Guardian Heroes for Xbox Live Arcade
After having heard for years that Treasure's Guardian Heroes for Sega Saturn was perhaps the greatest side-scrolling brawler of all time, I was quite excited to learn that it was being remastered for Xbox Live Arcade. This beat 'em all par excellence for a tragically doomed system would at last be getting a second chance on an actually viable platform, and I could not wait to give it a try.
Alas, the game is junk.
To its credit, the game had some ambition. It distinguished itself from previous beat 'em ups by including 1) an expansive, dialogue-heavy story mode with branching paths, 2) a Fatal Fury-style multi-plane field of play, 3) Street Fighter-style special moves, and 4) RPG-style level-up and character attribute customization systems.
The first thing you're likely to notice (well, besides the crap character designs from the same guy who did Radiant Silvergun) is that there's an awful lot of talk in this game. As the game begins, before you can commence whaling on guys, you must endure interminable screens of dialogue. Such breaks in gameplay recur with regularity as you progress further. As far as I could tell, the story was some cheesy and completely generic fantasy fare. Between the lame characters and the fact that I don't play beat 'em ups in order to read, I quickly ran out of patience for this. Mercifully, you can fast-forward through the story sequences, although I wish they had included an option to exclude them altogether.
Once you get into the actual gameplay, the next aggravating feature of Guardian Heroes is the multi-plane system. The battlefield is rigidly divided into three Fatal Fury-style planes, and there are buttons specifically assigned to shifting between planes. Presumably, the game was designed this way in order to help it play more like a 2-D fighting game. Pressing the up directional causes your character to jump, and you can perform special move motions (e.g. quarter-circle-forward (AKA "Hadouken")) without your character's feet sliding downward as you input the command.
Alas, I think the cost may outweigh the benefit. Personally, I found the planes system to be the most frustrating mechanic I'd encountered since the "turn around" button in Guilty Gear Isuka, itself perhaps this game's spiritual other half--a 2-D fighting game that wanted to be a beat 'em up. In both cases, players are asked to unlearn one of the most ingrained fundamentals of the genre, having now instead to handle with conscious intention what before had been easy as breathing. At least in Guilty Gear Isuka, I could try to keep my opponents on one side of me, so that I wouldn't have to turn around to face them. In Guardian Heroes, there's really no way to keep enemies from hopping off to a different plane, at which point I lose precious split-seconds before remembering that I must press the appropriate "shift to plane" button to go after them.
And what do we get in return for this cumbersome design? Some fireballs and uppercuts? Other 2-D beat 'em ups, such as Capcom's Final Fight 3, have managed to implement special moves without having to constrain the battlefield in such a manner. Admittedly, no other beat 'em up has implemented 2-D fighting game mechanics to anywhere near the same extent as Guardian Heroes (unless you count the Boost mode in Guilty Gear Isuka), and probably no other beat 'em up's combat involves as much finesse.
The last unique feature of Guardian Heroes is its inclusion of limited RPG elements. Characters have different stats that you can raise by gaining experience from defeating enemies. Having to take breaks between stages to assign these attribute points further encumbers an experience that is already frequently stalled by the story sequences. This is especially unacceptable when playing with a second player, as the time you spend deciding how to allocate your points may leave the other player waiting impatiently.
That is probably the most serious flaw of Guardian Heroes--that it is not very conducive to a fun co-op experience. For one thing, it only supports two players. But, worse, the story mode seems to have been designed really more as a single-player experience. The constant lulls in the action make this much more of a ponderous and therefore solitary experience than one would expect from a game of this genre. Treasure did include a versus mode for up to 12 players, and this may actually be what Guardian Heroes is best known for. But, for all its Street Fighter-isms, it remains far too simplistic to ever work as a competitive fighting game, and so this arena mode is only fun for the occasional party.
As far as I'm concerned, this is Skies of Arcadia all over again--just another case of a truly mediocre game with a fan-manufactured reputation as a hidden gem. I attribute this to a mix of post-purchase rationalization--adopters of a total bust of a game system feeling the need to justify their purchase by desperately propping up one of that system's rare exclusives--and a will to elitism--the need for snobs to make themselves feel special by developing a cult around a game that was never actually remarkable, but only so hard to come by that nobody on the outside could try it for themselves to verify that the game was unremarkable. Well, I think perhaps that cult finally voiced its praise a little too loudly and proudly, encouraging Treasure to release the game to wider audience, whereupon both the game itself and its champions have at last been exposed for the frauds they have always been. Now excuse me while I sign some petition for Sega to never ever port Panzer Dragoon Saga to any viable platform.