Time Extend: Guardian Heroes

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Scrolling beat ‘em ups are one of gaming’s longest-serving genres – not yet in retirement but teetering on the pensionable as each blundering Final Fight: Streetwise turns up to undo the good work of an Urban Reign. One-on-one scrappers have settled down into a stable domestic relationship with gamers, but the dedicated scrolling beat ‘em up still remain marginalised. The art of one-on-many thumping has moved on: absorbed into myriad action games, it’s always the bridesmaid and never the bride. It features in many games but stars in few, long divorced from the arcades where it once achieved a blissful, balanced existence, able to wow the punters with instant, tap-tap-tap combo gratification while siphoning the credits out of their pockets with cruel boss scraps.

As singleplayer experiences, side-scrolling beat ‘em ups were incomplete, forever erring on the unfair thanks to the weak-spot problem. While the player was battering a thicket of punks, more would loop around or enter from the other side of the screen and take a cheeky swipe at the player’s back, prompting the use of an energy-draining super-move to knock all comers down and start the dance anew. It was a backslap that, gradually but inevitably, could make lone players cough up further credits. It was a commercially savvy design quirk, however, one whose removal was probably never considered, since such a weak spot could easily be covered by a second player (plus, commonly, a third and a fourth) – and yet more credits – in return for some instantly rewarding co-op play, which was often how such games were best enjoyed. It was an essential mechanic for a genre where few enemies are built to survive a head-on assault, but one that always risked generating irritation, turning game progress from flashy satisfaction to the grind of riot survival.

Guardian Heroes, Treasure’s scrolling beat ‘em up masterpiece of amplified pyrotechnics and showy, skull-cracking combo repertoires, did things differently. Its solution was simple and, typically for Treasure, very hard to steal: The Golden Warrior. The Guardian Heroes were a four-strong band of lively adventurers – Han, Ginjirou, Randy and Nicole – who stumbled upon an enchanted sword that, soon after, was pulled from their hands and into those of a reanimated, armoured skeleton, now bound to serve them by this reunion with the blade’s rightful owner. The ultimate bodyguard and sidekick, he needed no babysitting but could still be told what to do. Indestructible but not unstoppable in combat, he is compensation for the weak spot; essentially, in coin-op terms, he’s a dim but rich pal, infinite credits in tow.

The Golden Warrior was the ultimate in benevolent game design, a free gift with no hidden costs. And unlike many an AI-controlled sidekick, he’d make up for any lack of intelligence with limitless brutality, propelling himself headlong into every single scrap unless ordered to do otherwise, mopping up stragglers with acidic hunger. Each of the four playable Guardian Heroes was given an almost impenetrable block to hide behind, while the Golden Warrior behaved like man’s best NPC – able to be sent into an effective and breathtaking rage as and when the player liked. But just what kind of tilt-a-whirl tailspin does that send the difficulty curve into?

Treasure’s answer, it seems, is this: Who cares? Who cares when the game itself is realised with such confidence and flair, alive with showboating sprites and fizzing special moves? Guardian Heroes’ left-to-right battlefields are injected with so much chaotic vitality that the idea of holding it back simply to satisfy the inoffensive smoothness of a difficulty curve seems like party-pooping backwards thinking. Why bother making victory feel like the be-all and end-all when the game itself has succeeded in making taking part the bit that counts? It threw the cat among the pigeons and realised the results with fidelity and imagination, outputting streams of outrageous clashes. It then strapped the whole thing to a bull in a china shop by throwing more and larger enemies onto the screen before the player’s wonderful meleé and magic attacks, in an orgy of memorably drawn and brazenly animated sprites. Through it all, a second player was welcome to tag along – to join in, not replace the Golden Warrior – and add their own splatters to the canvas.

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