The Saturn Tribute has been a bit of a mixed bag. Both Cotton 2 and Cotton Boomerang ended up being great games marred by a generally poor port/emulation job. The third and final game on this so-far-underwhelming package is Guardian Force – a dynamic, 360-degree tank shooter that was originally released way back in 1998.
Rotating, Scrolling Action
Guardian Force, like many Shmups, throws you straight into the action and lets you unleash all manner of lead, lasers, and giant spinning bladed yo-yos in the vague direction of your enemies. The game is split over 7 stages, with each stage having one big bad at the end, and a few mini-bosses sprinkled in for good measure. All in all, it will take about 40 minutes to get through Guardian Force – which is just on the cusp of being a smidge too long for me, but still well within the realm of reason.
Guardian Force has a few gimmicks that really make it stand out from the bunch, the first being its rotating gun. Enemies will come from every angle, and in order to combat this, you can rotate your main cannon to fire in eight directions. Your tank also fires a weaker sub-weapon directly forward, giving you multiple ways to engage enemies from multiple directions. There are also missile upgrades you can collect, which further increase your damage potential, with each variant operating in slightly different ways.
The value of this system really comes into play when you factor in Guardian Force’s dynamic scrolling. Unlike the vast majority of Shmups, Guardian Force does not stick to either horizontal or vertical scrolling. Each stage will seamlessly transition between the two, really putting your gun turret to the test and forcing you to adapt on the fly. What’s more, the Guardian Force has diagonal scrolling, which is very unusual, but welcome.
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Rotating guns and scrolling stages are cool and all, but Guardian Force also impresses with the variety of weapons available to the player. You have your standard rapid-firing machine-gun that deals decent damage over a large area, high damaging missiles, cascading bombs, sweeping lasers, and a giant bladed yo-yo. Each gun can be powered up using purple crystals, changing their visuals and stats as you level up. You also have access to the genre-staple Bomb, which changes based on your main weapon, for when you need to deal massive damage in a large area.
Each weapon comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, and bringing the wrong weapon to a fight can make the game substantially more difficult – giving the game a nice learning curve as you figure out what works where. My biggest gripe wasn’t the weapons themselves, but the enemies. Many enemies felt like they had too much health, and therefore took a bit too long to take down. Even the popcorn enemies took multiple shots to take down, making these cool-looking weapons feel a bit underwhelming – even at max level.
The final piece in the very appealing puzzle is the scoring system which is a bit simple, but satisfying nonetheless. Certain enemies will drop medals which will bounce around the screen waiting to be picked up. Medals are ranked, and once you’ve collected enough medals, they level up and grant you more points. If a medal vanishes, your point multiplier resets, and you start all over again. Medals tend to drop from enemies with multiple stages of destruction – for example, tanks are rendered immobile and weaponless when defeated, but if you continue shooting them, they explode, dropping a medal.
Scoring Ups and Downs
Points can be gained elsewhere, such as collecting weapon orbs and leveling crystals, but the majority of your bonus score will come from chaining medals – which is very satisfying. Unfortunately, like the Cotton games, there are no online leaderboards, which seriously hampered my desire to score chase. It would have been nice to compete on the world stage, and it would have substantially increased the game’s replayability.
Now from some negatives. Guardian Force is not an easy game – even on its easiest difficulty setting. This wouldn’t be so bad if the game didn’t have a few annoying aspects that exacerbated this issue. The most glaring being the controls. Guardian Force was originally released on the Saturn which did not have dual-analog capabilities. Naturally, a game that plays like a twin-stick shooter, but doesn’t actually have the sticks required, is going to be a bit awkward to handle. I played through Guardian Force multiple times, and I was never 100% comfortable with the button-based rotation – especially during a scroll change.
Including modernized controls would have been a huge improvement to the game. It’s also not unreasonable to expect a feature in a modern re-release. Games like Gleylancer, a Mega Drive release, recently got dual-analog controls, and it plays like a dream. Even just the option to select between classic and modern would have helped. Alas, we are stuck with uncomfortable, and clunky, controls.
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Adding to this niggle are the bullets. Visibility is not great in Guardian Force due to enemy bullets not only being small and fast, but also having inconsistent coloring. More often than is acceptable, enemy bullets will match the color of the background you are scrolling through, making the act of dodging much more difficult than it should be. If I was being generous I’d say this borders on cheap. I’m not going to be generous.
Being part of the Saturn Tribute, there have been reports of the game coming with some significant input delay. I didn’t notice it personally, however, it has been confirmed that the game operates with roughly 10 frames of delay. As per usual, this probably won’t be an issue for casual or newcomers to the genre, but the more hardcore may find this to be a huge negative. To offset this, Guardian Force comes with save states, a rewind feature, and the option to enable Slow Mode which makes getting through the game a bit easier.
To end on a high note, Guardian Force looks the bee’s knees. The Saturn is a sprite-powerhouse and Guardian Force utilizes that power nicely. Backgrounds, enemies, and bosses all look great, and your tank even changes appearance based on what weapon you are equipped with. Heck, it even has a small animation showing the weapon change, which is a nice touch. It also has a fantastic soundtrack that really pushes the action with some head-bopping tunes. Sound effects are a bit weak, unfortunately, but the overall audio-visual package is very nice.
Guardian Force is a pain in the arse – like every game featured in the Saturn Tribute. There is a lot to like here. The dynamic scrolling is great, the rotating turret is a fine concept, weapons are varied and scoring is fun. The controls really hold the game back, however. They added the bare minimum and called it a day when Guardian Force clearly would have benefitted from the option to use twin-sticks. Possible input delay issues and some cheap visual shenanigans don’t exactly help matters either. It was so close to being a gem but ended up being a fairly smooth pebble instead.
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