No matter how excited you are for a new console from your favourite company there are always a few games released in the launch window that, if you’re honest with yourself, really only exist to tide enthusiastic early adopters over until the real deal comes out: The Saturn’s opening platformer Clockwork Knight would struggle to come out on top in a fight against even the most average of 16-bit equivalents, and for all the fondness I have for Battle Arena Toshinden it can’t honestly compete with the likes of Tekken, Dead or Alive, or even Squaresoft’s Tobal.
Yet for all these early-days missteps Gunners Heaven (Rapid Reload for lucky European players), a total one-off by the team best known for the Wild West[ish] RPG series Wild Arms, somehow avoided falling into this usual rut and instead ended up as something even worse – a perfectly good game that nobody bought.
Often simply dismissed as ‘the PlayStation game that ripped off Gunstar Heroes’ – a fate somehow avoided by Resident Evil [Alone in the Dark], Star Fox [Galaxy Force II], and almost every FPS/fighting game released in a post Street Fighter II/Quake world - it is fair to say that Media Vision’s 1995 run-n-gun plays like a love letter to Treasure’s Mega Drive classic, featuring as it does a hyperactive gun-toting duo who can throw enemies about the place and blow up everything else with an assortment of colourful bullets, but the similarities, while obvious, don’t run all that deep. Most importantly Gunners Heaven eschews Treasure’s mix-and-match power up system for a permanent set of four different weapons that can be switched between at will – a standard rapid fire gun, a weak-but-useful homing shot, a powerful-but-limited flame shot and last of all, the not-entirely-sure-what-to-do-with-it rebound shot. To give players some variety playable characters Axel and Ruka each have their own unique takes on these destructive archetypes – Ruka’s homing shot is a free roaming ‘worm’ laser, while Axel’s is a multi-target lightning blast anchored to the end of his gun. To give another example Ruka’s flame shot is a traditional short range flamethrower, whereas Axel’s fires two slow but powerful flame shots right across the screen. Learning to use the right weapon for the right situation is an essential part of making it through to the ending as in some sections you’ll do better by being cautious and focusing more on avoiding incoming shots, while for others it’s best to plough on ahead and never give the enemy the chance to fire at all.
Axel and Ruka’s regular shots can be improved by collecting P chips from defeated enemies for a time-limited boost, or grabbing the rare ultra-strong Boost pickups that let you go really nuts for a short period of time. Unfortunately there’s little tactical thought to this system as you can’t store them for a particular moment or force enemies to produce them the way you can Alien Soldier's health drops; but on the other hand you never need to as while the powered shot is always better the damage dealt by standard weaponry is mercifully a million miles away from being Gradius-like peashooters.
Gunners Heaven’s not just about rushing forward on the offensive – well… it is but – as you’ve got a small but versatile set of defensive moves too! Crouching and throwing people-sized enemies are the two you’re most likely to do by accident, and on top of that you can also perform a short low slide forwards, or fire off a grappling hook and quickly zip away to safety. There’s not much that feels better in an action game than effortlessly sliding under an incoming Giant Laser of Death to unleash a bomb in a boss’ face or pulling yourself up high and then raining bullets on a horde of enemies below!
You’ve got six stages to unleash your skills and firepower upon, which doesn’t sound like an awful lot until you discover how hard the game can be – even with the Japanese version’s unlimited continues you’re not going to breeze through this one in a lazy weekend. But it’s worth the struggle as the lush graphics remain a fine example of excellent 2D pixel art even all these years later, and whether you’re shooting at robo-dragons in rainy skies or wading through ancient forest rivers battling giant robo-scorpions each stage feels like a visual treat. Gunners Heaven may not feature the most inventive uses of 2D art or push the PlayStation in an obvious way, but there’s never any question that it’s a next generation game (for 1995, anyway) and looking back we’re all better off for Media Vision sticking to doing one particular thing very well rather than falling into the trap of playing with every toy in the PlayStation’s toolbox just because it was there.
One point that’s often picked up on as a negative, and often mentioned in the same breath as the ‘like Gunstar Heroes’ problem (please add your own airquotes action there) is that Gunners Heaven lacks any sort of cooperative play, just like Alien Soldier, Alisia Dragoon, Shinobi, El Viento, Castlevania:Take Your Pick From Just About All Of Them Bar That Weird One On XBLA, and… you get the idea. Would co-op have been better? Of course! But then again co-op’s always better in my book, and in any case the point I’m trying to make here is that Gunners Heaven isn’t the only 2D action game that could’ve have co-op play, but didn’t.
One point that’s not picked up on because most people don’t get to play Gunners Heaven often enough is that later boss health bars range from ‘too much’ to ‘maybe I should’ve booked a week off work to get through this’, an issue that can definitely take the shine off what was oh-so-nearly a tense and impressive encounter with a screen-sized opponent bristling with exotic death lasers. The good news is that these overly-long tussles usually feature multiple forms with their own unique attack patterns so there’s still a feeling of progression and variety even when things start to drag on a bit too much, but in an ideal world boss HP would have had a good chunk lopped off too.
But that’s really about as harsh as I can be on this action-packed and beautiful game. It’s a lot of fun, tough-but-fair, and offers two extremely likeable and stylish characters to power through the game’s action-packed stages with. As good as Gunstar Heroes? No – but what is? Even Treasure have had trouble making games that could stand up to their previous works, and to base every game’s worth only in comparison to widely recognised and universally accepted classics is more than a little unfair – it’d be like burning every painting that wasn’t on a par with Rembrandt. Gunners Heaven is ‘just’ a generally well made game that’s a lot of fun to play and can be yours for just 617yen if you have access to Japan’s PSN store, or is still cheap enough in physical form to be more than worth ordering from your favourite importer.