Advance Guardian Heroes Feature Preview
We got our hands on a near-final build of the action-packed Game Boy Advance sequel to one of the Sega Saturn's most beloved cult classics. Find out why we're so excited about it.
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Japanese developer Treasure is known for delivering action games that start out at a fever pitch and only grow more and more intense from there. The company is also known for delivering high quality with style--not just pure, mindless action--and some game players most recently experienced this in Ikaruga, a beautiful and extremely challenging scrolling shooter for the GameCube and Dreamcast. And while Treasure's most recognizable upcoming game is certainly the next installment in Konami's classic shooter series, Gradius V, there's also a wackier, crazier game coming up in Advance Guardian Heroes--a side-scrolling beat-'em-up that publisher Ubisoft will be bringing to these platforms in about a month. Advance Guardian Heroes is an unexpected sequel to a cult classic Sega Saturn game dating back to 1996, and especially since we're fans of that old game, we were thrilled by the first impression given to us by this new, portable version. To our great delight, we're barely scraping through the game's nonstop, over-the-top fight after fight. (Granted, we're playing at the default "hard" difficulty.)
Advance Guardian Heroes is, in fact, a direct sequel to the previous game. But even those who avidly played the first Guardian Heroes may not recall that game's storyline and cast of characters now that it's close to 10 years later. Suffice it to say that no previous experience with Guardian Heroes is necessary to play and enjoy the sequel, though hardcore fans will appreciate seeing many direct references to the characters and situations from the first game. (They'll also appreciate that, unlike in the original game, the story-based sequences can easily be skipped in this game.) What's more, fans of classic 2D side-scrollers may get the same impression that we did--that Advance Guardian Heroes is an homage to the good old days of gaming. During the course of our time with the game, we witnessed scenes that reminded us of specific moments from other past 2D action hits, such as Strider, Golden Axe, Final Fight, and Darkstalkers. Maybe we're just nuts, but we wouldn't put it past Treasure to allude to their influences in such cordial fashion.
At any rate, the focus of Advance Guardian Heroes certainly isn't on storyline or cheeky references (although it introduces plenty of each at a rapid rate). The focus is squarely on fast-paced, beat-'em-up action and battles against nonstop onslaughts of strange foes. This is where Advance Guardian Heroes is likely to distinguish itself from other similar action games, much to the pleasure of longtime Guardian Heroes fans.
For a portable beat-'em-up game in the vein of classics like Final Fight, Advance Guardian Heroes sure seems to have a lot of depth. Honestly, comparisons to other side-scrolling brawlers just don't do this game justice. That's because Advance Guardian Heroes, judging from the several story levels we played through, is anything but formulaic. Expect to fight tons of powerful boss opponents--sometimes in rapid succession--while at the same time having to perform some death-defying leaps and high-flying attacks as you trudge through countless numbers of standard enemies. Upon first impression, Advance Guardian Heroes' combat system makes fighting even these most basic foes quite fun and challenging. That's because you're capable of pulling off multiple different moves and combos with simple presses of the attack button along with the directional pad. You can also take your combos into midair, which often results in enemies getting flattened into each other, which causes massive damage.
The defensive portion of the game is interesting, too. By pressing the right shoulder button just as you're about to be hit by an attack, you'll execute a fighting-game-style parry maneuver, deflecting your foe's strike and causing him to drop his guard so that you can retaliate. Furthermore, many attacks cause you (or your foes) to automatically block incoming attacks, so that the notion "the best defense is a good offense" ends up being highly applicable to this game. For good measure, you've got magic at your disposal, and you begin your adventure with several spells to choose from right off the bat. Your spells can cause heavy damage to groups of foes, and they can also buy you some time to set up a powerful juggle combo; sure enough, you can press the attack against a foe that has been knocked into the air or flat on his back.
Also of note, as you take damage (and believe us, you will) you'll build up an anger gauge, which you can use by pressing both face buttons simultaneously. This causes you to go into a hyperfast state, allowing you to dish out major damage for just a short while; it's just the edge you sometimes need to get out of a pinch or vanquish a tough boss.
All this may sound like a lot to learn, and sure enough, it is--for a beat-'em-up game, anyway. Fortunately, Advance Guardian Heroes packs in a helpful, rather amusing interactive tutorial, in which one of the game's effete villains goads you into mastering all of the basic moves and techniques necessary for success. Also, apart from the game's story mode, there's a versus mode for up to four players (they'll each need separate GBAs) and a "training" mode in which you can take on computer-controlled player characters. The fighting-game-style combat actually makes these modes pretty entertaining for some pick-up-and-play action, at least judging by our first encounters with the game's tough and aggressive artificial intelligence.
Next, find out more about the story mode, the loveable "devil mode," an appearance by an old ninja, intense fits of extreme slowdown, and much more good stuff like that.
Fists Are Flying
The story mode, which features an optional two-player cooperative mode like the original Guardian Heroes, is evidently the highlight of the game. Even the very first stage has you fighting some powerful boss opponents back to back as you desperately try to get a handle on the sheer number of enemies pouring down on you. We got our butts handed to us by the game's first boss, an Incredible Hulk-looking fellow with a walloping straight punch that killed us in just a couple of good smacks. It was here that we grudgingly learned to master the reversal technique described above, and it was also here that we encountered the game's strange options for when you perish: A demonic fellow prompts you to either give up your soul in exchange for temporary invincibility, or simply perish. We chose not to give up our souls, thank you very much, because the first several times we did, we ended up with a big, fat Game Over screen staring us in the face. Fortunately, we were able to continue the game from the same basic vicinity of where we bit the dust.
On the other hand, choosing to hand over your soul puts you in "devil mode," which makes your character invincible and superpowered for a while. You'll be able to raise hell for several minutes, but eventually you'll run out of time and it's game over at that point. So we didn't really get what the purpose of this option was, as it's game over sooner or later once you run out of health. Maybe just for revenge? Alternate endings? No matter. If you think about it for long enough, we're sure you'll come to our same conclusion that "devil mode" would make a worthy addition to pretty much any game.
Advance Guardian Heroes unfortunately doesn't feature a heavily diverse cast of player characters like its predecessor did. The initial selectable characters are all look-alikes with the same basic move set, but slightly different magic abilities and starting statistics. The statistics portion of the game is actually another source of considerable depth; your movement rate, attack power, defense, magic power, magic recharge rate, magic defense, and other stats are all quantified and plainly apparent. Furthermore, the crystals you collect from defeated opponents may later be spent upgrading all these aforementioned categories. What's cool is that you can test the tweaks that have been made to your character before you've committed all your crystals--and differences made to categories like speed and power definitely are noticeable. So, you basically get to create your own fighter during the course of Advance Guardian Heroes' story mode.
The game definitely has some throwbacks to its predecessor. One of the early bosses, for instance, is Ginjirou, the playable ninja character from the original game. He has all of his old moves and puts them to good use against you in a fighting-game-style showdown. Later, in the third series of stages, we battled against Han, the muscle-bound swordsman from the first game--who, in turn, summoned Ginjirou to his side once the going got tough, making for one of the most grueling battles we've experienced in the game thus far.
Another throwback to the old Guardian Heroes wasn't quite so welcomed. It must be said that this game has got some serious issues with slowdown. Fans of the old Saturn game should recollect that, well, the Saturn game had some horrific slowdown issues, too. But, much like in the original, the slowdown here almost seems to add to the game's wacky charm, as the GBA's poor processor is stressed to the limit. Also, the game's visuals--while colorful and nicely animated--look a bit stripped down on the small GBA screen, as though the character sprites were all shrunken to accommodate many of them on the screen. The game's audio seems to be faring quite well, with plenty of hard-hitting effects, upbeat music, and some speech samples ripped straight from the original. We also noted that the game's main characters look unmistakably similar in style to previous whimsical Treasure action games, most notably the Genesis cult hit Gunstar Heroes.
Advance Guardian Heroes is shaping up to be a lively, entertaining, and challenging game by any measure. The fact that it's portable only helps matters, and unsurprisingly, the mere existence of a new Guardian Heroes game has caused fans to come out of the woodwork, demanding a full-fledged console sequel. They may not be so lucky in that regard--but we think they're going to be very pleased with this sequel. And, most of all, we think pretty much anyone interested in great action gaming on the go should keep a close eye out for Advance Guardian Heroes when it ships next month. We can't wait to play the full version.