The best side-scrolling beat 'em up ever created knocks out rivals with its story, RPG elements & stunning visuals.
Things weren't much different in terms of mainstream recognition when Guardian Heroes was released in the US in 1996 as a Saturn exclusive. If you hadn't been a Treasure devotee by that time already, you probably passed this title by and spent your cash on Virtua Fighter 2 or Sega Rally. If you did give it a shot, though, you were lucky enough to discover the greatest side-scrolling beat 'em up ever created. Having withstood the test of time Guardian Heroes is a title still worth revisiting today or experiencing for the first time, 'cause like they say, better late than never.
Guardian Heroes is essentially the bastard child that would occur if you took the fun gameplay and intuitive controls of Streets of Rage II, added a more weapon-orientated combat, some basic RPG elements and put it on steroids. Plus, Treasure's frantic fantasy brawler is a perfect showcase of the Saturn's terrific sprite capabilities. It was the most stunning looking 2D action game at the time of its release, and on top it also has a well arranged soundtrack, featuring some of the neatest guitar work I've heard in a video game.
Treasure's opus magnum features a cast of five distinctive characters, who could easily be starred in an anime series.
We have Han, a hot-headed warrior archetype with a ridiculously sized sword, Randy, a young sorcerer with a wide array of magic spells and Ginjirou, compensating his lack of strength with agility. Then there's a cute redhead by the name of Nicole, capable of using healing magic, and Serena, an earnest young woman, equally skilled in combat and magic, seeking revenge for the extinction of her family.
The story is what also sets Guardian Heroes apart from its competitors. While titles like Streets of Rage or Final Fight are merely run-of-the-mill in this respect, Guardian Heroes actually manages to entertain through its plot. It circles around the long-held war between two superior kinds called the Sky Spirits and the Earth Spirits. The Earth Spirits and human wizards were banished into darkness by the Sky Spirits, but several decades ago wizard Kanon escaped this imprisonment. He set out on his quest to take revenge on the Sky Spirits, not even shying away from killing innocents. Han, Randy, Ginjirou, Nicole and Serena, who have found an ancient sword bearing mystical powers, will face him and several other villains during a journey that gradually gets them deeper immersed into the conflict between the two hostile Spirits.
The basic gameplay is pretty straight-forward as you'd expect from a retro-flavored side-scrolling beat 'em up, but it has a few unique twists. You earn experience points during each scene, which can be spent on six different stats (such as strength, vitality and intelligence) between scenes. At many points the game also lets you choose which path to take or gives you several options on how to behave towards certain enemies and characters. The game has multiple endings and the choices you make ultimately have an impact on the outcome of the story.
Guardian Heroes shows developer Treasure at its finest and it's no wonder it's permanently being sought after by Saturn collectors. The multiplayer fun to be had is fantastic – it even features a 6-player versus mode (!). Yet, unlike some other side-scrolling beat 'em ups it also manages to be a blast in singleplayer, thanks to its storyline and multiple paths. The graphics are impressive for a title released in 1996, both artistically and technically. Although it does come at the cost of occasional slowdowns it's eye-candy none the less. If you're a sucker for Streets of Rage and Final Fight, or have enjoyed any other title by Treasure in the past, your decision on whether to get this game is a no-brainer. I was decadent enough to spend 50 bucks on a used copy, so I know you can be, too.