Overlooked and undersold: Gunners Heaven

No matter how excited you are for a new console from your favourite company there are always a few games released in the launch window that, if you’re honest with yourself, really only exist to tide enthusiastic early adopters over until the real deal comes out: The Saturn’s opening platformer Clockwork Knight would struggle to come out on top in a fight against even the most average of 16-bit equivalents, and for all the fondness I have for Battle Arena Toshinden it can’t honestly compete with the likes of Tekken, Dead or Alive, or even Squaresoft’s Tobal.

Yet for all these early-days missteps Gunners Heaven (Rapid Reload for lucky European players), a total one-off by the team best known for the Wild West[ish] RPG series Wild Arms, somehow avoided falling into this usual rut and instead ended up as something even worse – a perfectly good game that nobody bought.

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Often simply dismissed as ‘the PlayStation game that ripped off Gunstar Heroes’ – a fate somehow avoided by Resident Evil [Alone in the Dark], Star Fox [Galaxy Force II],  and almost every FPS/fighting game released in a post Street Fighter II/Quake world - it is fair to say that Media Vision’s 1995 run-n-gun plays like a love letter to Treasure’s Mega Drive classic, featuring as it does a hyperactive gun-toting duo who can throw enemies about the place and blow up everything else with an assortment of colourful bullets, but the similarities, while obvious, don’t run all that deep. Most importantly Gunners Heaven eschews Treasure’s mix-and-match power up system for a permanent set of four different weapons that can be switched between at will – a standard rapid fire gun, a weak-but-useful homing shot, a powerful-but-limited flame shot and last of all, the not-entirely-sure-what-to-do-with-it rebound shot. To give players some variety playable characters Axel and Ruka each have their own unique takes on these destructive archetypes – Ruka’s homing shot is a free roaming ‘worm’ laser, while Axel’s is a multi-target lightning blast anchored to the end of his gun. To give another example Ruka’s flame shot is a traditional short range flamethrower, whereas Axel’s fires two slow but powerful flame shots right across the screen. Learning to use the right weapon for the right situation is an essential part of making it through to the ending as in some sections you’ll do better by being cautious and focusing more on avoiding incoming shots, while for others it’s best to plough on ahead and never give the enemy the chance to fire at all.

Axel and Ruka’s regular shots can be improved by collecting P chips from defeated enemies for a time-limited boost, or grabbing the rare ultra-strong Boost pickups that let you go really nuts for a short period of time. Unfortunately there’s little tactical thought to this system as you can’t store them for a particular moment or force enemies to produce them the way you can Alien Soldier's health drops; but on the other hand you never need to as while the powered shot is always better the damage dealt by standard weaponry is mercifully a million miles away from being Gradius-like peashooters.

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Gunners Heaven’s not just about rushing forward on the offensive – well… it is but – as you’ve got a small but versatile set of defensive moves too! Crouching and throwing people-sized enemies are the two you’re most likely to do by accident, and on top of that you can also perform a short low slide forwards, or fire off a grappling hook and quickly zip away to safety. There’s not much that feels better in an action game than effortlessly sliding under an incoming Giant Laser of Death to unleash a bomb in a boss’ face or pulling yourself up high and then raining bullets on a horde of enemies below!

You’ve got six stages to unleash your skills and firepower upon, which doesn’t sound like an awful lot until you discover how hard the game can be – even with the Japanese version’s unlimited continues you’re not going to breeze through this one in a lazy weekend. But it’s worth the struggle as the lush graphics remain a fine example of excellent 2D pixel art even all these years later, and whether you’re shooting at robo-dragons in rainy skies or wading through ancient forest rivers battling giant robo-scorpions each stage feels like a visual treat. Gunners Heaven may not feature the most inventive uses of 2D art or push the PlayStation in an obvious way, but there’s never any question that it’s a next generation game (for 1995, anyway) and looking back we’re all better off for Media Vision sticking to doing one particular thing very well rather than falling into the trap of playing with every toy in the PlayStation’s toolbox just because it was there.

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One point that’s often picked up on as a negative, and often mentioned in the same breath as the ‘like Gunstar Heroes’ problem (please add your own airquotes action there) is that Gunners Heaven lacks any sort of cooperative play, just like Alien Soldier, Alisia Dragoon, Shinobi, El Viento, Castlevania:Take Your Pick From Just About All Of Them Bar That Weird One On XBLA, and… you get the idea. Would co-op have been better? Of course! But then again co-op’s always better in my book, and in any case the point I’m trying to make here is that Gunners Heaven isn’t the only 2D action game that could’ve have co-op play, but didn’t.

One point that’s not picked up on because most people don’t get to play Gunners Heaven often enough is that later boss health bars range from ‘too much’ to ‘maybe I should’ve booked a week off work to get through this’, an issue that can definitely take the shine off what was oh-so-nearly a tense and impressive encounter with a screen-sized opponent bristling with exotic death lasers. The good news is that these overly-long tussles usually feature multiple forms with their own unique attack patterns so there’s still a feeling of progression and variety even when things start to drag on a bit too much, but in an ideal world boss HP would have had a good chunk lopped off too.

But that’s really about as harsh as I can be on this action-packed and beautiful game. It’s a lot of fun, tough-but-fair, and offers two extremely likeable and stylish characters to power through the game’s action-packed stages with. As good as Gunstar Heroes? No – but what is? Even Treasure have had trouble making games that could stand up to their previous works, and to base every game’s worth only in comparison to widely recognised and universally accepted classics is more than a little unfair – it’d be like burning every painting that wasn’t on a par with Rembrandt. Gunners Heaven is ‘just’ a generally well made game that’s a lot of fun to play and can be yours for just 617yen if you have access to Japan’s PSN store, or is still cheap enough in physical form to be more than worth ordering from your favourite importer.

A little look at… Tokyo Twilight Busters

Tokyo Twilight Busters is a 1995 PC-98 adventure game by Wolf Team, the Japanese developer responsible for El Viento, Tales Of…, and the Mega CD port of Time Gal. However Wolf Team’s take on ‘adventure’ is a little different from the usual as in this game’s case it means an intriguing fusion of the mundane with the occult in 1920’s Japan – absolutely my sort of thing – that moves back and forth between typical Snatcher/Psy-O-Blade/Bubblegum Crash J-adventuring and lengthy point ‘n’ click sections with a real-time twist.

The ever-present pocket watch on the right hand side of the game’s beautiful UI frame keeps track of the relentless passage of time in the game – an extremely important item in an adventure that has certain events only occur at particular times. From what I can gather from various Japanese FAQs and comments the game pushes on towards the ending even if you do spend a lot of time dawdling around, albeit with the better of the two conclusions reserved for players who don’t waste too much time on their adventure (a little like the much-maligned Castlevania 64 now I think about it).

Seeing as the game opens on a point ‘n’ click segment and they’re where you’ll be spending most of your time we’ll take a look at those first. During these parts of the game you are locked within a specific location and must furiously click away at the scenery until you either stumble across the correct doohickey or you waste enough time to inadvertently trigger the story scene that will move you on to the next chapter.

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Y’see, Tokyo Twilight Buster’s problems stem from having its fascinating setting hamstrung by some truly oddball design decisions.

Take item discovery, usage, and… well, items in general, really. The vast majority of the things you’ll find are generic goods that offer some sort of one-time use bonus (for example, combining a lantern with oil and then using a match grants the character in question a working light to illuminate darker areas) or can be used as breakable weaponry in battle (more on that later). Ordering one of your team of up to four party members to lunge wildly at an evil guard with a screwdriver you found in a battered container certainly adds a sense of personal improvisation to what is usually a very inflexible genre, but on the other hand it often leaves you with four inventories filled with items that are too useful to simply throw away, but not so useful that you’re relieved to discover yet more matches/nails/length of rope as you painstakingly sweep yet another room.

Filling up on these sundry items is impossible too, as unlike most of examples of this sort of gameplay almost all objects in Tokyo Twilight Busters are completely invisible and rely on the player performing a tedious Look->Examine->Search dance on every vaguely suspicious area of the screen to uncover them. To make matters worse searching, once you’ve finally clicked on an object enough times for that particular interactive option to appear, then requires squandering the game’s most precious resource – time – to actually uncover anything. Searching a hotspot means watching in-game time fly by as the party runs through an exaggerated ‘looking for things’ animation loop that may or may not result in them finding a key item (often literally a key) that’s fundamental to your progress, an assortment of wotsits that might possibly help in a scuffle, or nothing at all. There’s no way of knowing until you go looking and even the plainest corridor can have multiple searchable hotspots, leaving players forced to click their way around every room on the promise of a maybe, then do it one more time just in case.

It’s not as though you can methodically search your way through the locations on offer either, as the maps in these point ‘n’ click sections are extremely difficult to navigate. They’re certainly not miserable eighties labyrinths of corridors leading to corridors leading to dead ends, but a lot of the rooms are minor variations on a particular theme with very little to make one brick-walled corridor stand out from another. There’s also an unforgiveable ‘camera’ issue too - going ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the screen can result in the view silently switching around, so if forwards meant ‘walk to the left’ pre-transition it will mean ‘walk to the right’ the screen after, and there’s no map to guide you.

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The good news is puzzles never ask more of the you than ‘Have you found the hidden switch?’ or ‘Do you have the key to the locked door?’; the focus here is very much on experiencing the story and the surrounding game is really just a means to that end. There’s nothing especially unusual in that – Snatcher, Bubblegum Crash, and Psy-O-Blade are all designed with the same sort of priorities in mind – but as finding these items involves a lot of floundering around in the dark this part of the game may have benefitted from either making the important objects a lot easier to find or pushing towards the other end of the scale and integrating these game-extending wrinkles better by including actual puzzles over endless menu clicking.

It’s not all bad news though, and Tokyo Twilight Busters does have one very clever idea lurking in its side-on searchathons – guard patrols. You’ll sometimes earn a little unwanted attention while helping Sho unravel the mystery behind his father’s murder, and the game gives you several ways to deal with anyone pursuing your team.

The first is the the most obvious – don’t get caught! The game will let you know when people start looking for Sho and friends, so if you’ve got some idea of where you are in relation to them you can simply try to keep one step ahead – move fast and close doors behind you to give yourself a little more time. If that’s not an option then you can order your team to hide in appropriately-sized boxes, crates, or drums until the threat’s passed – these guys aren’t Metal Gear Solid-level soldiers so you don’t have to worry about getting caught out so long as you’re all tucked out of sight in time. The final option is to tackle them head-on, which shifts the action to an RPG-like battle screen. Battles operate on a typical turn-based system, with you issuing orders to each party member then sitting back and watching the action unfold. Unlike PC-98 adventure Makyouden the battles here require real thought and strategy from the player, especially as there’s no levelling or skill system in place (like Kurokishi no Kamen), so victory relies entirely on your ability to put whatever you’ve found to good use.

The rest of your time playing Tokyo Twilight Busters is spent bumbling around the adventure portion of the game, and this section mostly follows the typical Japanese formula for this sort of thing – there’s a large view window to show the current location (the monochrome digitised photographs used for the backgrounds here are incredibly stylish) and a selection of move/look/talk options that pop up on the right hand side as required. You’re given a lot of freedom to roam around an expansive list of Tokyo locations as you please, although you’re only ever really needed in two or three locations to continue the story. ‘Immersion’ comes in the form of having to literally wait in some locations for a particular event to start (for quite some time too, and repeatedly selecting the ‘let’s hang around here’ command over and over), meaning from the player’s perspective you can be in the right place and have done all the right things to get here… but still make no progress. This feels especially at odds with a game that relies on you reaching the end within a certain amount of time to receive the best ending – it may not be especially strict in that regard (nothing like Final Fantasy IX's Excalibur II), but it does feel as if the game’s trying to get you to hurry it up while also making you stand around and do nothing too.

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I’m pretty sure I’ve been a little too hard on Tokyo Twilight Busters in this blog post: It’s visually stunning, uses a sorely overlooked setting in an interesting way, and generally feels like a game with a lot of love and effort put into it. The problem is the flaws that it does have are utterly inescapable, and they drag down every part of the game. Am I not making progress here because I’ve missed something, or is it just the wrong time of day? Did I not find an item here because there’s nothing to find, or did I not let my characters search for long enough? You’re never quite sure if the fault lies with you or the game when things screech to a halt, leading to yet more clicking and backtracking in a game that already has you scouring the background for tiny objects of interest and ping-ponging between home/university/police station just to get things done.

If you have a clear schedule, the directional sense of a homing pigeon taped to a military-grade GPS and the steely determination to click on everything multiple times, and then click on everything two more times just to make sure, you’ll be rewarded with an intriguing tale and some of the finest pixel art I’ve ever seen on NEC’s wonderful hardware. Everyone else? Enjoy the screenshots here and elsewhere, then go pick up the 2010 DS remake of the game as it has a precious onscreen map for the point ‘n’ click segments.

Sharing the love: Streets of Rage 3

1994 was a funny old time for the Mega Drive as a lot of great games released that year showed just how sweetly the hardware could sing in capable hands (Castlevania)... yet somehow failed to make much of an impact at the time; leaving the likes of Ragnacenty, Panorama Cotton, and Contra: Hard Corps to garner little more than a dab of niche praise and some frankly ridiculous resale prices over the following twenty three years. Sadly Streets of Rage 3 has suffered this same fate, arguably best known in modern times for being ‘not Streets of Rage 2’ and ‘butchered’ on its international release: Yet as with many games that have had their molehills transformed into mountains both of these points are true and yet not the world-ending issues they’re made out to be, as I’ll hopefully be able to show you as we go.

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But before we get stuck in to the good stuff let’s start with the one sticks-out-like-a-sore-thumb, really-can’t-defend-this problem with Streets of Rage 3 – Zan. People (still) miss Adam. People quite rightly miss Max too. Nobody misses Zan. Nobody picks Zan. Being neither old man enough to pass as the team’s cool martial arts wizard or cyborg enough to add some tough robo-chic to the team, Zan is an unwelcome and unnecessary replacement who fills the ‘strong guy’ role in a way that can only make you think ‘I wish the secret kangaroo boss was a default character’. Plot-explaining cutscene-only NPC? Fine. As an alternative to the scarred man-mountain in tight-tight lycra? GET OUT.

The silver lining here is that at least Robo-Gramps can be easily ignored as we’re still graced with three fantastic familiar faces to senselessly beat up punks investigate crimes with, and they’ve all been gifted with a greatly expanded set of moves that takes the best bits of the original Streets of Rage’s brilliant co-op system, the sequel’s flashy special moves, and then adds a further layer of tactical depth on top with dodge-rolls, individual weapon specialities, back attacks, upgradeable dash attacks… there’s an awful lot to try and take in on your first go, and many of the finer details aren’t obvious unless you spend some time looking through the Japanese manual and its accompanying move sheet, or go and read the FAQ I just linked you to.

Enemies weren’t forgotten in the gameplay overhaul and can now perform all sorts of tactical trickery including blocking, grabbing dropped weapons, throwing other bad guys at you, and generally making a nuisance of themselves in ways that weren’t possible one game ago – square up to a whole gang of assorted troublemakers and you can throw a few of them down a nearby pit, get grabbed from behind and still kick approaching enemies in the face, then throw the guy that grabbed you over your head… the attention to detail is so great that  the fat guys have real weight this time around! Make Blaze suplex a rotund chap in Streets of Rage 2 and she’ll crack his head into the pavement without any trouble. In 3 though? She’ll fall flat on her back and the rotund chap will get up and laugh at her. By giving both sides a wider range of options even standard goodies-vs-goons battles in Streets of Rage 3 become more interesting and unpredictable than they otherwise would be, even when the play area’s just a flat rectangle of floor dressed up as a back alley or warehouse.

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Thankfully levels are rarely that uninspired and most of them are happy to throw in a unique environmental hazard for you to learn how to avoid and then later twist to your advantage – anything from falling metal drums to trap rooms filled with lasers to everybody’s favourite, the Bottomless Pit of Doom. There’s a feeling of constant inventiveness as you punch, skate, and fireball your way through the levels serve up anything from a free-roaming race against the clock to save the chief of police (or General Petrov if you’re playing Bare Knuckle III) to a rather lopsided fight with a digger. Much as I love the genre a lot of the games within it feel as if they’ve supplied an incidental scrolling image just so you’ve got something to look at while you knock out another palette-swapped bruiser’s teeth but the stages here really feel – as they do in other great games – just as integral to the experience as the bosses, weaponry, or the player characters. On repeat plays you may find yourself stumbling across one of several secret routes within the ninja hideout stage, or get to see how the game splits in two completely different directions (with their own stages, bosses, and endings) depending on how well you do in stage six too: You simply cannot experience everything the game has to offer on a single run, and even when you do get good enough to pick and choose where you go the sheer variety of events and unique scenarios found in each stage help to prevent the game from feeling like its in danger of overstaying its welcome (as Shadow over Mystara and Guardian Heroes sometimes do).

Now to tackle the elephant in the room… the dreaded localisation changes.

‘It’s awful! They changed… things! Things I tell you! I read all about it one time on some website!’ You know what? You’ll live. Really, you will. It’s the plot to a 90’s side-scrolling beat ‘em up for starters and in any case the changes here, while collectively quite different to the Japanese script, don’t actually amount to anything like pulling a Probotector or Vay’s gold vortex, and are in practise just an equally flimsy excuse for a citywide brawl. I’d say the biggest offense is Axel’s awful yellow/black costume recolour - famously removed miniboss Ash is a walking collection of (at best) ignorant clich├ęs – and what else…? Um, ‘Victy’ is possibly a better name for a violent marsupial than the more generic ‘Roo’? Maybe? Anyone? There are two things to remember here – first off, the changes here aren’t large enough to turn Streets of Rage 3 into a game that’s notably different from Bare Knuckle III. Yes, they’re there – but you’d have to have played through both releases extensively to really notice the difference as they aren’t especially obvious unless you compare the two side-by-side. Secondly, and the most important point of all: These changes happen all the time. Think of Nier's Japan-only ‘Replicant’ release, or the headache that is ‘Which version of Metal Gear Solid 3 actually has all the extra stuff?’ (I ended up answering that question with the Japanese first-print run of Subsistence on PlayStation 2, if you were wondering). Looking back around the time of Streets of Rage 3’s release there’s Castlevania’s eternal cross/boomerang switcheroo, Metal Slug’s ‘sweat’, and Link’s Awakening’s hippo boobs and mermaid bikinis. Changing things – for better or worse – is not and has never been unique to Streets of Rage 3.

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Then there’s the oft-cited difficulty increase to contend with, casually thrown around as if Streets of Rage 3 is (forgive me) the Dark Souls of side-scrolling beat ‘em ups. It’s not. It’s not even anywhere close to being the Guardian Heroes of Mega Drive side-scrolling beat ‘em ups, never mind Battletoads! In any case this was – again - not an unheard of change for the era as pretty much every mainstream Konami game from the nineties was made more difficult for its overseas release, as was Dynamite Headdy, Ninja Gaiden 3, Popful Mail, Astal, Resident Evil…

And there’s a very simple reason why this practise was so commonplace – we wanted games to be that hard. Let’s use some snippets from UK gaming bible Mean Machines Sega’s review of Bare Knuckle III (pages 42-45) to illustrate the point – ‘marred by exceptional easiness’ ‘extremely playable – if a tad easy’ ‘Lastability: Too easy’. Were we right to demand all our games be so tough? In hindsight, no. A game that takes a solid month of blood, sweat, and tears isn’t better than something that ‘only’ lasts the weekend but keeps you coming back to every year just because you always finish that short session with a smile on your face. But back then Japanese games weren’t viewed as being ‘balanced’ or ‘fair’ but ‘easy’ – and an easy game was a bad game (or at the very least, a kid’s game) to a reviewer’s mind back in the distant past of 1994, and as such Sega (and Konami, and Capcom, and everyone else) adjusted their games to suit the tastes of the overseas market at that time. Sega did nothing more than give us what we asked for.

To talk more specifically about the standard difficulty in Streets of Rage 3: yes, it is significantly harder than the default setting in Bare Knuckle III but it’s far from an unmanageable slog. Most of the standard opponents still go down in a single flurry+throw combination, and the larger crowds just mean you can do a really satisfying amount of damage when you fling an enemy across the room and see them all get knocked backwards. Harder? Yes. Still fun? Absolutely.

Whether you go for the original Mega Drive cart or the cheaper Steam/XBLA digital versions of the game (M2’s XBLA port is the superior experience) you’ll find Streets of Rage 3 in all its forms to be a deep, challenging, and inventive game featuring an enviable mix of meaningful co-op play with six truly unique playable characters, silky-smooth yet lightning-quick brawling, and an excellent soundtrack – undoubtedly a shining light in its genre, and one that’s well worth anyone’s time.