Gunstar Heroes became an instant classic when it first released back in the early 90’s on the Sega Genesis. Gaming has moved on a lot since then, and while we embrace 4K gaming with photo-realistic graphics, is there still room to enjoy classics at a 4:3 aspect ratio? 

Gunstar Heroes (Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack)
Nintendo Switch
Developed by Treasure
Published by SEGA
Released: 10/09/1993 (1/10/2021)
Digital copy provided by Nintendo UK

For those unfamiliar with the series, Gunstar Heroes is a side-scrolling, run and gun shooter.  The aim is to reach the end of each stage whilst defeating enemies with your weapon of choice and avoiding incoming attacks. When first booting this game, players will be greeted with a small number of options before being thrown into absolute chaos. There’s no linear path to be taken which is an amazing benefit for games like this where some levels might leave the player feeling frustrated and wanting to move on. Of course, to reach the end-game, all four stages must be completed. As part of the opening options, players will begin by selecting a shooting style, “free” or “fixed” shot. This greatly changes the gameplay and is solely a personal choice. Free shot will mean the player can run and gun whilst changing the direction they are shooting whereas fixed will mean players are planted on the ground whilst gunning down enemies. I preferred fixed shot but even having the option available is incredibly user-friendly and means players can tailor the experience to their own. Finally, before entering a stage, players will select their ammo type which ranges from homing bullets, fire and even lightning bullets. Each will have their own play-style such as damage output, which may have a trade-off for lower range or slower rounds. There’s no fixed benefit to picking any type, this game is very much designed for players to find their own style and to be replayed for further challenges. 

The madness begins once a stage has been chosen and the fun picks up immediately. Don’t expect a slow and easy start – hordes of enemies will bombard you right away in any stage and players will soon be forced to familiarise themselves with the aforementioned weapon and shot choices. This made me immediately fall in love with the game as I knew I was in for a fast paced, action-packed ride. Gunstar Heroes takes no prisoners and if you are not used to this genre, you will need to up your game instantly. Traversing through the levels your character will not only be shooting at enemies but dodging incoming shots, as well as close-range moves such as grabbing and throwing enemies. The aim of each stage is typically to reach the end of the level and fight the boss, but that won’t be before you have already fought off a couple of other “mini” bosses on your way. 

Throughout each stage you may find item drops such as other ammo types or hearts. The other ammo types will be added to your gun as a secondary weapon and can either be combined with your current weapon to have brand new effects, or can be switched and used on their own. As these drops are random this can make or break a playthrough at times as you may find yourself stuck with a combination of ammo which actually leaves you with a short-range weapon when your preference is long-range. This is by no means a detriment to the game and in fact enhances the experience. Being forced into using a different type of weapon just adds to the chaotic nature of this game before either making you weep with joy or disdain for your own luck. The hearts will increase the player’s Hit Points (HP) and will even increase the maximum HP if you have managed to keep it high enough. The game is not only about making it to the end of each level but about carefully managing your HP and weapon-type to ensure yourself success in the next stage, as this will carry forward and benefit you hugely. 

Although Gunstar Heroes has aged well in general, the controls can be somewhat frustrating at times. When trying to collect items such as hearts that have been dropped on the floor, players need to crouch and tap “A”. This doesn’t sound awfully difficult but the “hit box” for picking up the items is smaller than desired and in my own experience, at times, caused me to lose more HP than if I just left the heart on the floor. I did adapt over time but as far as quality of life improvements go, this is just about my only complaint. Controls are otherwise very well adapted, especially considering the alignment of Sega Genesis to Nintendo Switch Pro/Joy Con Controller is very similar, unlike the Nintendo 64 controller which in fact has more buttons and can be a bit awkward at times.

As far as a narrative goes, there isn’t much to follow, but that should more or less be expected under this genre at the time of original release. As the hero of the game, your goal is to track down Colonel Red who has kidnapped your older brother and mind controlled him to steal four mystical gems which he intends to use to help him take over the world – each stage contains one of these gems which you will obtain upon defeating the boss. Only once you have obtained all four will you be able to proceed onto the sequence of final stages. Gunstar Heroes doesn’t suffer at all for the lack of a narrative and I feel anything more would unnecessarily pad out the game. 

Gunstar Heroes is the sort of game you expect from the Sega Genesis era, the game is built to be played and then replayed many times, trying to smash your old high score or to try new things. There are no save points throughout the game and players should expect to start over every time they boot the game. Although sessions will only last 1 – 2 hours, this could be seen as a negative for those who may just want to quickly jump on their switch for 15 or 20 minutes. Fortunately, there is a “save state” feature meaning you can essentially save at any point to carry on later. The same function can be used to rewind gameplay – for me personally this detracts from the intended experience, but it should be considered a great accessibility feature for those struggling with the game or for those who feel it would improve their experience with it. 

As well as the single-player mode, there is a co-op mode which, thanks to Nintendo Switch Online, can now be played with anyone else on your friends list who is also a member of the service. You will play the same campaign with a friend at your side whilst you share the same screen space as you progress through the levels. For an already amazing game, this adds more value to the experience whether you play couch co-op or online. Unlike my experience with Mario Kart 64, this game was an absolute delight to play online and how I expect Nintendo Switch Online to operate. Whilst the game stands high as a single player experience, I would highly suggest finding some friends to join in on the fun.

On the face of it, Gunstar Heroes is not something I ever thought I would enjoy, but I was sucked in immediately. For a game with little narrative, it has a brilliant sense of humour (such as a level where a commander throws his minions out of a train at you to protect himself) and it also has plenty of variety to keep players coming back. Traversing each level is immensely fun and equally filled with frustration, but it keeps you wanting to go back for more. Even if you have played through the game many times, coming back with friends in co-op revitalises the experience – I would highly recommend this both for newcomers and long running fans of the genre.