I don’t know of many perfect video games, but Gunstar Heroes is surely one of them. 25 years on from its initial release, it’s every bit as intoxicating now as it was back then. Maybe even more so, in fact; it’s rare to come across something so utterly pure.
The work of seven former Konami employees who’d just started on their own with the all-new company Treasure, Gunstar Heroes is also rare in being a game made with absolutely no compromises; where every idea the team had made the cut, and where pretty much every idea landed.
And so you’ve a run and gun shooter with some profoundly brilliant concepts: weapons that can be blended together through some strange alchemy; bosses that shake the screen and undergo outrageous transformations mid-fight; enemies that can be picked and thrown into crowds, scattering the mobs like big fat bowling pins.
I played through it again – for what must be fast approaching the 20th time – as part of Sega Mega Drive Classics, which is arriving next week on the Switch. It’s a decent compilation, maybe lacking a little in terms of quality when put alongside the recent efforts of Digital Eclipse, or of M2 with its Sega Ages or 3D Classics series, but more than making up for that in terms of quantity.
Here you can play all three Streets of Rage games, the 16-bit Golden Axe trilogy, more offbeat treats like Ancient’s Beyond Oasis or absolute bangers like Phantasy Star 4 – easily the best RPG on the system, and a contender for one of the best RPGs of its era. There are some disappointing omissions in the otherwise generous list of some 50 odd games, but that’s always going to be the way with anything beyond a complete compilation, and this particular bundle is an easy recommendation – even if, following the likes of the PSP’s own Mega Drive Collection, handled by Digital Eclipse, there’s no real novelty in being able to play many of these games on the go any more.
But… I’ll take any excuse to play Gunstar Heroes again, and while Treasure’s first game remains its finest (although I’d argue it did come close to perfection again with Hiroshi Iuchi’s impeccable games, in particular Radiant Silvergun and Gradius 5). I’ll also take any excuse to rake over what it is that made Treasure so special, and this particular Mega Drive Collection presents plenty of opportunities to do so – there’s the curio that is action RPG Light Crusader, as well as the enjoyably demented platformer Dynamite Headdy. The real gem, though – and what gets to the heart of what made Treasure so beloved – is Alien Soldier.
An accompaniment piece to Gunstar Heroes, in a way, Alien Soldier is another run and gunner that launched two years after Treasure’s debut effort. It’s never received the same kind of attention, partly due to lack of availability – Alien Soldier was never given a physical release in North America, and getting hold of the PAL or Japanese version of the game these days can set you back a pretty penny. And partly it’s overlooked because when placed alongside Gunstar Heroes, it fares badly – it lacks the focus, the finesse and the elegance.
What it has, though, is an anarchy that’s peerless; the same anarchy that bubbles along under the surface of Gunstar Heroes, but here becoming a full-on torrent, a non-stop assault of enemies and ideas and bullets and mayhem and noise and just about everything. It’s easy to find yourself lost in the chaotic mix of it all. Gunstar Heroes on acid, I’ve heard it called, though I don’t think I’ve ever had the energy found in Alien Soldier after dropping a tab.
It is as messy as a trip that’s tipped out of hand, mind. The controls are dense, giving the action an erratic edge, while the levels themselves are famously protracted, punctuated frequently by boss attacks. Indeed, there are 28 bosses spread out liberally amongst the 24 levels, the high density meaning you’re often only a dozen or so paces between encounters. I like to think of it as breathless, and more than a little bawdy, but it’s no wonder players can bounce off it so hard.
There’s something slightly unhinged about Alien Soldier that’s always impressed me, and it’s only recently that I found out exactly why that’s there; this action epic is, predominantly, the work of a sole developer, one Hideyuki Suganami (also known as NAMI). You can read more of his story on the brilliant site shmupulations – and it’s worth backing them on Patreon too, as they’re doing god’s work – and it’s a fascinating tale, development cut short and only half the intended ideas ever making the cut. No wonder it’s so different in feel to its spiritual predecessor Gunstar Heroes; it’s an imperfect sketch, rather than the finished article.
But that probably explains why I love Alien Soldier so much. It’s what explains the incredible title screen on the Japanese version that screams ‘VISUALSHOCK! SPEEDSHOCK! SOUNDSHOCK! NOW IS TIME TO THE 68000 HEART ON FIRE!’, a punkish call from NAMI himself as he rallied to push the Mega Drive’s Motorola 68000 processor to the absolute limit. It’s one man taking himself – and a machine – to the limits, and part of the thrill of Alien Soldier is seeing the edges beginning to fray.
And it’s Treasure distilled, even if it’s got a harsher taste than some of its other games. Alien Soldier is a game of ideas and energy, and I can think of no better way to describe the essence of this brilliant (and sadly absent) developer. It’s far from the perfect game, but sometimes it’s the imperfect ones that are more fascinating anyway. “The only one who can love you because of, not in spite of, your various flaws is me,” said NAMI in a 1995 interview. “What, is it unbecoming of a developer to say all this? Well, I want to say what I want to say …Alien Soldier is mine. I don’t care if you believe me! Am I being… strange? Alien Soldier is my beloved, and I’m madly in love with her. Waking, sleeping, I only think of her… “Hey, who do you think you are?!” Call me Nami-sama.”
Sega Mega Drive Classics is out now on PS4 and Xbox One, and is coming to Switch on December 6th