Graphically 1995 was all over the place, a turbulent time when “realistic” FMV games spanning multiple CD-ROMs would jostle for magazine space with pre-rendered 2D games on comparatively tiny cartridges, Game Boy games destined for use on a smeary green dot matrix display, and next-gen titles boasting fully texture mapped polygons. One style however was definitely out – console pixel art. Sprites and background layers and those little shadows made out of rapidly flickering black ellipses were old and overly familiar; a relic of the past, a concept that had been so thoroughly explored for so long we were all certain there was nothing left to be done. 2D art was all over every system for as long as we’d had games to play on them after all, something that had been so common for so long it had become invisible, ordinary, like looking up at a blue sky or a finding a table with four legs in a kitchen.
It was into this chasm of disinterest PlayStation exclusive Gunners Heaven released, a game that was about as far away from the visually impressive titles early adopters of the new 32-bit consoles wanted to see as any could ever be. In this context the muted response that greeted the game was somewhat understandable – much like being given Easter eggs at Christmas it’s not the gift that’s the problem, it’s the timing. It would be a mistake to assume that a better game would have overcome this apathy, that the quality was never there and the “old” graphics simply sealed Gunners’ fate – the first Metal Slug released the year after Gunners Heaven and was met with a similar puzzled response from the gaming public, players unable to fathom why these companies were so happy to get “left behind” when the rest of the industry was so keen on abandoning traditional dot graphics in favour of a polygonal future. Now decades have passed and trends have shifted once again – 3D is ordinary and mainstream, a baseline graphical standard. Some titles pull out all the stops and showcase celebrity likenesses and realistic foliage that stretches all the way to the horizon while others sit at the other end of the extreme, employing the technique simply because it’s cheap, straightforward, and expected. Whatever the budget or the developer’s desires, a modern game is more likely to use 3D graphics than not.
And in this topsy-turvy world it’s 2D that’s now considered a highly technical craft, appreciated at last as a style, as art, as it should have been decades ago when we were so lucky to be surrounded by it wherever we went. There is an awareness, vague as it may be, that whether 2D games are pixelled or drawn they tend to be more expensive to make and take specialised artists longer to produce due to all the effort involved. Perhaps now is the time Gunners Heaven can finally shine, appreciated for what it is than weighed down by what it was never trying to be.
The sprites on display here in terms of their size, detail, and sheer quantity would be notable in any indie PC release today and at the time – that’s twenty-five years ago – they could have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with any pixel art arcade game; Gunners Heaven easily throwing around sprite scaling, translucent shafts of light, swarms of enemies, and all the other special effects gaming would have insisted a truly lavish title had to have just one year earlier. Scenery and enemy types change often – even multiple times per stage – although it’s difficult to appreciate all the finer details when robot drones are swooping in from above, adorable fox-soldiers are rushing in from both sides, or a long segmented snake is bursting out of a jungle river partially obscured by trees.
Looking past the visual feast stored on this single CD and unfortunately we rush headlong into Gunners Heaven’s other major sticking point: All of this running and jumping is an awful lot like Treasure’s Gunstar Heroes, isn’t it? A game released on far lowlier hardware… two years earlier. A game that, unlike Gunners Heaven, has been consistently praised by everyone who has ever gone near it. A game that all these decades later has been re-released digitally multiple times and can currently be bought on Steam for less than the price of the smallest and cheapest take-out McCoffee in town. Why should anyone take a second look at this PlayStation pretender when the original – and best – is right there?
Well, why shouldn’t they?
Nobody looked at Gunstar and thought “Yeah that’s nice but I already have Contra. In fact I have several Contras. And a Turrican. I really don’t need another game starring some person waving a gun around, I’ve got enough of those as it is.”. Why would a run ‘n’ gun game not hope to emulate Gunstar Heroes fantastic design? And why wouldn’t we want more games having a go at putting their own spin on such an exciting and popular title?
So yes there are a lot of similarities with Gunstar Heroes and we should welcome them, and I’m even prepared to go so far as to say that more games in the genre should make an effort to lift all of the best bits from Treasure’s action classic (and Alien Soldier too while they’re at it). It might help if people call these familiar elements in Gunners Heaven an homage if they want to feel clever about it, they can make lists of references and then when that’s done we can all get on with enjoying the rush of colour and motion playing out before our eyes, taking either Axel Sonics or Ruka Hetfield through six stages of constantly evolving action, sliding or rushing under a hail of bullets before firing a wire hook into the ceiling and somersaulting high into the air and out of harm’s way. As with Gunstar ledges can be hung from and enemies can be dispatched with melee attacks if they get too close, and also just like Gunstar when you’re there in the thick of it, troops pouring out of every door you can see as a bipedal mech stomps into view, you don’t really care who invented what first because you’re far too busy having a good time.
For all the obvious influences there are still some significant differences between the two run ‘n’ guns: Axel and Ruka each have a unique set of four different weapons at their disposal, echoing but not mirroring the other. So both of them have a powerful but limited shot and a homing attack, but Ruka’s powerful shot will be a short range stream of flames whereas Axel’s is a slow-moving glob of fire, and Axel’s homing attack fires bolts of lightning attached to the tip of his gun, while Ruka’s uses free-roaming snakelike lasers. And as you have all of these weapons with you all of the time you have the freedom to view them as tools to tactically unleash on the approaching hordes as you see fit rather than mindlessly holding down the fire button because there is nothing else to do other than not get hit or collect something else… whenever the game decides it’s time for something else to show up. Power up chips are liberally scattered by attractive little sine waves of robotic drones (and plenty of other targets too), although rather than increasing your firepower in a typical way these instead contribute to an overall timer, your increased damage output depending on you constantly moving forward whether you’re ready or not so you can hoover up a steady stream of chips, always trying to save yourself from reverting back to the substantially weaker default shots. The end result is a frantic game that encourages you to press onwards at all times while always expecting players to keep every single enemy in mind: with so much going on it’s easy to get hit if you don’t skilfully thin out hordes of minor enemies quickly, and bosses like to cover the screen in thick lasers that must be dodged with finesse – it takes some effort to dash through a stage and then finish the guardian off, and the game’s strict checkpoint system completely removes any hope of brainlessly eating the damage and stumbling through on the back of a handy pool of accumulated lives.
For all my protestations even I have to admit that the game is not amazing (do make sure you don’t mix up “not amazing” and “not good” there), and there was never any point in history where people could – or should – have imagined this was about to knock Treasure’s fantastic game off its golden throne. Gunners Heaven doesn’t push the PlayStation half as hard as Gunstar Heroes stretches the Mega Drive, and even if if did it’s not as chaotically inventive or as carefully designed anyway. There’s no co-op either, not even in a game that already has two characters and is trying to find its spot in a genre that people reasonably expect to contain co-op play. But to leave Gunners Heaven languishing as a mere knockoff that’s not worth considering as a game in its own right is to do the game a disservice – and to miss out on a fun experience for yourself as well. It’s bold, bright, and more than a crude copy of somebody else’s homework, and anyone with a love for the genre will find the game a stiff challenge wrapped up in some truly beautiful artwork.
Gunners Heaven had a physical release in Japan and PAL territories (as Rapid Reload in the latter, although that version’s not recommended for all the usual reasons) if you’d like to grab a disc however current second hand prices mean it is so, so, much cheaper to download the game via Japan’s PSN store for a mere ¥628. It might (might) even be available on other PSN storefronts too! You’ll need to do this sooner rather than later though, and directly via compatible hardware, before Sony decide to shut their older online services down for good.