Guardian Heroes Review (Xbox360)

Treasure don't make games for humans. It's not common knowledge, but their target audience is a group of sentient Cephalopoda from the future. Only space octopuses have the dexterity to dodge a torrent of bullets in Radiant Silvergun or Ikaruga, or conquer the behemoth boss runs of Alien Soldier, challenges us mere apes can only behold in awe. There are two ways to play Guardian Heroes: grow a few extra limbs and wrap your tentacles around every button, or get practising.

I love Treasure games. I love their imagination and sense of humour, their worlds filled with manic colour and character. I love that they took the kids franchise Astro Boy and turned it into a devilishly hard game that no child could ever hope to finish. I love that, against all logical reasoning, they somehow made a good game with Ronald McDonald as the main character. Guardian Heroes was their first release for the Sega Saturn and remains an elusive cult favourite... until now! Hooray for digital distribution, savour of the retro game enthusiast and bane of the eBay seller. I've got the Saturn version in front of me right now, its tattered box looking less appealing compared to the shiny re-release. But to be honest, if you're a fan of aesthetics this probably isn't the game for you.

Guardian Heroes is a contestant on Dragon's Den with a killer product idea and sky-high aspirations, curiously delivering their presentation by drawing on a pig with permanent markers. It was shockingly crude. An unrefined mess that could cause apoplexy when enough enemies filled the screen; it was as if the characters' faces were being deliberately pixelated to protect their identities. As you can imagine, what looked bad on a 15" portable television in 1996 looks appalling on a 40" HDTV in 2011, so a 'remixed' mode with enhanced graphics is available and practically mandatory. Thankfully, the original soundtrack has survived the transition in all its Casio keyboard and saxophone rock glory, remaining as catchy as ever?

Scratch beneath the somewhat unappealing exterior and you'll find a brawler with a lot to offer. Choosing from Han the warrior, Randy the sorcerer and his pet rabbit Nando, Ginjirou the nimble ninja or healer Nicole, you'll slash and magically maim your way through a wide variety of battles. This variety doesn't just come from artistic experimentation: where most games in the genre follow a linear progression from one stage to the next, Guardian Heroes is an intricate tapestry of decisions that change the fate of our heroes' quest.

Imagine the course map from Outrun: each stage branching into two possibilities at a fork in the road, creating a pyramid of choice. Now imagine that some branches have five or six choices. Some branches are alternate timelines at the same location: you might turn up at a village to save the rebels, or the rebels may be already dead because you took a detour through the forest. There is no right or wrong choice, and part of the fun is seeing what happens next. It's a gaming take on the butterfly effect: what would happen if the butterfly is ten feet tall and spits flames at you in one scenario, but gets captured by a lepidopterist and pinned to a frame in another?

Your decisions don't necessarily have fun consequences, though: sometimes the characters will just stand and have a chat before you move onto the next level unscathed, in others you'll fight an entire game's worth of monsters in one corridor. It's the variation that makes you want to play through multiple times to see all seven available endings. It doesn't matter terribly that many of these paths are incongruous or nonsensical, as most have a unique scrap to pique your curiosity. It even lets you continue to pummel enemies after they are dead, but gives a different ending for desecrating as few corpses as possible and showing clemency to fleeing foes.

Assuming you can fathom the labyrinth of choice, you'll spend the rest of your time beating things up. Mechanically, there is a lot to learn and the game is a poor tutor: something sorely missing from the remake is a decent manual to explain the story and controls. The former defies explanation: nonsensical rubbish about warring spirits and wizards that has been lost in translation from Japanese (or was terrible to begin with), made even more difficult to follow because of all the stage hopping.

This is not just Golden Axe's zany little brother with a passing interest in chaos theory: it is a challenging and occasionally maddening beat-em-up. With the remastered graphics come an enhanced control scheme, designed to correct the more obtuse design decisions of the original release. The original release of Guardian Heroes gives no quarter to button mashing tactics, but the remake is a little more forgiving. It's easy to hammer the buttons and watch Randy dish out fireballs and ice attacks, or Ginjirou dragon punch his way right into a copyright lawsuit. It's more enjoyable this way: switching to the 'original' game, control feels somewhat stilted and punishing, even if you've played it before.

An interesting differentiator from the average beat-em-up is that combat takes place in three 'rows'- foreground, middle and background- that players and their foes can leap between at will. You can dodge a burst of gunfire by jumping into the background, or circle around an enemy and attack from behind. To get the best from Guardian Heroes requires a bit of homework, but once you've learned a character's moves you can chain them together with ease: a Zangief-style spinning lariat into an uppercut, juggling foes into the air before kicking them back down with an electrically charged kick. You're accompanied by the Undead Warrior, a golden skeleton who evens the odds and can be indirectly controlled by commands, but these are hard to activate in the heat of battle and you might feel like he is stepping on your toes a little.

Guardian Heroes works on two levels: on an immediate one, you've got this satisfying fighter that anyone can pick up and mash their way through. However, once you notch the difficulty up from 'Easy' (which essentially removes any fear of death) to something less cowardly, each battle requires strategy and zen-like levels of concentration to avoid a faceful of fist. You start figuring out how to gather the most experience from enemies in the earlier stages, giving you the strength to survive later levels as you beef up your chosen warrior's attributes. Its greatest treasure is that this is classic Treasure: superficial accessibility gives way to a stern challenge that rewards those savvy or dedicated to savour it.

It's even better with a friend, and has generous Xbox Live options. Without the need for a Saturn six-way multitap (look it up, kids) you and five friends can have a battle against each other or two can play through the 'story' co-operatively. There's a new 'Arcade' option that seemingly has you fighting every enemy in the game at once, a processing feat that would have reduced your poor Saturn to a melted heap of slag back in the day.

The elitist in me doesn't want you to play this game. You should have picked up a copy back when it was first released and saved my beloved Saturn from languishing in relative obscurity. Yet Guardian Heroes is too good a game to let this old fanboy's pride get in the way. It's an old school classic, with enough forward thinking to make it feel fresh after fifteen years and enough depth to ensure it'll be relevant in another fifteen.

Favourite Gaming Moment: Juggling ten soldiers in the air simultaneously with a stream of throwing darts, then setting the corpses on fire.

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