Welcome to Saturnday, our weekly dive into the games and stories that punctuated the Sega Saturn’s all-too-brief existence in the 1990s.
Move to a new screen. Beat up everyone in sight. Repeat.
Sega’s legacy beyond Sonic games in the West has to be the advent and perfection of the side scrolling, 2D beat ’em up genre. Though the Double Dragon and Final Fight series appeared prominently on Nintendo consoles in the 80s and early 90s, Sega’s Golden Axe and Streets of Rage (Bare Knuckle in Japan) were Sega’s answer on the Mega Drive/Genesis.
In 1996, Treasure’s brilliant Guardian Heroes delivered the definitive 2D beat ’em up experience as the final nails were being driven into the coffin of the once-thriving genre.
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The Golden Beat ‘Em Ups
Though many agree that Golden Axe has aged least gracefully of the bunch, the series did bring magic attacks to the beat ’em up formula. Where contemporaries were obsessed with depicting a 80s action blockbuster version of urban America, Golden Axe was pure high fantasy. A beat ’em up flavored by a La Croix version of Dungeons and Dragons.
It’s a formula that spawned other fantastical beat ’em ups, most notably Konami’s 1992 X-Men and Capcom’s 1994 Alien vs. Predator arcade games. In terms of gameplay mechanics, the slow and lumbering style of Golden Axe stayed far behind the games that came after it. Streets of Rage, even in its first installment in 1991, was always fluid and fresh. Rage’s neon-soaked nightlife was highlighted by astonishing, groundbreaking soundtracks from composer Yuzo Koshiro. As the 90s unfolded, it felt to me like Final Fight was the leader of the genre, but it’s obvious in hindsight they were always the mediocre player on the better team. Though the SNES had a better overall library, gems like Streets of Rage were head and shoulders over what you could get on the Genesis’ rival system.
As Sega pushed the mainstream industry into 32-bit territory, developers largely made the shift to 3D graphics and design. Despite a less glowing reception than its predecessor, 1994’s Streets of Rage 3 continued a trajectory of 2D beat ’em up excellence that many assumed would resume on Sega’s new console, the Saturn.
Treasure Co., Ltd. was officially founded in 1992 by ex-Konami developers and designers explicitly breaking from the established company because of its over-reliance on making sequels. Development on their first title, however, began while at Konami in 1991. Knowing Konami would never green light their project, the employees moved on to make Gunstar Heroes for the Genesis in 1993.
Known for its tight action, impressive sprite work, and impressive use of the Genesis processor, Gunstar Heroes was a critical success for the new indie outfit. The use of articulation in its enemy designs would later be used in many games on the console, including Konami’s own Contra Hard Corps.
Before Treasure’s ragtag group even broke away from their parent company, they developed The Simpsons arcade game, a lushly-animated and surprisingly fun beat ’em up that featured, among many other things, Marge Simpson wrecking shop with a vacuum cleaner.
Treasure remained a steadfast developer of Genesis games with an extremely diverse lineup that included platformers, run-and-gun shooters, isometric adventures, and competitive fighting games. The Treasure team may have had beat ’em up experience in their collective pasts, but had never developed a game under their unique banner before. When the Sega Saturn arrived, all of that changed.
A Magical Denouement
2D beat ’em ups thrived in arcades with strong Capcom games, but the genre didn’t reach its frothy heights on consoles. Final Fight‘s sequels were mostly panned on Nintendo’s more popular 16-bit competitor to Sega’s Genesis and home versions of Capcom’s lesser known brawlers didn’t capture the zeitgeist, either. From Sega’s perspective, what was going to move the most Saturn consoles was 3D polygonal action. Almost all of the console’s launch titles made use of expansive 3D environments and detailed (for the time) 3D models.
Treasure’s debut for the Saturn, however, was a stunning departure from the 3D trend with the sprawling, magical, 2D brawler Guardian Heroes. Where many brawlers offered characters with little mechanical difference between play styles, Heroes offered five unique playable characters. Where contemporaries held narrative beats to thirty seconds at the beginning of the game and thirty seconds at the end, Heroes told an intriguing tale and let players decide one of five unique paths to brawl down. Where beat ’em ups typically juggled very few systems, Heroes featured a relatively robust leveling system that allowed for light character customization.
Treasure’s direct inspirations for Guardian Heroes were the aforementioned Alien vs. Predator and obscure brawler for the Sharp X68000 console called Mad Stalker: Full Metal Forth. The former evolved Final Fight‘s engine and shoved it into an action-packed arcade cabinet while the latter focused on huge mechs rumbling in a bite-sized world. A common thread between the two was packing a ton of action onto the side scrolling screens at once. Beat ’em ups like Streets of Rage, while frenzied in certain levels, dosed its action to even out the game’s difficulty.
Guardian Heroes remains unique in that it often packed 10-20 active sprites on screen at once across three planes of depth. Also unique was the Undead Hero, a key character in the world of Guardian Heroes that also acted as an AI companion for the player regardless if they played solo or with a friend. The player could set general AI parameters for the Undead Hero with quick commands, including unleashing a massive energy blast that could clear the screen of lesser enemies.
Players also had to manage HP and MP meters, where typically brawlers incorporate special attacks by siphoning health from the player. MP could be built up, which didn’t matter as much for typical warrior character Han, but mattered a lot for other characters. Randy, with flying squirrel sidekick Nando, used a plethora of offensive spells to balance out his weak physical attacks. Nicole’s mix of spells made her incredibly tricky to use, but with a high ceiling of effectiveness against large groups.
Players not speeding through the dialogue in Guardian Heroes were rewarded with a yarn about demons and angels, magic cults and empires, nothing unfamiliar to JPRG fans. It’s a far cry from “crime boss holds city hostage, film at 11,” though. Every decision Treasure made in regards to the design Guardian Heroes was a needed progression of the tired systems of the genre. I would’ve loved to see these choices expand and change in future Treasure brawlers or competitors of theirs.
Back to Basics
Sadly, Guardian Heroes marked a dead end for the 2D beat ’em up genre. Treasure moved on from the genre for the most part, turning to shoot ’em ups like Sin and Punishment and platformers like Mischief Makers. Treasure did release a Game Boy Advance sequel to Guardian Heroes called Guardian Heroes Advance in 2004, but it didn’t perform well on the handheld. You can still grab an HD remaster of Guardian Heroes on Xbox Live, which was made backward compatible on Xbox One in 2016. The industry seemed to move away from the genre as well, only returning for throwbacks like the mediocre Double Dragon IV.
The upcoming Streets of Rage 4 seems like more than a nostalgia play with expanded mechanics and a focus on what made the game special in the first place. I’ll be patiently waiting for a developer to take lessons learned from the exceptional Guardian Heroes and create new opportunities for us to bash some skulls and shoot some fireballs in a beautiful 2D world.