Two men. One unappreciated console. These are the Sega Saturn Chronicles.
MATT is 32 years old, and has owned a Saturn since December 1996. JAMES is 22 years old, and acquired his Saturn in February 2015.
Guardian Heroes: Treasure (developer), Sega (publisher), 1996
MATT: It was just days before the fat man in red was scheduled to slide his ample buttocks down our (non-functional) chimney, and I could tell mom was getting frazzled. Hoping to cut down on her time at the viciously overcrowded Toys R Us in town, she asked me to come with her one night and find my own darn games.
I can’t remember why the cashier was in tears. Maybe she got some bad news from home, or the craziness of the season had driven her to want to commit yuletide homicide. But whatever the reason, my mother, a devout Catholic and the kindest person I know, gruffly demanded a copy of Guardian Heroes and forced the woman, tears now staining her work vest, to look for one.
I urged my mother to have a heart. I told her we could get Guardian Heroes some other day. She just stared at me and said coldly, insistently: “My boy gets what he wants for Christmas.”
And just short of raising me and paying for my college education, making that hysterical cashier find the last copy of Guardian Heroes is the best thing Mom’s ever done for me.
Guardian Heroes was by far my favorite Sega Saturn game when I was a kid, and it remains one of the best beat ‘em ups of all time. Your TV screen is hardly enough to contain the crisp, detailed graphics, and their hand drawn flair is refreshing in a world where “animated” movies now essentially hour-long cutscenes.
There’s half a dozen characters to choose from in story mode and even the crappiest of them is still a lot of fun to play. Simple controls punctuate the fast-and-furious action, and with plenty of Choose Your Own Adventure-style branching paths, it’ll take quite a while to tire of Guardian Heroes.
An RPG-like level-up system has players to distributing skill points to various areas of expertise like strength and intelligence, allowing for further customization of your marauding mauler.
It’s not all peaches and cream, though: Sometimes the action gets too frantic and it’s tough to make out where your character is in a mess of enemies. Also, the magic system requires the player to sift through spells in the middle of the action. It almost feels like the game waits for you to start looking for a spell, then gleefully assassinates you. It’s a lot like high school, only spells are Pokémon cards and assassination is the other kids giving you a swirly, you pathetic loser.
Flaws aside, Guardian Heroes is criminally underrated and remained in the annals of the gaming unknown for years after its initial release. But thankfully, now Xbox 360 owners can download it on Xbox Live Arcade. The $5 they’re charging is one of the best deals in gaming.
JAMES: I've always been a big fan of the beat ‘em up genre. Even today when modern gaming has really passed by its simple conventions, I still enjoy Streets of Rage, The Simpsons arcade game, and a bunch of others. So when Matt told me about Guardian Heroes, I had a good feeling about it.
And boy, was that on the money.
We popped the game in and I chose my character – later I found out I had picked the worst one, but it hardly felt like it – and it was a blast. The attacks were fun and fluid and the magic attacks felt effective as hell. Matt and I just tore through the whole game in one sitting, trashing knights and warriors and stupid wizard guys as we went along.
The thing that really jumped out at me was the presentation. The colors and sharpness made me feel like I was playing a comic book come to life. In my eyes, this is one of the best looking 2D games out there. Between the colors, the art style, and the fluid animations, I'm amazed this game is as old as it is.
Guardian Heroes is truly a masterpiece of game design. The branching paths offer some nice variety from the linear style of most beat ‘em ups, and while they aren’t terribly deep, the RPG elements do add another layer of gameplay to enhance your overall experience.
The story was mostly nonsense and I suspect translation had a lot to do with that, but who cares? Punching people is rad.
Oh, and there’s a versus mode where you can play as any character in the game including NPCs who usually don’t even engage in combat. Little boy vs. giant iron knight vs. wizard? Yes please!
In short, this game rocks. Despite it being on a generally meh console, it generated enough love to be ported to Xbox 360 arcade, which I think says a lot. So fork over that fiver and have a ball.