Originally released for the Sega Saturn in 1996 Guardian Heroes was a 2D fighter that used a unique system of layers to incorporate 2D fighting elements into a brawler. Guardian Heroes mixed features from popular brawlers like Final Fight and popular fighting games such as Street Fighter to create a unique formula that still holds up to this day. Throw in a choice of "remixed" or original graphics and a killer soundtrack and you have all the makings of a fun XBLA release.
Guardian Heroes starts off with a ragtag group of heroes in awe over a newly acquired sword. Chaos immediately ensues and the player is tossed into the game world to fight off enemies of all shapes and sizes. Players can choose from four characters in the single player mode and all four vary in fighting style. There's the strong knight, the quick ninja, the sorcerer's apprentice, and the cleric. Each character plays in a different style and each one can make the game feel completely different than the last.
For instance, Han the knight is a strong and slow fighter whose moves are damaging. Couple that with his high health and he is a formidable melee character. On the other hand, Nicole is a cleric who is much weaker than Han physically but is the only character who can heal in the game. This makes her detrimental to co-op or single player success on harder difficulties.
Anyone who has ever played a fighting game before will feel right at home with Guardian Heroes, especially if that fighting game was Street Fighter. The four main characters players can choose from at the beginning of the game have very similar move sets when it comes to special moves. Doing the dragon punch, down-down forward- forward punch, will preform some special move with nearly any character. This isn't a detriment to the game, instead it's a way to make special moves easy to preform even when the enemies are abundant. Besides special attacks combat is handled pretty regularly, you have light and heavy attacks along with some magic moves as well. The not so regular part comes in the form of the games "layers" system.
Guardian Heroes takes place on a 2D scrolling field but the field is split into three separate layers. Using the left trigger and left bumper players can jump from layer to layer to fight certain enemies, avoid attacks, or confuse enemies. It's a unique system that allows Guardian Heroes to throw tons of enemies at you like a brawler would but keep the fighting fun and technical. While it can feel a little button-mashy at some points Guardian Heroes does a nice job of mixing up the combat.
The single player plays out in a chose your own adventure style that allows for multiple endings and different scenarios. After each big battle players will have the option to Pick where the group will head off to next. Perhaps the woods are the best choice or maybe steering clear of villages is a better option. Either way the game will drop you into a new area with enemies to beat and the story proceeds accordingly. The branching stories that Guardian Heroes allows for helps the relatively quick single player experiences feel more like varied stories rather than rehashed events with a few different scenarios.
On top of the scenarios players will also level up their characters through each story sequence. Hitting and killing enemies leads to players gaining XP which of course leads to leveling up. At the end of each sequence players can dump their points into different stats such as; vitality, strength, luck, intelligence, and so on. Each stat lends itself to different buffs for characters and while some stats seem more useful for certain characters there is no limit to what stats you level up for which character. This RPG element of Guardian Heroes isn't particularly deep and doesn't add too much to the experience but it's a welcome way to buff up a character between fights.
There is also a slight strategy element to Guardian Heroes in the form of your big undead companion. Early on in the game you will receive an undead knight as a companion who will help you out throughout the game. The knight can be told to stay, follow, proceed, and even preform a particularly explosive attack on command. Commanding the knight can be cumbersome at times and the easiest way to utilize him seems to be having him walk in front of you. Since he is already head he can't die again and therefore acts as a buffer between you and your enemies.
Guardian Heroes also has a truly bonkers multiplayer mode that involves up to 12 players at one time. This mode plays out like any normal online fighting game, but with 12 players. Each player selects from a huge roster of characters that span the entire single player stories and then are dumped into an arena. From there it is all out madness as characters spew insane combos and magical attacks at one another while players try to figure out where they are on screen. It feels like an overwhelming sibling to a Smash Bros. game and quite frankly it can be the most fun part of the game by far. Watching the chaos unfold is a glorious blend of colors that will surely delight.
Guardian Heroes has two flavors when it comes to graphical settings. For those who like the original look of the game from 1996 there is a "Original" option on the main menu. This is a faithful recreation of the original game with big sprites and hand drawn character portraits. The original style is definitely more of an enticing look than just a nice option to have around in case you feel nostalgic. Backgrounds and characters feel properly redone and the whole game gives off a great retro vibe.
The other choice for newcomers and lovers of the original game alike is the "remixed" option. This beefs up the characters and portraits in the popular "remastered" style that many older games receive when released on XBLA. Surprisingly the remixed option was a bit off putting compared to the original art style. While the original style felt welcoming and retro the new remixed style felt confused. The sprites were somewhat updated, though not enough to be amazing, and character portraits seemed too good in a weird way. It was as if the game had multiple art styles thrown into one game. It isn't bad by any means the original style just feels for complete.
While the single player can be short it's multiple endings and harder difficulties allow room for players to grow. It's a lot of fun to come back and fight your way through the hardest difficulty with the hopes of completing the story without dying once. At the same time it feels as though the multiplayer is the real reason players will enjoy Guardian Heroes so much. It's chaotic nature and deceptively deep combat system will have players working hard to level up and destroy the competition online. It can be overwhelming at times but the sensation you get from defeating 11 other players is worth the effort.
Guardian Heroes is a retro game done right. There isn't too much that was changed or revamped in any way that would offend those who loved the original. At the same time the game offers up features that, even by today's standards, are innovative and enjoyable. With a fun single player, insanely chaotic multiplayer, and a really enjoyable soundtrack Guardian Heroes is certainly worth your time.