastic as well. True, you’ll only be walking left or right most of the time, but there are some sections within the game that simply can’t be missed. There are some specifically standout sections with mine carts and some particularly creative boss fights that you’ll have to play through and enjoy. Case in point: the Dice Palace. If you’ve ever played through Gunstar Heroes  before, you should know why this stands out. For the uninitated: you’ll need Lady Luck on your side to determine which stage of the area you’ll be playing through. It’s the unique areas like this that really stand out. The overall quirkiness of the enviroments, as well as your characters, makes Gunstar Heroes one of the most fantastic side-scrolling shooters available – they just don’t make them like this anymore, unfortunately.

The controls are just as you remember, and you can enjoy co-op online with a friend via Xbox Live. This is great and all, except there’s one caveat: when one player dies, they stay dead until the other player dies. This wouldn’t be such a big deal, but in the original version you could come back to life simply at the cost of the second player’s health. Simple, right? Perhaps this mechanic was taken out to simplify this release in an appeal to a wider Xbox Live audience? Very strange.

As far as graphics go, not much has changed. Still familar bright color palette, only with the option to “smooth” out the graphics in an attempt to make them look better on an HD screen. Of course, you don’t need to change much graphics-wise when the actual game is so compelling. Accompanied by some catchy, lilting music, Gunstar Heroes is an overall very acceptable retro package. Priced at only 400 Microsoft points, it’s very affordable, as well as one of the most enjoyable retro Sega games currently available a la carte – that is, until there is another collection a la Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection. Unless you’ve already purchased this game in one of its other forms, you really can’t go wrong here. Check it out if you have some spare points handy.

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