Gunstar Super Heroes is the long-awaited follow-up to the classic side-scrolling shooter Gunstar Heroes, which appeared on the Sega Genesis in 1993. It's been more than a decade since the original game, but Gunstar Super Heroes sticks closely to its 16-bit roots, bringing the same frenetic shooting and platforming that made the original a classic. That isn't to say this is just a Game Boy Advance port or a remake of the first game. This is a brand-new game, and although it does have a classic feel, it also manages to pull off some great special effects on Nintendo's handheld. Gunstar Super Heroes is a game that no side-scrolling action fan should be without.
The story in Gunstar Super Heroes is about what you'd expect for an action game. In the first Gunstar game, two heroes fought against an evil being known as Golden Silver, also known as the God of Ruin. The heroes eventually defeated Golden Silver on the moon, and the resulting explosion created four new moons. Super Heroes picks up several years later as the evil Empire is poised to resurrect the God of Ruin using a mysterious artifact. Enter the Gunstar Super Heroes, an elite team of soldiers charged with saving the world. The story unfolds through brief sequences between each stage that show some static character portraits exchanging dialogue about one thing or another. These scenes are really just a little buffer between missions, and you usually don't learn much from them. There are a couple of small twists toward the end of the game, but overall the story is ancillary here. That's fine though, because this isn't the kind of game you play if you're looking for rich plotlines and well-developed characters.
You can play the game as either Red or Blue. The differences between the two characters are subtle; some of the animations are slightly different, and each character has a distinct look. The main difference is the weapons. Each character carries three weapons. Two of the weapons are the same for both characters, but the primary weapon is unique to each character. Red's primary weapon is force, which is a machine gun type of rapid-fire weapon that shoots plasma energy. Blue's primary weapon is lightning, which fires a concentrated beam of electricity. There are also different story sequences depending on which character you use, but for the most part Red and Blue are the same.
You'll always have your three weapons at your disposal, and you can switch weapons with a tap of the left shoulder button. In addition to force and lightning, you get a fire weapon that shoots a ball of fire that explodes. It's powerful, but it doesn't have the range of the other guns. The chaser weapon shoots a thin laser that homes in on the nearest target. Each weapon has a supercharge gauge, which is filled as you defeat enemies. Once filled, the gauge starts flashing, and you can double-tap the right shoulder button to unleash a super attack. The super attacks are unique to each weapon, and they inflict heavy damage and have a wider target area than regular attacks. For example, the super attack with the chaser weapon launches a large green stream of energy that flies around the screen hitting anything and everything that moves. In addition to the long-range attacks, you also have a sword attack for close-range encounters, as well as a slide, an uppercut, and a jump kick. You can also jump off walls, hang from overhead, and hitch a ride on all kinds of vehicles.
You'll make good use of all those moves too, because although this is technically a side-scroller, there's much more to this game than running from left to right. There are six stages in the game, and each stage is divided up into two or more smaller areas. Each area has a particular theme or unique style of play. For instance, in one area you stand atop a ship that's flying toward you, and you can rotate the ship to shoot enemies that advance on you from the background, into the foreground, and back. In another stage, you have to collect chicks and lead them to the exit, but if you get hit you'll lose any chicks you had. Some areas take you completely off your feet and put you in the cockpit of a helicopter or space ship. The areas are all fairly short, and they are so varied that it almost feels like a WarioWare type of game where half the tension and excitement comes from being forced to quickly adapt to radically different styles of gameplay. In all the stages you'll see heavy use of pseudo-3D effects that give the stages a lot of depth. These effects aren't used as a gimmick here, though; they play a big part in the gameplay whether it's hopping over a truck that's approaching from the background or avoiding missiles that come straight toward the screen.
It isn't just these fancy effects that make the game look so amazing. The character designs are colorful, all of the enemies have a distinct look, and the sprites aren't heavily recycled throughout the game, which is often the case with these types of games. The bosses are truly menacing, and they often take up the majority of the screen. The boss design is great too, and it takes a bit of careful observation to pick out the patterns of each boss, but even if you do that it's no easy task to exploit the weak spots in those patterns. In addition, the animation is smooth and natural. There aren't a ton of animations here, but the gameplay varies so much that you'll be required to make use of all the tricks in your book, and the characters look great stringing together jumps, slides, dodges, and shots. Amazingly, even with half a dozen enemies and tons of bombs, explosions, and bullets flying all around the screen, the frame rate holds up quite well.
The sound in Gunstar Super Heroes is great for a Game Boy Advance game. You'll hear a constant barrage of noise from all the gunfire and explosions, which really helps to kick up the intensity to make you feel like you're a one-man army taking on hundreds of enemies in a final series of battles to save the world. The music consists of your average electronic tunes that may not stick out in your mind once you're done playing, but they keep everything moving along at a good clip while you're in the game.
Gunstar Super Heroes is a fairly short game with only six levels. If you're good at this kind of game you'll easily burn through it in less than an hour. You can then go back and play through again with a different character, or you can up the difficulty setting and see if you can take the heat. The game is quite punishing, even on normal difficulty, so even veteran players will find a welcome challenge here. When you die, you get kicked all the way out to the opening splash screen, and you have to start over at your last saved checkpoint with whatever amount of health you had when you first passed that point. This makes the game especially difficult at times, since health pickups are usually few and far between. And even though Gunstar Super Heroes is short, it isn't unexpectedly so, because this isn't the kind of game you could play for hours on end. If you tried to do that, your thumbs would be worn raw. Gunstar Super Heroes is perfect for 10- or 20-minute sessions where you just want to get a quick gaming fix with some good old-fashioned carnage. The gameplay is fast and fun, the levels are unique and interesting, and the presentation is top-notch. If you're looking for a challenge and you like side-scrollers, you should definitely add this one to your collection.