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