Welcome to another installment of Retro Weekend, the weekly feature where I play a classic game and write whatever I want about it! This week, I played Gunstar Heroes, originally for the Sega Genesis. However, I decided to pick up the recently released 3D Classics version on the Nintendo 3DS. With some great looking 3D, and a handful of bonus features — including the ability to switch between International and Japanese versions of the game — it’s a fantastic alternative to the original game. For someone like me who hasn’t played it a lot in the past, I realized that Gunstar Heroes is more or less a long Boss Rush game. Ah, the boss battle, where has thou gone?
First of all, the story of Gunstar Heroes is actually pretty elaborate for a run-and-gun shooter in the early ’90s. No, it’s not exactly Final Fantasy, but let me just see if I can get this straight. Okay, the Gunstar family has protected the world for a while. There’s this evil being called Golden Silver that can be resurrected with the power of four gems. All those gems were collected and hidden by the Gunstar family. In comes bad guy, Colonel Red, who brainwashes Gunstar Green into obeying him and showing him where the gems are located. All of this happens before the game actually begins.
When you get to start playing, Gunstar Red and Blue set on a mission to retrieve the lost gems and get their brother back. This sets up a game that at first feels a bit similar to Mega Man. You can choose which level you’d like to begin with, as well as which type of weapon you want. Though you don’t acquire weapons from defeating bosses, there are four power-ups in the game. You can collect two of these and combine their powers which actually leads to a fair amount of variety in how you’d like to play. I preferred doubling up on Chaser shots, allowing my shots to home in on the enemy relentlessly, or one Chaser and one Fire to control my shots with some heavy damage.
Anyways this plot leads us to the gameplay, which I initially thought was going to be full of platforming as well as shooting. Each level looks gorgeous and I really envisioned a Mega Man-style trek through each environment before I inevitably encountered the stage’s boss. So as I jumped into the first level and blasted some mindless cronies into oblivion, I was shocked to find a boss waiting for me less than a minute in! So now as I’m dodging its attacks, and shooting its weak point as best as I can, I’m thinking to myself “Seriously? This is the entire level? Lame…” But as soon as the giant robot exploded into a pile of shrapnel, I was left to continue on. “Phew, there’s more.”
Little did I realize then, there was a whole lot more. Each level contains about three boss fights, and one board game stage can potentially have you fighting a whole lot more than three if your dice rolls don’t work out. To me, Gunstar Heroes is basically a Boss Rush before Boss Rush mode became a thing.
Don’t take that as a slight against the game, the short run-and-gun sections are great and are just enough to break up the big battles thanks to their variety. Sometimes you’ll be sliding down a pyramid, other times playing a board game, and other times flying a ship. In fact, that’s one of the most enjoyable things about Gunstar Heroes: It doesn’t repeat itself. Even with the huge number of bosses, each one looks and behaves uniquely, making each new encounter that much more pleasant to get to.
Each boss is mainly pattern-based and you have to rely on figuring out their attacks, how to avoid them, and when to go on the offensive. They also force you to learn and use all the abilities the Gunstars have, including sliding and wall jumping; it’s the same gameplay that makes Mega Man bosses so fun and memorable. Some bosses in Gunstar Heroes will rely on you precisely moving underneath them as they hop around stage, others will force you to jump over beams, and some will have a weak-spot you’ll need to zero in on. Some bosses are towering robots, and others are just super-powered men the same size as the Gunstars. Regardless, each encounter is distinct and exciting in its own right and by the time the credits rolled I was in awe at how much I enjoyed those fights and wondered why games now have such a hard time creating a boss battle.
The biggest misstep in recent games that try to do boss fights is that they forgot about how simple some of these fights are. A good fight doesn’t have to be incredibly deep with multiple mechanics overlapping each other. They don’t have to be towering enemies 100 times the size of your character. Games like Gunstar Heroes have memorable and fun one-on-one boss fights that rely on figuring out a few patterns and capitalizing on enemy openings. In the case of Gunstar Heroes, most of the bosses aren’t even that hard. Mega Man bosses aren’t even that tough once you nail their patterns down or shoot them with their weakness. Moving forward in time, a game like Shadow of the Colossus is all about traveling from one giant boss to the next, and do they have overly complicated mechanics? No, you just figure out how to climb up them and then plunge a dagger into the big glowing part.
Fast forward more to games like Dark Souls and there’s another important factor I think comes into play. The character you control needs to be flawed in some ways. Dark Souls doesn’t allow players to cancel attack animations or dodge with lightning speed. The actions you take must be deliberate because you can’t be everywhere at once, and the enemies are designed to push you and your avatar to your limits. This is one of the main reasons I feel like first-person shooters have such a hard time handling boss fights. Because you can aim everywhere and anywhere, because bullets are so quick to land, because you can move pretty much anywhere, finding an enemy that can really go up against that is really hard. In the off-chance they can test your abilities, it usually feels like some god-like character that is simply cheating.
I’m glad the Souls games exist because they show that a great boss fight is still capable of being made, but in all honesty, I think the boss battle will always be best in the 8 and 16-bit generations. The limitations of what a character could do made it a perfect ground for setting up big battles with other sprites that test those limitations. A game like Gunstar Heroes reminds me of a time where you looked forward to the next boss and the feeling of accomplishment that ran over you as you crushed them into dust. Yes, a few games can still give me that feeling, but if I ever really need a good boss fight, all I have to do is go back in time.