Months ago, I covered Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder. I’ve since been replaying other beat ‘em up favorites—(un)coincidentally all fantasy themed: Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom/Shadow Over Mystara, King of the Dragons, Three Dirty Dwarves, and Guardian Heroes (reason #1 I bought a Saturn). Developer Treasure are fan-favorites for their inventive games (my opinion: gimmicky memorizers). Thankfully Guardian Heroes eschews typical Treasure tropes (over-frequent bosses, mini-games), even if the sequel Advance Guardian Heroes (GBA) doesn’t…but that’s another wretched story.
Guardian Heroes has unique features aplenty. Most prominent is the experience/level up system, more detailed than Capcom’s numerous fantasy brawlers (King of the Dragons/Knights of the Round). After an area, experience is divided manually between attributes (attack, defense, speed, life, magic defense, magic offense) that drastically alter performance. In this way, the 4 archetypal D&D characters (fighter, wizard, cleric, ninja) can be customized for great variety (i.e. hand-to-hand ninja or spell casting ninja).
Stats aside, the characters also differ through magic. Other than the cleric’s barrier/heal spells, magic is offensive, varying by range, power, radius, and chainability. Each character’s 4 or 5 spells can be accessed tediously through a realtime menu or rapidly through button combos (that pro players must utilize). Of course, spells consume MP which is recovered by chaining normal attacks. Once powered up, the spells are catastrophic, clearing the whole screen to spectacular effect.
Beyond customization, Guardian Heroes is rife with originality: a super-powered CPU ally (the titular Guardian) at your command, branching paths beyond belief (with alternate bosses), huge enemies hordes, and a comprehensive battle mode where you can pit every character/enemy (after unlocking them) in massive processor-busting slugfests. Awesome!
Occasionally, Guardian Heroes is less successful. The lengthy cutscenes are uninteresting and unnecessary, and skipping them at high speed still takes 20 seconds. The movement controls are also a bit unexpected. Beat ‘em ups typically allow pixel-based vertical movement. Guardian Heroes confines you to 3 planes–foreground, middle, and background. This unusual method adds strategy and eliminates annoying guesswork, but feels inelegant—particularly when the background layer gets lost in commotion.
Regardless, Guardian Heroes is aces. One of the deepest beat ‘em ups (but that’s not saying much) and incomparable in terms of size and originality. Not an arcade port, Guardian Heroes seems much fairer than its cheap quarter-munching brethren. Along with Capcom’s D&D games, it’s one of the more cerebral examples of its genre.