There are games that are so good, that they can eat up entire gaming sessions even when you have every intention to play something else. Daniel Driver recalls how Guardian Heroes unintentionally devoured not only his time, but that of his friends as well.
What comes to mind when you think of multiplayer classics from the late 90s? Mario Kart? GoldenEye 007? Smash Bros? Maybe even winner-stays-on tournaments in games like International Superstar Soccer and Tekken?
For me and a group of chums, one game managed to stand toe to toe with all of these and even tower above them after it was immortalised forever, following one monumental gaming session.
The big twist here was that the game was exclusive to the Sega Saturn.
The second twist was that this game was not Saturn Bomberman.
Guardian Heroes made its way into my consciousness via the pages of Saturn Power magazine in perhaps the most inauspicious way. You see, Saturn Power had a “Saturn top 100” that it published every month. There at the very bottom was Guardian Heroes sitting in number 96, placed so low since it “lacks sparkle in the gameplay department”, because “frantic button bashing is arduous”.
The next month, it would fall out of the chart – and my mind – faster than Babylon Zoo’s second single.
It may well have remained forgotten, had it not been for a school trip in 1997.
Beat ’em up
Oh this trip, I sat next to my good friend Beagle as the coach ferried us to a destination that was as unmemorable as it was irrelevant. Naturally, as things always did (and still do), the conversation turned to games.
His older brother had managed to snag a Japanese N64 during its launch the previous year, much to the awe of everyone. We all wished we could have one, but when asked whether I’d be jumping on the ‘Ultra 64’ bandwagon, my response was that could only afford one games console at the time and I had my boots planted squarely in the Sega Saturn camp.
“So have you got Guardian Heroes then?” he asked. It’s funny how I remember this exchange almost verbatim, yet literally nothing else about the trip.
“No,” I replied dismissively. “I’ve heard it’s not great, I read it’s not even in the top 100 Saturn games.”
Beagle was aghast. “What?! It’s one of the best games I’ve ever played! It’s definitely the best game on the Saturn! I don’t know what it is you’re reading, but it’s crap! You need to get Guardian Heroes!”
With that, the next Saturn game on my hitlist had a name. Even now, it doesn’t matter what the games media might say; the opinions of our pals always win us over. It was a while later that I actually found a copy while Beagle and I were in CeX on Tottenham Court Road, so as soon as I saw it sitting on the shelf for a tenner I added it to my pile of cheap Saturn games, took it to the counter, paid for it and went back to my house.
A new journey
Amusingly, I knew pretty much nothing about the game: only what was in the single-screen 26-word summary in Saturn Power, alongside Beagle’s recommendation that it was the best thing to ever grace a Sega console. But my friend hadn’t articulated its charms in any great detail, so as I watched the gorgeous anime intro, I was drawn into it despite not knowing what to expect.
So what kind of game was it? Well, it was a cocktail of all sorts! First and foremost – and to my absolute delight as a Streets of Rage and Golden Axe fan – it was a scrolling beat ‘em up. At its most basic level, Guardian Heroes was all about moving from left to right, caving in the heads of oncoming foes. The early 90s punk aesthetic of Streets of Rage, Final Fight and Double Dragon had been swapped out for a high fantasy theme, so this time you were fighting knights instead of hoodlums, cyclopes instead of fire-breathing fatties, and giant mechs rather than wrestlers.
Yes, you read that correctly: this was sword and sorcery with some robots thrown in. This only added to the on-screen mayhem as swords clashed, magic was conjured and mechs sprayed lead in all directions before exploding in a ball of fire that scorched everyone on screen.
This biggest difference between Guardian Heroes and other side-scrollers was that you didn’t traverse the playing field freely. You could run left or right as usual, but going back and forth on the screen required a click of the shoulder buttons to move between horizontal planes. It was a simple system, reminiscent of the first Fatal Fury game, and one that belied the next ingredient to this cocktail of genres: the fighting game.
These days, brawlers such as Double Dragon and fighters like Tekken are clearly defined, whereas in the early 90s they were pretty much all labelled ‘beat ‘em ups’. Guardian Heroes appeared to take that blanket term with gusto and merged the two play styles. Every character had an expansive move set, with many moves accessible via a Hadoken-style input. There were numerous attack buttons in light attack, heavy attack, magic and block, each playing a part in combat.
It was the kind of melding of genres I’d dreamed of back in 1993, bringing together Streets of Rage gameplay with Street Fighter-style commands. Treasure had not only made this a reality but had pulled it off perfectly. The combat was deep, which made Saturn Power’s criticism of arduous button mashing utterly laughable. The characters were also wildly different. Whereas most brawlers have featured identical (Double Dragon) or very similar (Final Fight) avatars, the difference between the play-styles required for beefcake Han and healer Nicole are enormous, giving the game the sort of delicious variety usually reserved for a bucket of pick-n-mix.
And the cordial that topped off this cocktail was what it borrowed from the RPG genre: dialogue, narrative choices, levelling up, skill upgrades between stages and multiple endings. Had the battles been turn based, this game could have easily passed for a full-blown RPG.
Suffice to say, all of this in one game made for an extremely merry time whenever I played Guardian Heroes. Due to the branching paths you were presented with, no two playthroughs ever seemed the same. Sometimes I’d meander through the forests before sneaking into the castle and battling a golden cyborg imbued with magic. Sometimes I’d storm the castle, overthrow the dark wizard and end up battling the hordes of Hell. Now and again I’d ally myself with the underworld’s Earth Spirits and basically go up to heaven and take the fight to God, or at least the Guardian Heroes approximation of the creator. I only seemed to obtain the same ending a few times and even then, the journey would be wildly different.
This was complemented by a refreshingly unique soundtrack filled with up-tempo tunes and magnificent saxophone solos. It was an odd mix of genres, with techno, orchestral and jazz elements shining through, but just like the game itself, it was a mishmash of different game styles and worked better than it had any right to. It managed to keep the feel of the game frantic yet light-hearted, while still scoring the more emotive scenes from the story perfectly.
The story itself started out with the main cast finding a legendary sword, only to be quickly besieged by royal knights. Accompanied by a new ally, Serena the Red Knight, our heroes battled out of the tavern and through the town until they are confronted by the belligerent Prince Valgar, who unleashed what can only be described as a pink ED-209 on steroids.
Overwhelmed by this new foe, all seemed lost until Han (whether you were playing as him or not) was suddenly struck by lighting and the newly-found sword leapt from his hands like an escaping salmon. It’s then that the sword’s purpose becomes clear: a giant skeletal warrior clad in golden armour rose from his grave, Altered Beast style, snatched his sword and laid waste to Valgar’s mechanical toy.
From there, the story opened up in so many ways that it would be impossible to go into here. A neat feature was how the Golden Warrior accompanied you throughout your game, following you with all the loyalty of an enormous armoured skeletal dog, but one that sliced enemies rather than bit them, and screamed madly while blasting flames across the screen instead of barking. By default, he’d protect you, engaging enemies as a second player might, but you could issue commands directly to him that ranged from staying put to becoming a kind of smart bomb, where he created an explosion that roasted everyone on screen.
It goes without saying that a game such as this would feature a two-player option, and the entire story mode – complete with every move set, character and branching path – could be played with a mate. Even the NPC allies (such as Serena and the Golden Warrior) were available, meaning that with a friend it would always be three of us against the world, heaven, hell, and everything in between.
It quickly became the case that Guardian Heroes would be the first game I booted up whenever a friend and I played the Saturn. By the end of 1997, a few more of my mates asked for a Sega Saturn for Christmas off the back of Guardian Heroes and Winter Heat. By this point, the console was selling brand new at around £130 with three games (Sega Rally, Sega Ages vol. 1 and Sega Worldwide Soccer 97), which I imagine was a much-appreciated step down for parents who had bought the same teenagers costly N64s for their birthdays during the previous six months.
Battle in the Castle Town
More consoles meant more controllers, so on one of our expeditions to CEX I picked up a couple of multi-taps, Saturn Bomberman, Street Racer and a few others. Of course, we didn’t have to look far for what was arguably the best multiplayer experience the console had to offer.
You see, Guardian Heroes also featured a Versus mode. In it, up to six players could face off against one another in a bid to become the last man standing. The mode started with just five characters, namely the four immediately selectable in Story mode, as well as Randy the Mage’s pet rabbit Nando.
Expanding the playable roster came via playing through Story mode. The rules were simple: encounter an enemy, beat the snot out of them, they become available in Versus mode. Amusingly you could even lump fleeing civilians in the face and put them on their backsides for later use in Versus mode. Suddenly Versus mode became the focal point of our play, with Story mode seen as a means to that end. Anyone familiar with GoldenEye will recall how fulfilling certain requirements unlocked multiplayer cheats; this was the basically same idea.
Co-op sessions became cases of “Can you help me unlock this character?” to which any help was gleefully offered. Since there were so many branching paths in Story mode, it would often mean that scores of enemies wouldn’t be encountered even after multiple playthroughs. Help came via an extra sword, which not only vanquished the oncoming hordes, but directed us to where certain enemies could be found and beaten.
Thinking about it now, it was kind of a proto Pokémon game, using your chosen avatars to catch ‘em all!
Now, I’m probably making it sound as if Guardian Heroes was all we played, but in truth, the real fight for our attention back then was beyond fierce. The N64 had really changed the gaming landscape as far as multiplayer was concerned; having four controller ports as standard made it stupidly simple to get a four-player match going.
Moreover, most of my wider group of friends and I were all mad on wrestling. This was the era of WWF Attitude and WCW/nWo – wrestling in its prime – so any new wrestling games would become the focus of our group.
That Guardian Heroes even managed to hold our attention for as long as it did during that period speaks volumes. But not only did it manage to hang with such heady competition, there were times when it rose well above its established peers.
One time in particular stands out. It was the summer of 1998, and the biggest multiplayer games around were Mario Kart 64, GoldenEye 007, WCW vs nWo: World Tour and WWF War Zone. These dominated talks at school, none more so than GoldenEye. My friend Chris had a reputation for unlocking the cheats in GoldenEye and kids would bring their carts into school for him to return them days later with everything unlocked.
As was common, everyone was keen to get a gaming session going. On one particular weekend, Beagle’s parents were away all day, so he decided to have a GoldenEye tournament at his house. There would be five of us in all in a league that would carry us through the night. At least, that was the plan.
Not owning an N64 myself, I admittedly lagged well behind my mates in terms of skill. Chris would annihilate me with the sort of abilities I’d imagine James Bond himself would display, had he been a Jedi to boot. The rest of my chums weren’t that far behind. But Chris and I were also rivals in the realm of Guardian Heroes, so I put it to him that if he brought his pads and I brought my multitap, we’d get a game in between the GoldenEye sessions.
That Saturday, we both did as we’d agreed, though I also brought Saturn Bomberman and Winter Heat for good measure. I remember clearly that we got there around midday, set everything up and then Chris, Beagle and I jumped straight into a three-way scrap on Guardian Heroes.
It wasn’t long before Beagle’s older brother jumped in after hearing the commotion. From memory, he was supposed to be going out somewhere, but his aspirations took a back seat as the four of us duked it out on the Saturn.
Soon after, the last two mates in our supposed mini tournament, Adam and Mark, made it over. It was at this point that the N64 was meant to take over and the GoldenEye session was meant to begin.
“What’s this?” Adam asked. “It looks mental!”
And lo, the last two controllers were picked up. For newcomers, the game was very easy to pick up and for veterans there was an embarrassment of options regarding handicapping. It didn’t take long for everyone to catch up and for all levelling options to be set to maximum, so matches became drawn out orgies of overpowered fighters nuking the battlefield.
Even for those of us who’d played before, there was an awful lot of experimentation going on with move inputs, game settings, and various fringe characters all being tried and tested. Eventually, the level cap was lowered to reduce the fighting time, bringing the mayhem down a little. As great as the game was, initially it seemed as if the Versus mode could be unbalanced.
Soon we all knew that we stood a better chance as one of the main or boss characters than the lowly enemy knight; you couldn’t move if you chose the Venus Fly Trap; that most of the civilians didn’t have an attack; and that certain characters could fly.
Oh, and the flying would become the first point of controversy between us.
There was a character called Village God who was literally a giant ball of metal with arms – think Pokémon’s Geodude, but the size of a house, armed with lasers and rockets, with the ability to summon fire and lightning. He was a boss who was fairly easy to dispatch in Story mode, but in multiplayer he fully earned his godly moniker. He would literally float up to the top of the playing field where seemingly no one could touch him, then rain down lighting on everyone and everything below, just like the Old Testament God.
Things escalated. Choosing Village God was considered an insta-win – the kind of douche level behaviour associated with choosing Oddjob in GoldenEye. Soon there were six players scraping their heads on the invisible ceiling of the playing field, all Village God, and matches became a matter of striking first, because if you were successful, the others wouldn’t get back up.
By now it was 5pm, lunch had been missed and the N64 hadn’t been hooked up. The Village God farce had left everyone frustrated, so we decided to nip to the shops and grab something to eat. Stepping away from the game for a second allowed everyone to reflect on how quickly the afternoon had gone and, despite the last few games, everyone agreed that Guardian Heroes was amazing.
Regardless, it would be time for us to really start playing GoldenEye, since that was why we were there in the first place. But Guardian Heroes still had us firmly under its spell and that’s when a temporary solution was put forward.
“Right. We’ll play a couple more games of Guardian Heroes before GoldenEye, and this time Village God is banned!”
The playing field seemingly level again – we couldn’t wait to get back! Suddenly, getting food from the chippy didn’t seem like it would be worth the wait, so we grabbed some Ginsters snacks, a huge tub of popcorn and some nuts, then rushed back.
Play resumed sans Village God, only this time other characters were emerging as seemingly overpowered. In the ensuing hours, we cycled through various characters thinking they had the invincibility of Village God only for them to have a weakness to another character. Kanon, the dark wizard antagonist, was the last character to seem unbeatable. In a surprise turn of events, the Village God ban was relinquished in order give this bearded prick his comeuppance, only for him to make mincemeat of everyone’s favourite spherical guardian.
But the more we played, the more we realised that while the game wasn’t finely balanced, there was always an answer for everything. Kanon could be slain, Village God could be ripped from the skies, and the Sky and Earth Spirits could be rushed and battered. Deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole we went. Sometimes I’d go on a winning run, and sometimes one of my mates would embark on a streak. Over and over we fought and laughed and bantered until suddenly the door went and Beagle’s parents came in.
“I thought you weren’t due back until midnight?” he said, as they walked in to find six sweaty teens, controllers in hand, writhing on the floor of their living room.
“It is midnight!” they laughed.
Suddenly, it dawned on us; we’d been playing the game for over 12 hours. We hadn’t noticed that the sun had set behind the drawn curtains, we hadn’t hooked the N64 up to play what we initially intended, even the other Saturn games I’d brought hadn’t had a look in. We’d barely eaten anything, save for a few cold sausage rolls and handfuls of popcorn. Guardian Heroes had chewed up our entire day.
It was something that we would mention again many times in the following years in discussion: that time we played Guardian Heroes all day. Even now, it’s certainly the longest multiplayer session I’ve been involved in.
Whenever we could, we would try a reignite the fire that Guardian Heroes stoked in us that day. It would be a tall order to match the magic of that glorious session, particularly if we didn’t have the full quota of six players, but we’d still have an absolute riot playing it. I remember clearly when we all came across Super Smash Bros later that year, and compared to the majesty of Guardian Heroes, we all agreed that it simply didn’t stack up.
Despite the first-person shooter being just about the only genre not amalgamated into its being, Guardian Heroes had a great deal in common with a certain Bond adventure. Both offered an embarrassment of unlockables, playable villains for multiplayer, campaigns that begged to be replayed and, most importantly, both gave outstanding single and multiplayer modes.
If anything, it could be argued that Guardian Heroes holds up better than its multiplayer peers today. The graphics are as timeless as any other 2D masterpiece, and while the sprites may often seem pixelated in comparison to the premier 2D fighters of the era, the sheer number of characters and amount of action on screen is still truly something to behold.
This is truer in the more recent Xbox Live Arcade port, which doubles the play count in Versus mode from six to 12. It’s a solid port, with additional control options and updated HD art, though the restrictions of the Xbox 360 mean that only four players can play locally, so you’re reliant on the online component for the traditional six or maximum 12-player games.
It’s also backwards compatible with the Xbox One, which is one of the ways I’ve managed to play it in the modern era. Even then, 20 years on, I found a route and an end boss I hadn’t encountered before. That I still haven’t seen everything the game can offer is simply mind-blowing and shows how deep this game was.
While the 360 port isn’t without its drawbacks, it’s still a fantastic way to play the game, and at £3.39, it’s roughly 20 times cheaper than the Saturn original if you try to buy it now. For the price of a coffee, the sheer wealth of content you get in this game is astounding.
However, there’s something magical about the Saturn original, and even though the sum of its parts is something stratospheric, it continues to exceed expectations. It is equal parts the greatest scrolling beat ‘em up ever made, and a better multiplayer fighting game than Smash Bros.
If you like beat ‘em ups of any variety, you owe it to yourself to check out Guardian Heroes. Just make sure you keep an eye on the clock when you’re playing with friends…
- Fantastically deep gameplay with a wealth of characters and moves to learn
- Fast and frantic action with tons of characters on screen
- Obscene amount of content, multiple endings, branching paths and unlockables
- A unique, catchy soundtrack that complements the game perfectly
- Saturn graphics can seem pixelated on modern displays
- Versus mode can be hugely unbalanced
Guardian Heroes is the ultimate beat ‘em up and party game, besting both Golden Axe and Super Smash Bros in their respective fields. Whether playing solo, bringing a friend in for the ride in the wonderful Story mode, or having a group of mates join the fun in the frantic Versus mode, Guardian Heroes provides endless entertainment.
Not only is it the most fully featured scrolling beat ‘em up of all time, it also hits all of the right notes in the gameplay and sound departments. It’s an absolute triumph and essential for anyone who loves an old-fashioned scrap.