When Street Fighter II arrived in the arcades, it was the beginning of the end for the classic side-scrolling arcade beat-'em-up. Competitive fighting games elevated brawling to a new level, and simple one-button tap-tap combos and waves of generic thugs started to seem dull. The genre eventually reinvented itself in the form of action-adventures like Devil May Cry and God of War, but it never really recovered.
But in 1996, beat-'em-ups took a stand. For its 32-bit debut, cult developer Treasure attempted to pair the deep gameplay mechanics of a 2D fighter with the fury and chaos of a classic scrolling beat-'em-up, and sprinkled in a dash of RPG for good measure. The result is not only remembered as one of Treasure's best games, but arguably the high point for the entire genre.
Guardian Heroes is not only remembered as one of Treasure's best games, but arguably the high point for the entire genre.
Guardian Heroes gave players a range of attacks and a degree of control they simply never had before in side-scrolling action games. It used a full-fledged 2D fighting game engine (based on the developer's anime-licensed fighter Yu Yu Hakusho: Makyo Toitsusen), complete with a real combo system, blocking, and an array of basic and special moves for each of the five diverse playable characters. It even brought over some of the fighting genre's more technical elements like counters, throws, and dodging.
In other beat-'em-ups, enemies were faceless thugs with one or two basic attacks, but in Guardian Heroes your foes could block, string together combos, and sometimes even do a few specials of their own. Add to this a host of magic spells, an RPG-like experience and leveling system, and branching paths with multiple endings, and you have a seriously substantial brawler.
Treasure's new XBLA treatment brings with it some HD gloss and a host of gameplay refinements. Both the HD graphics and the new "remixed" gameplay are completely optional, but even in original mode, there are some nice enhancements. The play field has been expanded to accommodate widescreen TVs, and now runs at HD resolution, so even with the old blocky sprites, everything looks crisper with none of the ripple distortion that plagued the low-res original. Interface elements and menus have been redrawn and take up less space on screen, and those lengthy dialog scenes can now be skipped with the touch of a button.
The graphics in HD mode have not been redrawn, but instead use a variety of filters and effects to make those chunky sprites play nice with our HDTVs. The lovely hand-painted backgrounds get some tasteful soft filters, while sprites use an entirely different interpolation process (similar to the hqx filter, for you nerds out there) that creates a crisp, clean look. The flat, colorful sprites with their solid black outlines (designed to create an anime-like look) are about as ideal for this method as you can get, but even the best filtering can't handle fine implied details like faces very well, and the effect is no substitute for new sprites - though a handful of the notoriously large and blocky enemies do appear to have been redrawn or touched up. A pencil shade effect makes these sprites look a little better in motion, and redrawn spell and effect graphics make for a marked improvement over the Saturn's weak transparencies.
After the lovely redrawn pixel art and robust graphical options of Treasure's recent treatment of Radiant Silvergun, Guardian Heroes' visuals are a bit of a disappointment. Some of the new effects and filters look very good, but others are definitely a matter of preference, and there is no ability to customize the look of the game whatsoever. Either all of the new effects are on, or all of them are off. Either one is a nice upgrade from the Saturn original, but the ability to tweak would have gone a long way. There is also no fullscreen support for 4:3 televisions, but this is forgivable as the game itself has been reformatted for widescreen.
Guardian Heroes' gameplay has stood the test of time, and remains arguably the deepest and most complex arcade-style beat-'em-up of all time. It seems odd, then, that Treasure has opted to include remixed gameplay as well, and it's even more surprising that these changes make a great game even better. Countless major and minor tweaks have been made, ranging from the control to the way you gain experience. Like the graphical enhancements, this mode is wholly optional, but unlike with the graphics, I found myself really liking nearly all of the changes.
Right off the bat, players will notice that the number of attack buttons has been upped from two to three, but these buttons only have standing and crouching versions, and no longer have forward versions. This means that some characters have lost moves, but it makes consistent execution a lot easier. A new dodge/back-step button takes the place of the old dodging mechanic and is much more powerful. Dodging can now be done in rapid succession to traverse the whole screen (at the expense of MP) and can pass right through enemies.
The aerial game has also gotten a shot in the arm, thanks to air dashes and directional air recoveries. Dashes work just like in Bleach DS and have both offensive and defensive applications. Air recoveries allow you to right yourself when an enemy sends you flying through the air. The new "forceback" system allows you to perform a counter that knocks down all nearby enemies, perfect for crowd control. None of these changes radically alter the spirit or pacing of the game, and it still feels like Guardian Heroes, but they offer a substantially refined experience in terms of control and could provide some insight into Treasure's vision for the series' future.
Treasure has rounded out the package with an overhauled competitive multiplayer mode, and an entirely new Arcade Mode. The original allowed select Saturn owners with a multi-controller adapter to play with up to six players in a competitive fighting game that made virtually every character in the entire game playable. This returns, expanded to 12 players, with online play and a robust set of gameplay options to boot. Twelve-player matches are utter pandemonium, but with two to four players, it actually feels like a real fighting game. With a roster that includes almost every character and enemy from the game (45 in all), it's not even close to balanced, but a new Rule Editor lets you tweak the gameplay, available roster, and power of each character. You can even disqualify individual moves that may be overpowered. It still probably won't hold the interest of "serious" fighting game fans, but it's still a hoot with a few friends, and is sure to please fans of Treasure's Bleach or Yu Yu Hakusho fighting games.
Arcade Mode distills the madness of the multiplayer mode into a single-player survival challenge. This mode just floods the screen with endless waves of enemies. It's Guardian Heroes at its most frenetic, relentless, and challenging. Lasting even five minutes in this mode takes some practice, and my first attempt left me unprepared and downed in just over a minute.
Guardian Heroes is more than fifteen years old now, but it still feels relevant. Castle Crashers borrowed its blend of cartoon fantasy, arcade action, and RPG elements and became the top-selling game on the XBLA platform. Arcade ports and remakes like Konami's Turtles in Time and X-Men still sell for 800 points. And still none of them has the complexity or inspired design that elevates Guardian Heroes to a level far above the frantic button mashing of its peers. Though it may lack the immediate accessibility of simpler games in the genre, it has a staying power that few others do.