Let’s get one thing out of the way: Guardian Heroes is the greatest brawler ever made.
River City Ransom? More like River City Garbage. Final Fight? More like Final Snore! Castle Crashers? More like shittier version of Guardian Heroes. Guardian Heroes blows them all away, then travels to hell and kills them again because fuck other beat’em ups, that’s why.
What makes Guardian Heroes so great? First things first, it’s made by Treasure. You might have heard of them since they developed some of the best games of all time. Gunstar Heroes, Radiant Silvergun, Ikaruga, Bangai-O… Treasure has never made a bad game.*
But while Treasure’s storied success carries some weight, Guardian Heroes has a lot going for it, and a lot of reasons why you should be hyped to catch it at rerelease… even if it means buying an Xbox 360 to do so.
Let’s just start with the best thing about Guardian Heroes: it solved the most fundamental beat’em up problem, which is really two problems. Anyone who’s played Streets of Rage or The Simpsons Arcade knows that first of all, it’s nearly impossible to tell if you’re lined up with an enemy. You’ll juke up and down for what seems like an eternity, unleash your super move, then it whiffs because you were two pixels higher than him. Even if you manage to smack the baddie, you
‘re quickly faced with the realization that your attacks are boring and have no depth. Hell, you’ll be lucky to have three buttons in most brawlers.
Guardian Heroes solved this problem in a simple, well executed way. While the ground remained scaled, there are only three axes on which the player could stand, meaning it’s always obvious when you can and can’t hit things with your fists. Players switch planes using the Saturn’s trigger buttons, though you can’t hop between depths while you’re being wailed on for obvious reasons. The big advantage to this system, other than to one’s depth perception, is that it frees up the d-pad to allow fighting-game style button inputs! Each fighter has a wide arsenal of moves that mix up punches, kicks, magic, launchers, slams, throws, and more. It’s fucking beautiful.
Sure, Castle Crashers has a branching story, if you consider having one or two choices in the game sprinkled around any amount of choice. Guardian Heroes has dozens of levels and nearly as many endings. Take a detour through the swamp early in the game? You might not meet and defeat a certain boss, meaning he’ll be more powerful later on. Decide to kill the king instead of saving him? Now you have to fight and destroy God himself. You could play through Guardian Heroes a hundred times and not see everything in the game due to the ridiculous number of permutations in the game’s many paths. At least, you could before GameFAQs existed.
That said, Guardian Heroes feels epic while you’re playing it. It’s not like Final Fight where you’re beating up thugs because they’re thugs. You’re beating up robots because you decided stopping a madman’s quest to build a cyborg army is more important than expelling Satan from Earth. But will such a choice force you to face Satan himself later? And if you do fight the dark lord and he wins, will you be forced to confront the Demon Pope? WHO THE FUCK KNOWS? YOU’LL HAVE TO PLAY TO FIND OUT! This is why Guardian Heroes owns.
Animation and characters
By today’s standards, Guardian Heroes looks like a pixelated mess. But when it was released, it was an unequaled masterpiece. Characters had innumerable attacks with glorious, sweeping gestures for each one. Every elemental force was accompanied by particle effects, sparks, and wince-inducing hits. Each person, animal, and robot was designed lovingly with over-the-top clichés, memorable lines, and a good mix of in-game action and dialog box progression. The game was gorgeous, polished, and extensive.
In Story Mode, you could play as one/two of the four main cast: a taciturn ninja with nothing to lose, a scrappy sorcerer with a fiery pet rabbit, a sword-wielding mercenary with a heart of gold, and some stupid bitch that casts smiley faces.** If you beat the main story (any ending), you could play as a female elemental knight, so there was no real reason to play as the healer/smiley girl again afterwards.†
But the real reward wasn’t the four main characters, though they are awesome. No, Treasure upped the ante: Any enemy you beat in single player mode is unlocked in multiplayer versus mode. Beat the Black Knight Chief? Now you can play him against your friends. Murder some unarmed civilians? They can avenge themselves on the field of battle (but not really). Did you kill Lucifer in his final form? Yep… you guessed it. Of course, unlocking nearly 100 characters is even more awesome when you consider just how cool the versus mode was…
The versus mode: LOL!
So, you could play as anyone you beat in the main game, and the main game has hundreds of levels and dozens upon dozens of enemies. Guardian Heroes also has a fighting-game style input system, so sure, there’s some fun to be had. But the real fun starts when you learn that this masterpiece has six-player battle mode. If you had the SEGA Saturn Six Player Adapter, that meant you and your five closest soon-to-be enemies could beat the shit out of each other till kingdom come. You could set any teams and handicaps you wanted with any mix of human or AI players. Could five human players taking the role of angels beat up another human playing as God? Could a team composed solely of rabbits destroy a team of levitating death-bots, if the rabbits had 3,000% normal health? Or why not just make all of your friends five year old children with one attack (falling over) and massacre them over and over again as an end-game dark sorcerer at level 200?
You could do all this and more, over and over. There were literally millions of permutations of fights, and combined with an interesting fighting system and the allure of playing the Store Mode to unlike more warriors, Guardian Heroes had nearly infinite replay value.
Other considerationsThere are too many things to list about Guardian Heroes to explain just how great it is. Story Mode features a raging AI-skeleton with a screen-clearing blast that would put Colossus to shame. There’s an annoyingly flaming pushover knight who gains godly powers (depending on your choices) and
That said, if you haven’t tried Guardian Heroes, I don’t blame you… at least not directly. The game was fairly unknown on release and was made for a relatively unpopular system. It made its way to bargain bins (I originally bought it for $14.95 at a PC Richards & Son) quickly, but meteorically rose to legendary status once gamers realized how good it was… fetching prices nearing $150 on eBay at times. Regardless, you will soon have your chance to play this masterpiece enhanced with HD graphics, online co-op and battle modes, and, of course, a reasonable price tag.
Stay tuned to Top Tier Tactics and my YouTube channel for more updates on Guardian Heroes or, you know, just go buy it on eBay.
* If you’re thinking Mischief Makers, fuck you.
** Yes, seriously.
† Except for the fact that she was ridiculously broken if leveled correctly.