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The Making Of Gunstar Heroes

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Treasure’s calling card was a big wake-up call for other Mega Drive developers. Gunstar Heroes, delivered astonishing graphics and all sorts of clever graphical effects, while its tightly toned gameplay made other run-and-gun games of the time look decidely lightweight. Here we reveal how the Mega Drive classic came to be.

Treasure was born in early 1992, when a group of Konami employees with a shared vision left their parent company. Their motivation for quitting such a successful developer/publisher was simple: they wanted to fully realise their own ideas, free from the restraints typically felt by individuals in large corporations. Setting a dangerously high benchmark for the then-nascent developer, Treasure’s landmark first release was the result of a kitchen-sink approach to the run-‘n’-gun sub-genre, bringing new ideas to a game style that was in danger of becoming stale.

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The bosses of Gunstar Heroes are famed for being silly and over-the-top.

Masato Maegawa, Treasure’s president and Gunstar Heroes’ producer, is an affable chap, completely modest (but realistic) about the strength of his team’s productions. We ask him about the context of Gunstar Heroes – what led to its production? “We’d only just established our new company, Treasure, so we were just really keen above all else to do something that we liked and something that was our forte,” says Maegawa. “Gunstar Heroes was that game. We approached the project with the concept of ‘anything goes’, and we incorporated many types of separate ambitious ideas in that concept.”

Among those fresh ideas for the genre were numerical energy counters in place of the more common one-hit-you’re-dead routine; symbolic colour labelling in lieu of character names; a heady blend of long and close-range attacks; a mishmash of auto-scrolling and player-led passages of action; weapons that could be mixed to form new attacking powers; and some of the most imaginatively constructed bosses to grace a videogame, regardless of vintage or genre, peaking in the inspired melding of a board game with a string of boss battles. To say that Gunstar Heroes was created with a notion of ‘anything goes’ is an understated simplification on Maegawa’s part.

Gunstar Heroes begins with a suitably explosive cut-scene sequence, which details the plight of Gunstar 9, the planet on which most of the game is played out. Ambiguous scripting initially leaves the player with only a vague idea of what might be afoot. “WHERE IS HE? THAT LIGHT! IT’S TOO LATE!”… “NO!… THE EARTH… UNDER ONE PERSON’S POWER…” is a classic, befuddling exchange from this opening scene. But it eventually transpires that Gunstars‘ Red and Blue need to reclaim four gemstones in order to stop Smash Daisaku (‘Daisaku’ being Japanese for ‘epic’), an evil dictator who looks a bit like Street Fighter’s M Bison, from using those gems to re-power a robot called Golden Silver, which had previously caused havoc by draining planets of their natural resources. Daisaku has even kidnapped Green, the elder brother of Red and Blue, who has been tricked into working for the enemy. Once the four crucial gems are retrieved, the heroic journey of Red and Blue eventually leads to the moon of Gunstar 9, where Red and Blue have to defeat the immense (3D-effect) Core Guard System, before a final multi-stage battle against the game’s assembled cast of baddies brings Golden Silver 
out of its sleep.

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There’s a choice of levels when you first start. We love this one.

In Red and Blue, two iconic videogame characters were born. With nomenclature bordering on the nondescript, they were never likely to capture the imagination of the population at large; but Red and Blue retain a certain mystique that still lights fires in the eyes of videogame connoisseurs. How did Gunstar Heroes’ characters come to be named in such a way? Maegawa confesses that it wasn’t his idea, but was in fact concocted by the Gunstar team’s character graphics specialist, Han.

“Maybe for Han there was some deep meaning,” Maegawa says, “but I think it’s just a really good idea because it made it so easy for users to understand what was happening in the game.”

Gunstar Heroes’ development appears to have been a consummate team effort. Treasure has remained a small studio since its formation, and the first title to come out of Treasure was principally the work of just seven people. Maegawa speaks of the team in familiar terms, dropping their surnames and referring to them by the nicknames they use within Treasure to this day.

“There were only seven of us who worked on Gunstar Heroes: myself, as producer; Yaiman, who was the director and main programmer; Nami, who programmed the enemy AI and other routines; Han, who did the character graphics; Iuchi, who was responsible for the graphics; Non, who did all the music; and our sound effects man, Murata. It took us about ten months to develop Gunstar Heroes once we’d established Treasure, but even before that we’d meet in coffee shops and other places for planning sessions.”

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The explosions of Gunstar Heroes are awesome.

It’s fascinating to visualise such coffee house meetings. Even while they remained at Konami, the core members of Treasure were regularly getting together to plot a revolution. And by finding Sega as a publisher, Treasure’s coup d’état would soon be complete: Gunstar Heroes blew open the state of 2D platform-shooters, with Treasure rewriting the constitution.

Treasure’s deal with Sega was the result of a carefully planned proposal, which suggests that the results of the ‘anything goes’ approach were largely determined before development began. Maegawa is understandably satisfied with the outcome of events, and stresses that none of the ideas plotted in Tokyo cafés during 1991 and early 1992 were sacrificed or compromised in production.

“There was nothing missing from the final version of Gunstar Heroes. It ended up exactly as we first planned it – everything that was in our original specification and proposal to Sega was packed into the game that was eventually sold to players.”

Mission accomplished, then. Working with Sega as a publisher, Treasure had full creative control – and that was key to Gunstar Heroes’ success. Indeed, the only issue that resulted in a difference of opinion between Sega and Treasure was the relatively trivial matter of the game’s name. Treasure had considered calling its debut project ‘Blade Gunner’, in honour of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, but eventually settled on ‘Lunatic Gunstar’. Maegawa looks back on this matter with good humour.

“It’s true that within Treasure we referred to the game as ‘Lunatic Gunstar’, right from the start,” he says with a wry smile. “We felt that the word ‘Lunatic’ was a perfect fit to convey the exhilaration of our game, what with all the explosions and detonations; but that didn’t go down too well with Sega of America, who thought that the word ‘Lunatic’ conveyed a really bad image. Anyway, the ‘Heroes’ part of the title came from Sega of America – they seemed to think that ‘Heroes’ was a cool term because it carried a notion of there being some great sense of justice in the game – so in the end we were requested to adopt the Gunstar Heroes title.”

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Gunstar Heroes is even better when played with a friend.

Irrespective of concerns over its title, Sega must have been happy to see the results of Treasure’s early Mega Drive work, especially considering the limitations of the hardware. Maegawa recalls that Treasure had to work around the Mega Drive’s limited palette to achieve the desired visual style in Gunstar Heroes. “Because of the relatively low number of colours the Mega Drive can display, we had various difficulties in doing what we wanted to do,” Maegawa explains. “At first we were drawing the backgrounds with a single palette of 16 colours, but we thought the results looked too sad and desolate, so I requested that we draw scenery with two palettes, giving us 32 colours to work with, which is what we ended up doing.”

Aside from the richness of Gunstar Heroes’ extended palette use, effects such as the rotation and scaling of sprites were used expertly to create a sense of depth. Most impressively, there can be a dozen or more characters on screen and yet the frame rate holds up almost flawlessly throughout, regardless of how explosive the action is becoming. The transformations of the Green-controlled Seven Force boss show Treasure in a cocky frame of mind, juggling and spinning sprites as though they were going out of fashion (funny thing: they were). The faux 3D of the Core Guard System, too, was a spectacle of some note in 1993, its impact almost measuring up to the feats of contemporary FX chip-powered games over on the SNES.

Gunstar Heroes’ soundtrack is also hugely impressive. The score shifts in pitch and tone quite dramatically, waltzing with the on-screen action without ever stepping on its toes. We ask Maegawa how such well-judged tunes were achieved in light of the ever-changing nature of the gameplay and its themes. “Well, the music producer was Non,” Maegawa reiterates, “who is still here at Treasure. He always, without fail, waits for all levels of a game to be designed so that he can experience the movement of the whole game, and then he begins his composition. And that’s how he was when we worked on Gunstar Heroes.”

Another vital ingredient of Gunstar Heroes’ unrelenting punch, often overlooked, is its clever use of sound effects. From the creaking of robotic bosses’ limbs to the easily identifiable and distinguishable weapons effects, Murata’s work almost sounds like percussion to Non’s music. We ask whether Murata worked on Gunstar Heroes in the same manner as Non. “Yes,” says Maegawa. “In a similar style to Non, our sound effects specialist Murata waits for everything else to be in place and functional before he begins, very slowly and carefully, to apply his sound effects.”

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Is it us or does that guy in thne train look like M. Bison?

Playing Gunstar Heroes today, it’s difficult to imagine how contemporary publishers would react to its hotchpotch design. Of course, Treasure has virtual immunity in this regard, and can apparently still get away with releasing games that defy convention (see 2001’s Freak Out on the PS2 for a prime example of bizarre game design being smuggled past publishers and out into retail), but this is principally because of Treasure’s reputation – the basis of which was laid in Gunstar Heroes.

There are initially four stages to play through, but these can be approached in any order. Only after these levels have been completed and the four gems have been collected does Gunstar Heroes shift into a linear gear. One of Gunstar Heroes’ most inventive stages is the Dice Maze level, where Black beckons the player to his ‘strange fortress’, inside which is found The Dice Palace. A board game of sorts ensues, with Red and/or Blue throwing a die to move around a board containing spaces that lead to mini-boss fights, free weapons (received in the ‘happy item room’), and fights without weapons (tricky). One space is reserved for the traditional board game penalty of reversing your progress, while the final space sets up a decisive battle with the Yakuza-styled Black, who shows up in his Beat Stepper robot.

“The dice stage is really experimental,” Maegawa concurs, “and again it was under the idea of ‘anything’ being acceptable that we decided to throw 
a board game into the mix. But none of us are particularly fans of board games as such…”

Other levels are also experimental. For example, the Underground Mine stage is literally ‘on rails’, with the action switching to a ferocious pace as Red/Blue journey deep underground on high-speed mine carts. With parallel tracks at the top/bottom or left/right (depending on the section of track, progress through the mine can be horizontal or vertical), a jump to midair enables the cart to escape from the magnetic field of one track and enter the field of another, opening the possibility of upside-down mine cart control. Nintendo’s recent Super Mario Galaxy has been lauded for doing a similar thing – Gunstar Heroes was clearly ahead of its time.

You can read the rest of our Making Of Gunstar Heroes in issue 50. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com

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