When the game doesn’t love you back

Everyone’s dead and it’s your fault.

It turns out Treasure’s Saturn wonder Guardian Heroes didn’t end the way any of us thought it did, regardless of which of that game’s numerous endings you prefer. According to Treasure’s sole sequel, Advance Guardian Heroes, the noble Undead Warrior – and we soon learn that’s us – sodded o- sorry, “returned to dust” just before the gang tried to take on the heavens themselves, leaving our heroes (and complicated prince turned good Valgar) unable to take on the gods as they now lacked that special power from another world (us, again), their souls ripe for the taking.

Except for everyone’s favourite mage Randy, who magically vanishes once all of this comes to light in Advance’s intro with nothing more than a “Sorry!“, choosing to desert his friends – friends he’s toppled kingdoms, wizards, and seen off the forces of hell with by that point – rather than try to save them from their unwanted fate.

It’s not an endearing opening to the much wished for follow-up to the original brawler, although the idea of accusing players of abandoning the game – and by extension abandoning Treasure – when they were needed most is perhaps a not-so-sly jab at the gulf between the praise the respected developer regularly receives and the actual sales the games everyone claims to love so much generate when they matter most to the people who made them.

The sort of (non) sales figures that might force a developer with a proud history of only making new games rather than sequels to make a sequel on a popular and cost-effective handheld format, for example.

This unwanted shift in company circumstances seems to inform every aspect of Advance Guardian Heroes, from the “Where the heck were you when we needed you most?!” plot to the gameplay, which has been tuned to Treasure’s high standards and no one else’s. The brand new guard and counter system can only be described as prickly, something you must get used to quickly if you hope to get anywhere at all, and the fights in general feel mechanic-heavy and fussy, eager to slap you down for not knowing what’s coming before it’s arrived. This isn’t the first game from the developer that could be described in this way: Alien Soldier isn’t exactly a casual experience even when you do get the hang of countering bullets and running across the ceiling – but then again Alien Soldier never had an unavoidable enemy capable of delivering a barrage of multi-hit instant-kill attacks in the opening tutorial section.

Surviving this assault is technically simple: Hold down the guard button – the one you’ve just been told to hold down – to keep you safe. The issue is on the standard difficulty and above your ability to guard relies on you having MP, the same MP you were told to use to cast magic on a horde of enemies a few moments and one counter tutorial earlier. Again this isn’t necessarily a problem as in this fight MP-refilling hearts drop from the sky at regular intervals but when you don’t know how fast these attacks come, or that the equally deadly multi-hit lightning strikes still appear even if you successfully block the opening floaty orb, and every hit will kill you if you weren’t able to collect all three easily-missed crystals in the very first battle (a single punch from your starting position is enough to send every enemy flying off-screen, never to be seen again) and then dump some of those experience points in to increasing your health bar and you have to survive thirty seconds of these attacks and the whole point of this section is to teach people who don’t know what any of these things mean how to play…

Still, at least you can dust yourself off and get back u- Oh. No you can’t. Advance Guardian Heroes only gives you one life – the one you’re currently using – and only allows you to continue either from the start of the stage or the beginning of the section you died in (preserving the life/MP you had at the time, even if it was a comically useless sliver) after a “Guess you’re still here” trip back to the title screen. Unless…

Unless you make a literal deal with the devil which revives you where you fell and also makes you invincible for a few minutes too. The only problem with this is once your time’s run out the same demon (actually the final boss) shows up to kill you off anyway, sending you back to the title screen and made to restart, at least in the Japanese copy I’ve got, from the last section you reached before you “cheated”. The whole ordeal feels uncharacteristically spiteful of everybody’s favourite hardcore game developer, the nature of the help offered meaning there’s little to be learned and nothing to be gained from taking this mean-spirited choice save for a bad ending should you lean on this trick during the final battle.

So surely the only solution for a newcomer is to turn the difficulty down a single notch from Normal to Easy – just for the time being – while they get used to these new features? Sadly not. This introduces another batch of unforeseen complications: Easy grants you infinite MP, which in turn allows you to hold down the block button for as long as you like and spam screen-long magic beams all game long. This change coupled with several other tweaks soon see Easy become so easy that in practise it plays very differently from Normal, offering few meaningful chances to learn how to deal effectively with the snags that give the default setting its harsh and discouraging first impression. It’s hard to not feel like Advance Guardian Heroes resents you buying it, loathes the way you added a +1 to its sales figures, and hopes the game doesn’t do well so Treasure won’t have to make any more sequels.

This hostile treatment is something of a shame because there are brief moments when the game’s action core shines through and in those short scenes it’s an impressive and exciting side-scrolling brawler that sees you punching straight through rock walls, rushing down a river, and leaping from missile to missile (even if the jumping is rather fickle) using a simplified combo/magic system that suits the game’s home far better than the Saturn’s complex move lists and lane-switching ever could. You can feel the force behind every punch and are dazzled by dramatic flashes of sunlight as you’re forced high into the air during your latest extraordinary battle.

Displaying this level of graphical excess was certainly necessary for the sequel to a game famed for its screen-filling explosions and gigantic monsters but it swiftly leads to numerous problems for you and the hardware asked to perform this incredible feats; sometimes expecting you to make split-second judgement calls on the relative depth of a fast moving object as sprite-scaled missiles and energy blasts come in from the background towards you while you’re still fighting regular 2D enemies on all sides – and this ill-fitting situation first pops up during the second stage. Advance Guardian Heroes slows down during not only these flashier sequences but also at any point the action gets even slightly busy, and considering this is Treasure’s game made using Treasure’s existing IP and exclusively for one very specific handheld it’s hard to feel like this isn’t anything other than a self-made problem, one that was wholly within their power to avoid. The game doesn’t even care enough to be consistent with itself, the glib reuse of simplified, crudely edited, choppily animated, and shrunk down versions of original sprites – original sprites the sort of person who might be more inclined than most to buy a game titled “Advance Guardian Heroes” knows for a fact looked much better the first time around – at odds with the sci-fi theming the game swiftly embraces, leaving you dashing over modern roads as concrete skyscrapers scroll by, battling gargoyles in space, and fighting ancient wizards you know you definitely killed for good back in 1996. A true clean break into an exciting new future or a committed lean back into the past (a prequel, for example, or even a fresh story told at the same time in a completely different kingdom) would have felt like a choice, this feels more like the meeting of the unnamed new game Treasure really wanted to make and a grab-bag of pre-made parts from an old one for brand recognition and budget’s sake.

I very much wanted this revisit to be the “Ah-ha!” replay – my first since the game’s release – where it all fell in to place: who doesn’t want to have more Guardian Heroes to play? But it just feels like Treasure’s heart wasn’t in Advance Guardian Heroes leaving us with what is a so-so brawler at best; all its faults amplified by its unenviable position as the official follow up to an incredible one, and all of its fleeting high points inevitably compared against the same superior game. But worse than any of that is the disconcerting impression that Advance Guardian Heroes really doesn’t care what you think about it anyway, so long as you go away.

[Ko-fi supporters read this a week ago!]

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