Gunstar Heroes, developed by Treasure and published by Sega for the Genesis, is a game that needs no introduction. Since its release in late 1993 it has achieved cult classic status, praised by Sega fans the world over for its incredible graphics, tight and addictive gameplay and rock-solid co-op. Simply put, Gunstar Heroes is one of the finest 16-bit games ever released that no one with a Genesis (or Mega Drive) should be without.
The story begins with... nonsense, and ends with more nonsense. The Japanese plot was re-written as the game was translated into English, and the paper-thin plot became even more incomprehensible unless you read it on the game's Wiki page. Regardless, no one is coming into this game for the story - this is a game you play in order to blow up robots... thousands and thousands of robots.
The appeal of the game lies in its non-stop, balls-to-the-wall action. The amount of time you'll spend in Gunstar Heroes without your finger on the fire button can be counted in seconds. Imagine Contra, but with an anime art style and Treasure's trademark bonkers charisma and you'll have a decent idea of what Gunstar Heroes has in store. The game throws a literally endless amount of enemies at you; if you stay in one spot, they'll keep coming until you move on.
Fighting off enemies is only fun if you've got fun weapons to blow them up with, and Gunstar Heroes' customizable loadouts are one of the high points of the game. There are four weapon types - Force, Lighting, Chaser and Fire - that can be mixed and matched into your two weapon slots. If you combine Force and Fire you shoot giant fireballs that explode when they hit something. Combine Chaser and Lighting and you wind up with a diamond of lighting bolts that dashes around the screen blowing up enemies with reckless abandon without you having to aim. Force and Force give you a giant "machine gun" fire that takes up a good quarter of the screen. It's infinitely customizable and you can easily find something that fits your playstyle.
On top of that, you can also choose between "Free Shot" and "Fixed Shot," allowing you to further tailor the game to your preferences. Free Shot allows you to shoot while moving while Fixed Shot locks you into place when holding the fire button, allowing you to shoot in all eight directions. It all depends on which weapons you prefer; Chaser weapons favor the Free Shot style that lets you keep on the move, while some of the other more "standard" weapons favor Fixed Shot that allows you to line up your shots better.
Top top off all the awesome combat features, you can also throw enemies into each other to do crazy damage, or even perform flying jump kicks that do damage for as long as your foot makes contact with the enemy, which can drain a good chunk of a boss' health with one well placed kick.
Speaking of bosses, they're totally insane and wacky. You have Papaya Dance, a giant stem of asparagus that shoots caterpillars at you; Melon Bread, which is just a floating face; Bravoo Man, a giant golem that can perform the Dragon Punch from Street Fighter, and Curry and Rice, a titan that you must fight barehanded at the end of a giant board game level. To call Gunstar Heroes imaginative would be selling it short, because the bosses on offer here are unlike anything that's been featured in a game before or since.
The game's presentation totally does the rest of the package justice, with intense 16-bit tunes that are designed to keep your blood pumping and brilliant art design overflowing with color. The game looks and sounds as good as it plays, which, as you've probably gathered, is astronomically high praise.
As the proverbial cherry on top of this radness sundae, the game is two-player co-op and is worlds better for it. Nothing makes a great game better like being able to tackle it with a buddy, and Gunstar Heroes provides not only some of the best co-op in the 16-bit era, but in the entire history of video games.
The greatness that is Gunstar Heroes almost defies explanation by human words. It's something that you need to play to truly understand just how much better it can make your life. Not only is it on the Genesis (which you should have in your house if you like video games at all) but you can also get it on the Wii's Virtual Console, or on the Xbox 360 through Xbox Live Arcade or on the PlayStation Network on PlayStation 3. There's no excuse not to play Gunstar Heroes. Give your entire being over to it and let yourself become a better person.
Joe Walker parades around the internet spreading the gospel on forgotten and obscure retro games that are cheap and easy to find via his show The Backlog. You can follow him on Twitter if you're into that sort of thing.