3D Gunstar Heroes 3DS Review: Sega's Pride and Joy, Now Nintendo's Shining Star

M2 and Sega recreate Treasure's chaotic action masterpiece as a handheld essential.

Review by Jeremy Parish, .

People made a big deal about how crazy it was to see Sonic the Hedgehog on Nintendo systems in the days following Sega's move from first- to third-party status. But was it really that shocking? Sonic had already flirted with other first parties when he showed up as a Neo Geo Pocket Color launch title, and those Sonic Advance games were ultimately just an extension of that.

No, for my money, it's far more bizarre to see Gunstar Heroes on a Nintendo system. Although it was developed by Treasure rather than Sega, Gunstar has always struck me as the quintessential classic-era Sega game. Certainly its design philosophy stands in stark contrast to the gentle, disciplined approach Nintendo leans on. Gunstar was brash, chaotic, bordering on sloppy. It threw everything it had at the player from the word "go," bombarding you with tons of enemies and giving you access to your full (and remarkably varied) array of character skills immediately. If the Nintendo approach to game design is to start you out in the kiddie pool with water wings and an inner tube, Gunstar Heroes skipped the kiddie pool and send you directly to SEAL training, where it held your head underwater until your body went limp, laughing all the while.

Sure, it's a short game, but it's hard to complain when every precious second is packed with twists and surprises.

Playing Gunstar on Wii Virtual Console felt surreal enough, but now here is a Gunstar remake built exclusively (not to mention excruciatingly) for 3DS. This is like some '80s movie where an angry punk rock teen has to move in with a family of sweater-vest-wearing church kids. At first, they clash hilariously, but in the end they all learn important life lessons from one another. Or something like that.

"Nintendo's very own Gunstar Heroes" is a phrase that sounds like a promise of disaster, but it works. Certainly it's a far sight better than the disappointing Gunstar Super Heroes for Game Boy Advance, which wasn't quite a sequel, not quite a remake, and not entirely worth bothering with. Rather than serving up leftover helpings of great ideas, M2 has simply gone back to those original ideas and reworked them to offer the best possible rendition of the Genesis classic possible on 3DS hardware — and not only that, but also the single most robust version of the game ever produced.

As with M2's other projects, 3D Gunstar Heroes absolutely bursts with options. Beyond the basics, like custom control configurations (which admittedly has one of the worst and most confusing interfaces I've ever had the displeasure of dealing with), it also features several display options, e.g. the ability to render those crisp 3DS pixels as if they were on a crappy, distorted, tube-style TV. You can choose from two different modes of 3D, "fall in" or "pop out," though for whatever reason I could never find a sweet spot for the latter mode. M2 has even emulated two different versions of the various sound chips the Genesis used, just to give players the greatest number of options possible. About the only thing lacking here is the option to jump between different versions of the game, e.g. the "how did that even exist" Game Gear port, though that's understandable given that the purpose of this release is simply to remaster the Genesis version in exacting detail.

Pink's robot contraption is plenty wacky, but it's probably the most down-to-earth encounter in the game.

And that it does. As with M2 and Sega's previous "Giga Drive" releases for 3DS, 3D Gunstar Heroes is essentially the Virtual Console concept taken to its ultimate extreme: A brilliantly faithful and feature-rich rendition of a classic game. The care and fidelity invested into the game allows you to simply focus on the excellence of the source material. And it is excellent indeed, albeit decidedly un-Nintendo-like in every possible way.

Gunstar Heroes takes the Contra concept — the run-and-gun cooperative shooter — a step further than Konami ever managed. Contra III introduced new weapons and the ability to navigate stages by climbing and grappling; Gunstar went beyond that, allowing to use your grappling skills against foes while introducing a weapon customization system that granted you access to four different guns, which could be paired up into an additional 10 different combo weapons. You also had your choice of combat styles at the outset of the game: Free-firing while running, or a fixed stance that planted your hero's feet in place while attacking but made it easier to fire in all eight directions.

As if the sheer variety of play that resulted from multiple gun stances, tons of weapon combos, and a mix of ranged and melee combat skills weren't enough to kept things unpredictable, Gunstar threw players into a proverbial blender of level formats. Not unlike the contemporary Mega Man games, players could select from any of four different stages after completing the prologue level, tackling the game's challenges in any order. What set Gunstar apart was the fact that no two levels played anything alike. One stage might see you fighting on the constantly shifting wings of an airplane in flight, while the next could consist of a board game where your literal throws of a die whose outcomes result in advancement, bonuses, or battles. Even the auto-scrolling stage, so often the downfall of action games, culminated in the amazing running fight against a transforming robot boss who could take on up to seven forms (depending on the difficulty level).

So yeah, Gunstar Heroes was a chaotic, sometimes confusing mess of a game, but it worked. It made up for its manic approach to design with sheer technical finesse and a heck of a lot of self-confidence. It pushed the stock Genesis hardware in unimaginable ways, it refused to let you rest, and it never once apologized for its dizzying pace and style. It really felt like a collection of every cool or interesting idea its creators ever had, thrown together into a crazy heap with just enough unity in the controls and visual style to keep it from exploding into a complete disaster. Gunstar Heroes probably shouldn't have worked... but it did.

So much happening, and this is just the intro stage. It only gets more ridiculous from here.

What really makes this remake so great is that M2 hasn't been afraid to fine-tune the mechanics in a few places. Nothing big, just the occasional nip or tuck to make it even more playable — to put even more control at the player's fingertips. The most important addition: The ability to toggle between firing modes with the press of a button. Where in the original game you had to commit to free-running or stationary gunning for the entire playthrough based on your choice of hero, now there's no real differentiation between protagonists Blue and Red besides their looks, as you can change from one mode to the other as the situation demands. You can also choose the traditional power-up system, where you're dependent on the weapon drops you can collect within each stage, or the "gunslinger" mode that allows you to cycle between weapons set by tapping the 3DS shoulder triggers. Neither of these changes seem like a violation of the original game's spirit but rather come off as features that probably would have been there all along if the standard Genesis controller had included enough buttons to make them possible.

In summary, M2 has taken a classic video game, rebuilt it for 3D with loving care, added new play mechanics, and slathered it with a host of presentation and play options. It's an absolute must-play... especially for churchy Nintendo fans who could use a little punk rock in their lives.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Interface: The confusing front-end menu are this remake's only flaw, but your in-game controls options have never been better.
  • Lasting appeal: As flexible as a Mega Man game, with unlockable bonus modes and cooperative play, 3D Gunstar Heroes gives you plenty of reasons to play again and again.
  • Sound: Sharp and a little harsh, as is the Genesis way... but the dissonance works in a heavy metal kind of way.
  • Visuals: The coolest-looking Genesis game ever looks even better in 3D.

Every Sega/M2 3D Classic collaboration to date has demonstrated incredible love and care, even for mediocre games like Altered Beast. That same devotion applied to a top-tier masterpiece makes for an essential addition to any 3DS. This is the 3D Classics game to get.

5 /5

3D Gunstar Heroes 3DS Review: Sega's Pride and Joy, Now Nintendo's Shining Star Jeremy Parish M2 and Sega recreate Treasure's chaotic action masterpiece as a handheld essential. 2015-08-27T17:00:00-04:00 5 5

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Comments 19

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  • Avatar for Windwhale #1 Windwhale 3 years ago
    "the disappointing Gunstar Super Heroes for Game Boy Advance, which wasn't quite a sequel, not quite a remake, and not entirely worth bothering with."

    I am curious: What did you find dissapointing about it? Personally I was very pleased with the GBA game (except for a few sections maybe).
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  • Avatar for unoclay #2 unoclay 3 years ago
    I've heard the retronauts wax philosophic about this game in the past; never played it, but as soon as I heard it announced for 3D remake, i knew i was getting it. Greatly looking forward to it, and thanks for the great review.
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  • Avatar for Don-Rumata #3 Don-Rumata 3 years ago
    I'd say Alien Soldier's the better looking (and playing) game, but GH is quite fun even now, and definitely benefits from this release. The Game Gear version ported to 3D sometime in the future would be great too.
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  • Avatar for mobichan #4 mobichan 3 years ago
    I agree the GBA game was a disappointment. It really recycled the best parts of GH and added little new or innovative. Can't wait to see this in action on my 3DS. As for player differentiation, did they change the fact that one had a body tackle and the other had a jump kick?
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  • Avatar for jeremyparish #5 jeremyparish 3 years ago
    @Don-Rumata Based on the M2 interview I linked in the review, it sounds like Game Gear VC was a complete disaster in terms of sales, so I doubt we'll see them devote any resources into porting GG games. A pity, I'd love to see some teamsters!
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #6 SargeSmash 3 years ago
    @mobichan : That was my immediate thought as well. The two jumping attacks behaved a bit differently.
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  • Avatar for orient #7 orient 3 years ago
    @jeremyparish Such a bummer -- I bought several GG games on 3DS VC: Sonic 1, Mean Bean Machine, Shining Force...all great games. I bought Sonic 2 as well but it's terrible.
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  • Avatar for FalcoT #8 FalcoT 3 years ago
    When the Sega 3D Classics first started coming out on the 3DS, I was hoping we'd end up here eventually. Now, between Gunstar Heroes and Streets of Rage 2, we've got near-perfectly emulated versions of two of my favorite childhood games. Give me a 3D remake of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and I'd be pretty much set.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #9 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    This is yet another game lodged in my backlog.
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  • Avatar for TernBird #10 TernBird 3 years ago
    Ah, yes... Gunstar Heroes. My favorite action game.

    There's nothing more to say here, I just can't wait to get this game on my 3DS.
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  • Avatar for NateDizzy #11 NateDizzy 3 years ago
    Gunstar Heroes is easily in my top 3 Genesis games. If you love shmups, this is a must buy.
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  • Avatar for Windwhale #12 Windwhale 3 years ago
    @mobichan If you were expecting something as fresh and new as the original, sure, then I guess it could be dissapointing to some.

    But I think it was meant to be a remake/reimagining of the original, rather than a sequel. And as such it works quite well. For someone like me who had played the original, it changed things up enough to feel familiar, yet exciting und even surprising at times. At the same time it introduced the core concepts of the original to a whole new audience. Instead of going for a straight port (which might have resulted in cutting corners) they chose to utilize the strenghts of the new hardware. Is it as good as the Mega Drive game? Probably not, since a few stages can feel somewhat unpolished (though there were moments in the original, which I found to be tedious or frustrating as well). But it is a fun and gorgeous looking game in its own right.
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  • Avatar for presagiador #13 presagiador 3 years ago
    You had me at " The ability to toggle between firing modes with the press of a button ".
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  • Avatar for secularsage #14 secularsage 3 years ago
    @Windwhale I'm with you on the GBA game - it was certainly different, but hardly a disappointment. It seems like everyone was raving about it when it debuted, and its biggest problem was lack of sales. But then, I wasn't really comparing it against its predecessor, since I'd only played the original a few times.

    As Treasure games go, I liked Gunstar Super Heroes and Advance Guardian Heroes quite a bit, actually (even though the latter had some technical issues). But I'd also say Astro Boy: Omega Factor was really their high point on the platform - it's easily one of the best games ever released on the GBA.

    But whatever! I'm glad 3D Gunstar Heroes is on the 3DS and has received such a reverent remaster. It's well-deserving, and I'm excited to get my hands on it!
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  • Avatar for mobichan #15 mobichan 3 years ago
    @Windwhale Back when it came out, I was really excited (and far less jaded in general about gaming) about its release. I even gave it a week, but could never finish it. I had the same experience basically with all of Treasure's "sequels". I respect their original tenet of "not making sequels unless the original team wanted to", but not once have I felt that the spark of inspiration that made the original great was present in the follow up. In all cases, I just went back and played the original and was happier for it.
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  • Avatar for Thad #16 Thad 3 years ago
    @orient oh god mine cart levels
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  • Avatar for Windwhale #17 Windwhale 3 years ago
    @mobichan Fair enough.

    And I can understand loosing interest in the title - I surley felt frustrated at times while playing it. But I could never stay mad at Treasure, because of the obvious amount of love and ambition they put into this (despite remaking old ideas). Rehash or not, I just like the cheerful style present in most of their titles!
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  • Avatar for themblan #18 themblan 3 years ago
    This looks fantastic with 3D on. I never truly appreciated Gunstar Heroes until this port. I can't wait for Sonic 2.
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  • Avatar for guillermojiménez88 #19 guillermojiménez88 2 years ago
    How does the two-player system work for this version (and for Sonic 2)?
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