Many gamers contentiously believe that Guardian Heroes is one of the best beat 'em ups of all time. And they're probably right. But before things get out hand, we can all agree that it was one of the best games on the SEGA Saturn. Treasure brought their legendary love of technical and mechanical perfection to the ailing console; creating a superlative brawler that's as brutal, visceral and sharp as any of their arcade shooters. Throughout an epic branching storyline of intruigue, betrayal and bloodlines, four heroes will unlock the power of an ancient sword, team up with a legendary undead guardian and bring a corrupt kingdom to its knees.
The slick mechanics that made Guardian Heroes a classic are perfectly intact, with a few new optional tweaks making the battles even sharper than you might remember. Each character boasts a small yet incredibly effective range of punches, kicks, blocks, magic and combos that are all relatively simple to pull off in battle. No massive chains to memorise, no reams of move lists, just technically perfect and instantly responsive pain to deliver to your target of choice. You'll soon discover that the cast have unique ways of dealing with foes (specialising in melee or magic), encouraging you to experiment with new ways to brutalise your adversaries in future playthroughs. However, your foes are no slouches either, and will use their varied attacks and sheer numbers to bury you in dangerous dog piles or stun you with repeated knockdown effects. Many of the bigger bosses are incredibly powerful indeed, meaning that you'll need to pay attention to their attack patterns and tells to avoid humiliating death.
The Saturn controls have also been brought up to date with a slightly more comfortable layout, though the magic system has been awkwardly mapped to the right thumbstick button. If you've got an arcade stick (or a limited edition transforming controller at the very least), you'd be advised to break it out.
In a neat twist, you'll collect experience for every hapless goon you lay out - which translates into a range of skill points that can be plugged into a surprisingly deep upgrade system. Naturally you'll want to focus on each character's main strengths (power, speed and health are always sound choices), but it's a nifty feature that helps to ground players in the game world. Humorous dialogue, an interesting storyline and buckets of genuine personality make Guardian Heroes' world a place that you'll enjoy being a part of.
Treasure has always been the master of adding replayability and value to what could have been extremely short titles, and Guardian Heroes is no exception. The story mode is designed for many multiple playthroughs via branching storylines, alternate levels, multiple endings and a karma system that requires you to use discretion in combat rather than button mash at anything that moves. It's the perfect fit for a downloadable title as it will last you many hours despite being perfect for short play sessions. You'll also unlock new characters to use in multiplayer and the 'survival' based Arcade Mode, which lets you play as any of the regular enemies and bosses to experience their skills first-hand. Who needs an unlockable bestiary?
As with any beat 'em up, Guardian Heroes' true joy is to be found in cooperative brawling, which supports 'drop-in' local multiplayer and up to two simultaneous online co-op combatants. Though visually confusing at times, it's as reckless, raucous and ridiculous as you'd expect. The versus mode is also big dumb fun (12 players?! YES PLEASE), though it lacks some of the meat we've come to take for granted from fighting games. However, there's a case to be made that the cooperative multiplayer doesn't quite go far enough. Sharing lives between the entire team is fairly punitive at the best of times, as is the fact that experience seems to be shared equally between the group rather than increased. The Arcade mode would have also been fantastic fun in multiplayer, and for the life of me, I can't work out why it only supports solo runs.
Finally, it's worth noting that the original graphics have been given a widescreen update (looking fairly impressive in its new aspect ratio thanks to an upscaling filter) - along with a new optional display mode that entirely replaces the visuals with new sprites. Sadly the hand-drawn art style is a bit messy and confusing, essentially resembling the doodles in the corner of a rough book during some of the aforementioned dog piles. It looks a mite tatty in this reviewer's opinion, and doesn't reflect the classic hand-pixelled artwork that made the Saturn version so unique. Frankly, the breathtaking variety and imagination of the level design and character artwork deserved better after all these years.
- Slick and brutal mechanics
- Branching storyline, excellent replayability
- Imaginative art style, great sense of fun and personality
- Disappointing visual "remix"
- Multiplayer could have been fleshed out
- Arcade Mode should have supported multiplayer
The Short Version: Guardian Heroes HD is as brilliant, brutal and replayable as it ever was. Considering its budget price tag, retronauts and beat 'em up aficionados have no excuse not to treat themselves to one of the Saturn's forgotten gems.