It's just a sideshow attraction in Guardian Heroes, but Arcade Mode embodies all of the inimitable, brash creativity that has made its maker, Treasure, one of the best-loved game studios. Imagine, having selected your character in Street Fighter IV, that you were made to fight not one but every character in the game, all of whom piled on you simultaneously in an endless survival gauntlet, without so much as a stutter in frame-rate.
It's mayhem. And not the kind of conservative, Saturday morning children's TV mayhem of so many Smash Bros. titles. It's bona fide wild-men-picking-fights-with-rocks mayhem, the sort that, in the blur of colour and shape, makes it difficult to know where your character ends and an enemy begins. But it's also the kind of mayhem that, in some deep place in your being, unlocks the abandoned joy we all play video games in the hope of rediscovering.
Guardian Heroes is the eldest of Treasure's three seminal releases for Sega's Saturn (the others being Silhouette Mirage and Radiant Silvergun, which was also recently re-released on Xbox Live Arcade). It mixes the side-scrolling fantasy beat-'em-up play style of Golden Axe with the combat complexity of Street Fighter II and threads them into an OutRun-style branching structure. As a result, the Story Mode is at once familiar and, in the unique combination of these iconic designs, fresh and enthralling.
You have the choice of five characters to play as (four initially - female knight Serena Corsair is unlockable). Alpha male Samuel Han's brutish sword attacks can swipe through enemies even as they cower behind shields, while the lithe, agile Ginjirou Ibushi complements his super-fast attacks with lightning augmentations. For players who prefer the magical approach, the unlikely-named sorcerer Randy M. Green can employ various types of elemental magic, while Nicole Neil is the only character who can heal herself, an advantage counterbalanced by the fact she has the weakest attacks.
The game is unusually story-heavy for a Treasure release, fully embracing an anime knights-and-castles aesthetic and spinning a tale of regal intrigue that spirals up to the gods themselves. It's told via regular cut-scene interjections between the short, sharp missions.
Normally these kind of narrative interruptions would irritate, but in Guardian Heroes, each micro-exchange is followed by one of three Choose Your Own Adventure choices, each sending your team off to a different numbered stage. The branching paths lead to a variety of different endings, and within the stacking choices you make as you play through the game, you have the opportunity to define what type of player you want to be, killing or saving civilians, defending or crushing the weak, and showing mercy or cold justice to repentant enemies.
The writing is robust rather than electric (and often the phrasing makes branching choices difficult to distinguish from one another). But the narrative structure ensures that you'll want to play through multiple times as you work to collect all of the endings and unlockable characters, which subsequently become available in the Arcade Mode and player-versus-player online modes.
For all its structural cleverness, the jewel at the heart of Guardian Heroes is the battle system, which allows attacks to be elegantly strung together into creative chains. It works a little like Street Fighter's cancelling, except the windows for combo-ing moves together are far more generous and there is no limit in the number of attacks that can be executed in quick succession. For example, you can trigger Han's 'Finale', which sees the character spin his arms around in a helicopter circle in order to juggle an enemy high into the air. Then, as you and your foe begin your descent to the ground, you can air-dash forward before executing a Han Maximum, weaponising your fall and adding a magical element to slice through your enemy mid-air.
For fighting game players well versed in looking for openings to combo into new moves or juggle opportunities, Guardian Heroes offers a fascinating playpen for destructive creativity, and hours can be spent inside the training mode perfecting combo strings. But where the game differs from its more straightforward fighting game cousins is in the fact that it allows enough time between moves to think on your feet.
Rather than bashing out memorised strings of attacks, you can read the play field and react accordingly, second by second. Enemies can be bounced off the floor, attacked in clusters and, even after the 'Dead' signal text flashes up on screen and their bodies fade to black, you can continue to juggle their cadavers with attacks.
This makes Guardian Heroes one of the most satisfying combat games ever conceived. The huge array of different attacks open to your character is multiplied by the attacks other characters can inflict on you, and in turn, the number of scenarios for blocking, countering and staging offensives of your own. While you constantly move from left to right through the stages, Treasure borrows SNK's Fatal Fury invention of allowing characters to jump back and forth between three planes in parallax. This gives the game a sense of depth and affords additional strategy as you manage your position in relation to enemies and your AI-controlled team-mates.
Sega's port to XBLA has undergone a rare amount of spit and polish. The entire game has been reformatted for modern widescreen televisions, irrespective of whether you opt for 'original' pixelated graphics or the divisive redrawn sprites, which have a pencil-shaded look. But the remake goes deeper than the visuals, with a 'remix' mode that changes not only the control scheme (swapping out the 'magic' button for a third-tier strength attack) but also adding in air dashes and air recoveries, making the game feel more like a flexible fighting game than ever before.
The multiplayer portion of the game has undergone a serious overhaul too. Story Mode can be played over Xbox Live in co-op, while in Network match you (and three friends) can join a lobby for up to 12 players to battle it out with any of the characters you've unlocked. There's a huge array of options on offer here, even allowing the host to toggle specific moves on and off on a per-character basis.
The level of customisation is far beyond anything seen elsewhere in a contemporary fighting game, allowing players to put cap levels on character selection, set the rate of magic point consumption for moves and even edit the starting position of characters. It's as if Treasure has given us access to the multiplayer debugging mode, rather than offering a commercial set of options, and tinkerers will be dazzled.
Guardian Heroes is one of the most comprehensive and generous ports on Xbox Live Arcade, a game that has been lovingly updated to suit the contemporary hardware. Few developers would dare touch the core mechanics of a well-loved classic, but in introducing (optional) elements plucked from Treasure's Bleach fighting game series, the Saturn's seminal scrolling sword-'em-up finds fresh life. Even without these enhancements, the game remains one of the strongest in the developer's sterling catalogue, a product of its time that here proves itself to be timeless.
9 / 10