As an exclusive for Sega’s underdog Saturn by the much-loved niche developer Treasure (until the Xbox 360 remaster appeared a few years ago, that is: It’s worth mentioning that as with Radiant Silvergun, this readily accessible release is so well thought out and comprehensively tweaked it surpasses the original in every way – and includes the Saturn version as a backup if you happen to dislike their modern alterations), Guardian Heroes was praised through the roof, sold through the floor, and in the decades since the game’s sales performance actually mattered has been consistently traded on an international scale for not insignificant amounts of money. These are naturally major plus points for many enthusiastic retro game collectors, but what makes Guardian Heroes extra special is that it’s an even rarer breed of sought-after Saturn game that honestly deserves the praise that’s been routinely lavished on it from all quarters.
Some of that adoration is down to the game’s then-unusual branching dialogue choices and RPG-like stat system, even if at this current point in time the latter’s become so common the concept’s passed through “nice idea” to “standard feature” to “shoehorned into everything” to finally “please can we stop having RPG things in things that aren’t RPGs?”. Much of the remaining praise is heaped upon the game’s
sweet saxophone soundtrack butter-smooth fisticuffs, packed as they are with all the combos, counters, dodging, backdashes, guarding, command normals, multiple elementally-aligned spells (often unique to specific characters), and AI-controlled undead fighting assistants anyone hoping to have a long in-depth fight session could wish for – it’s a game that takes a long time to learn, and even longer to master.
But the truly beautiful thing about Guardian Heroes is how you can choose to engage with the game at any level – at your level – and still be left feeling completely rewarded and satisfied at the end of another long and wholly enjoyable session. It’s well made, finely balanced, and there’s still nothing that definitively topples it from its high genre perch even twenty-four years after its initial release. However for all my appreciation of the more elegant and refined aspects of the game’s design I’d say the game’s lasting appeal lies elsewhere: in the almost overwhelming blast of zingy freshness that accompanies every new game, something that has very little to do with balance, technical details, or difficulty – it’s the intensity, the sheer joyous chaos that bounces through every stage like an over-excited puppy that keeps it thrilling every single time you start it up for one more one more go. Guardian Heroes is a game that practically insists players dash head-first into an ever-evolving clash of weapon on metal as lightning crackles in the air, giants slam the ground with open palms and armour clad soldiers shout their battle cries before rushing into the fray.
It’s this blazing streak of constant mayhem that blesses Treasure’s combo ’em up with its sense of constant momentum (yes, even when you’re button mashing your way through Kanon’s revelations of the sky and the earth and wizards and swords and royalty and what he had for tea last week for the millionth time): Even in its quietest moments nobody is ever more than mere seconds away from another sword-waving fest that could take place in heaven or hell (Let’s rock!), or perhaps storming through the city streets looking to take down a puppet royal family or protecting a plucky band of resistance fighters from enemy forces. On their own these are already busier than most of its competitors but Guardian Heroes always insists on going one step further, adding small touches that only exist to highlight the unfolding pandemonium: Watch Zur’s soldier’s fall to their knees and bang on the walls of a magical barrier rather than fight like Generic Guy A, B, and C are expected to because they’re desperate to escape the band of noble heroes and giant cyclops they’ve been trapped with (let’s also not forget that you can always tell which leader soldiers belong to just by the colour of their uniform either), or the humorous stage setup of soldiers fleeing in fear from the zombie horde emerging from the ground only to run straight into the heroes, which causes them to visibly fall back in fright again and kicks off an exciting three-way riot.
And as all this is going on those helpful health bars have become so numerous they’ve begun to form an orderly queue across the top of the screen, stacking enemy upon enemy in neat lines that move and react in tandem with the action below even when the combatant in question is not in full view thanks to the shrunken and fully animated sprite that accompanies every single one of them. This artistic flourish is an impressive flex even on a famed 2D powerhouse like the Saturn and nothing short of absolutely phenomenal when compared against almost any game side-scrolling beat ’em ups have produced before – or after – Guardian Heroes’ release: most similar games at any technological level are happy to settle for a name written in the high score font and perhaps a tiny cutout of a sprite’s head to go with it. Treasure’s addition isn’t just for show either, and it’s thanks to this feature that even in those brief lulls when you’re not being attacked on all sides it’s still perfectly clear trouble’s on the horizon because you can see for yourself that half a dozen or more heavily-armed troops or toothy fiends are headed your way, turning every potential pause for breath into the beginning of another skirmish.
Trouble may never be more than a few steps away but even when it looks like you’ve been unceremoniously dumped in the middle of a complete free-for-all tangle of pointy swords and flailing limbs you’re still the one in control of the action: If you see a few enemies up ahead and decide to charge straight through them in the name of hot-blooded justice, triggering every last fight the area’s got going in the process (and maybe even accessing a semi-secret extra one while you’re at it) then there’s nothing to stop you from getting up to your eyeballs in butt-flashing demons and working out your self-inflicted not-problem with your character’s beautifully animated fists. Likewise if you’d rather ease up a bit, carefully picking off enemies a single line at a time for the sake of your health before inching forwards just enough to make the next batch appear then you can do so, holding back the game’s endless stream of eager opponents to better suit your current situation. It’s a belt scroller where to some extent you control the belt, making it possible to push the action as far as your courage dares rather than dealing with a checklist of neatly parcelled chunks of predetermined action.
Of course there’s only so far quantity can carry a nonstop flurry of fighting, even one that’s busy throwing buckets of enemies at you like the genre’s going out of fashion (which to be fair, it was), and so in keeping with Guardian Heroes solemn pledge to crank everything up to eleven this army’s worth of foes don’t just come in various amounts of lots but in all sorts of shapes and sizes too, anything from zippy wasps so tiny they’re hard to spot to a boss that looms so large over the heroes it almost literally spans the entire vertical height of the screen. Although a towering boss at the end of a stage is just standard procedure for a game like this, isn’t it? And that’s why Guardian Heroes thinks nothing of regularly sticking several CRT-filling bruisers in amongst the already plentiful packs of aggressive adversaries. In any other title seeing a group of muscular monsters spoiling for a fight would be a thrilling high point carefully saved until it the player’s tolerance of the ordinary was starting to wane but here – and echoing the philosophy behind Treasure’s earlier boss-stuffed work, Alien Soldier – heart-stopping end-of-level scale clashes are viewed as merely the minimum level of action Treasure will allow.
Not that even “Lots, varied, and large” is enough for a game determined to be as breathlessly exhilarating as Guardian Heroes: Do you remember those little wasps I mentioned earlier? They aren’t on anyone’s side and will happily sting whoever happens to be closest to them at the time, even if that’s not anyone on your side. Fighting alongside the resistance forces isn’t a nice idea reserved for dialogue boxes in-between the action but something that actually happens while you’re playing – they’re right there on the battlefield with you, getting as stuck in to enemy groups as you are. And then there are a few times where two sets of enemies will be as keen on fighting each other as they are on fighting you – and all of these events flow seamlessly from one to the next, a relentless conflict where no two screens play the same. It’s a turbulent and utterly breathtaking mess whether your first taste of Treasure’s sublime swordfighting action was last week or last century (!!), Guardian Heroes not only revels in its own excess but encourages you to participate in its “more is more” fun as well: A game that starts off with supersized everythings and only keeps on growing into something utterly colossal as your chosen fighter levels up and their strengths are exaggerated to a gleefully ridiculous degree, whole swathes of foes now crumbling under a single sword swipe and sprite-scaled spells spilling out of shot.
And it still escalates from there as you find yourself inadvertently caught by the effects of your own spells, the Undead Hero’s fiery all-out attacks, or an enemy casts an ice spell and oops now everybody is frozen for a short while – the only thing I want to compare it to is a childish paint fight: It’s messy, fun, and you’re too busy laughing at the sheer chaos you’ve created to really care who won (or who’s going to clear it all up afterwards). But this is Treasure, and for all the shouting and kinda-cheating translucency effects (they’re translucent against background layers, not sprites – which is why you can’t see any characters standing behind an ice storm, and why foreground objects use a good old pixel “mesh” to show player sprites through them) the game is always disciplined and highly personal even when everything looks like fire and whirlwinds and lasers: There’s never any doubt about who did what even in the most anarchic brawls thanks to beautifully crafted movelists that play not only to each character’s stat sheets but their well-defined and likeable personalities as well. Nobody causes screen-wide chaos quite like Nicole. Nobody kick-flips an enemy off into the air the way Serena does. Nobody is confused for anybody else even for a second, no matter how crowded a scene becomes.
Thanks to the game’s web of multiple routes leading to multiple endings you’ll never have to play the same game twice and even if you do it won’t matter one bit: Guardian Heroes is a spark, a shining light, an unfettered source of constant kinetic energy that’s made obvious in every facet of its design, a whirlwind of chaos you’ll never, ever, tame but one you’ll always relish getting caught up in.