Gunstar Heroes charged onto the Sega Mega Drive in 1993, significantly marking the début of quirky developer Treasure - having been formed from ex-Konami staff wanting to go it their own way. Often seen floating near to the top of many 'best game ever' lists, Gunstar Heroes is a bona-fide classic of the 16-bit era that's now available to download from the 3DS eShop.
As 3D Gunstar Heroes is part of Sega's 3D Classics range, the porting duties are once again handled by the experts at M2 who've poured all their usual love, care and attention into this new version. In all fairness, a straight up port would have been just fine; Gunstar Heroes pushed the limit of what could be achieved on Sega's then-ageing console, bringing with it a plethora of incredible graphic effects that many didn't think possible. Together with Treasure's unique graphic style, explosive pyrotechnics and not a hint of slowdown, it's easy to see how Gunstar Heroes wowed gamers back in the day.
Thankfully, Gunstar Heroes looks just as impressive now on the screen of a Nintendo 3DS, the resolution seemingly a perfect fit for emulating Megadrive titles. Switch up the 3D slider and it's immediately clear that M2 thought long and hard about how to retro-fit a stereoscopic effect; most of the time it's quite subtle, but every so often it can be really striking. As an example, during the climb up (and sliding down) of the block shaped steps of the first stage, the sense of depth is fantastic and much more pronounced. For a game that's largely 2D, it's a wonderfully considered implementation.
As usual M2 has added in a fair few extra options and modes, such as emulating the look and feel of old curved CRTs; however note that there isn't a widescreen option - the game is viewed in 4:3 ratio at all times, (which is also the case with the other Mega Drive 3D Classics). You can even switch between International and Japanese game versions should you so wish. The storylines are a touch different in translation, but in practice the actual game itself is identical.
One of Gunstar Heroes' key gameplay features is the ability to combine the abilities of the two weapons you're carrying in order to create a hybrid. M2 has added a new mode (named 'Gunslinger') that enables the player to permanently hold all four weapon types in both weapon slots, cycling through them with either the left or right trigger. This effectively grants access to all weapon combinations instantly; normally you are restricted by weapon drops and only being able to carry two types at any one time (note; you can carry two of the same type). This actually changes quite dramatically how you approach the game; being able to instantly swap to any attack of your choosing creates many new strategic options. As well as your increased arsenal, a quick press of the 'x' button swaps between free shot (aim your shots while moving) or fixed shot (locked to a standing position while being able to fire in all directions) giving you even more offensive options; usually you have to choose between one or the other at the beginning of the game.
Another way in which Gunstar Heroes differs from most other run-and-gun shooters (such as the Metal Slug or Contra series) is the use of a life system. When hit you don't die instantly; instead a chunk of life is lost from the meter. This helps Gunstar Heroes feel much more accessible than other games in this genre where one hit deaths can make for a swift game over. M2 has added the option to double the number of your starting life meter from 100 to 200 (the appropriately titled 'Mega Life Mode'), however make no mistake it's still no push-over. That said, combine Gunslinger Mode with Mega Life Mode and suddenly the end game seems much more achievable for new players - especially when used in conjunction with the save states.
A great feature of the original was the simultaneous two player co-op mode, which is also present and correct via local play only (and both players will need a copy of the game). It's totally worth the investment though, as playing together with a friend is a superb experience and there's something very satisfying about chucking your mate into an oncoming enemy.
What's truly impressive about Gunstar Heroes is the variety contained within its classic run, shoot and jump formula; there are many twists and surprises, including a brief spell as a 2D 'shmup' and the infamous Black's dice maze, which sees the player having a quick bout of Mario Party board game madness, throwing a dice to find out their fate. Gunstar Heroes is a superb tour-de-force of variety, incredible graphics and a fittingly rousing soundtrack that also happens to be an absolute joy to play in both single and co-operative play.
The new 3DS version brings to the table some well thought out optional tweaks to the gameplay and is immaculately presented, with lovely stereoscopic 3D finishing off the package; fans of the action genre should pick this up without a second thought. If you've never experienced Treasure's original masterpiece, this is the perfect opportunity to do so; for a game that's over twenty years old it still feels fresh as a daisy and plays like a dream. Gunstar Heroes is a genuine genre tour-de-force that's simply not to be missed and is yet another triumph for Sega's 3D Classics range.