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

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.

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 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.

Sharp and a little harsh, as is the Genesis way... but the dissonance works in a heavy metal kind of way.

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.


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