Retro reflections by Nick H.
One of the really cool things my dad did for me as a kid was rent me a new NES game just about every weekend. It was a cheap way to play a lot of different games, and I'd get them finished, too, as video games had a tendency to be quite short back then when compared to today. The idea of blowing through a video game in a couple of hours seems pretty far-fetched nowadays, but back then it was a much more likely.
One of the titles my dad rented me was called The Guardian Legend. I will admit that I knew almost nothing about the game. It had sort of an odd, almost eerie cover with a pair of creepy snake-like eyes peering out over a blasted and barren orange-yellow landscape. Back then your only options to figure out if you were going to like a game or not was the cover art, what was on the back of the box and the occasional video game magazine. I could vaguely recall something about it generally being well-regarded from a presentation perspective, but picked apart for various other reasons.
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Finally getting to play the game, I was surprised at something. It, like a handful of other titles such as Blaster Master, tried to change things up not necessarily by offering deep systems, but different styles of gameplay. I recalled games like Contra and Life Force being praised not only for their excellent gameplay, but how they presented it in different ways. Odd numbered levels were left to right side scrollers while the even numbered levels were top to bottom shooters that changed the game's perspective on you.
The Guardian Legend did more than just change around your point of view however, bringing two very different types of game together into one cartridge. Initially, the experience was one of a shoot-'em-up as our protagonist took on the form of a spaceship. This was done during the portions of the game where you were venturing around the interior of the planet Naju, with the idea that you are a ship to help span incredible distances. This part played out pretty typically for the genre, with a primary weapon using unlimited ammo and some secondary weapons that consumed power chips and could easily tilt the battle to your favour. It helps that the controls here are actually quick and responsive. The gameplay during these segments lacks variety, but it is at least pretty well done.
These parts were solid, but not as good as a lot of other shmups on the system. However, these sections served almost as interludes between the meatier portions of the game where the Guardian takes on a humanoid/robotic form to traverse the actual surface of Naju. This was more akin to a 2/3 top-down action/adventure game where you have to manage life but also those aforementioned power chips that can be used for purchasing upgrades. This is a much more labyrinthine experience as you traverse passages and rooms in search of Naju's ten safety machines.
This was where The Guardian Legend was the most fun. Bosses were tough - and sometimes bordering on being unfairly so, but they required you to use a good deal of strategy. The various upgrades were actually useful here as they gave you access to things such as new weapons and greater life capacity. While these were far from innovations in and of themselves, it was really cool the way that these two seemingly incredibly different genres could occupy the same space together. The visuals remained stellar in both modes of play, the music was catchy and even the use of power chips in both modes of play created a sense of continuity between them.
If this recipe sounds rather familiar, that is because it has been used lots of times over the years. Games have been blurring the lines between genres for years now, but this exact formula has been used to great success in titles like the several versions of Velocity. While the game was one that seemed to garner mixed results from magazines and my friends alike, I always really enjoyed it. The graphics were sharp, I enjoyed the music, and the idea of switching between styles kept the pace fresh despite the fact that neither one of the two styles was best in class, but both were 'good enough' to be enjoyable. It never quite matches the precision and fluidity of my favourite NES shooters like Life Force, nor the adventuring excellence of other top-down games like The Legend of Zelda, but the title was ambitious and opened my eyes to the idea that games could not only borrow bits and pieces from other genres, but wholeheartedly embrace multiple ones at the same time.
There were warts, don't get me wrong. Like many games of that era, it used a clunky password system instead of much simpler battery backup. Because both types of games were good but not great representations of the genre, they began to grow a little stale and shallow by the title's conclusion. Difficulty seemed more prone to unfair spikes than others that were tuned to a more gradual curve.
Still, I have always appreciated The Guardian Legend for doing something that at the time was unique. It was a risky endeavour that proved games could be more than simply defined by their genres - a lesson that has served the gaming industry well in the years since. You have to do it well - plenty of games have tried to be genre benders and failed because they focused so hard on having lots of variety and elements that along the way they forgot to polish the titles and add depth. Thee Guardian Legend could have easily gone in that direction had it left out a few elements like the upgrade system or secondary weapons. I suppose you could say that in the end, I have always considered The Guardian Legend to be better than just the sum of its parts.
- Nick H.