May 312012

The Guardian Legend sticker imagesFor this, the inaugural edition of our revived Games of Yore feature, I picked one of my favorite NES games, 1988’s The Guardian Legend, published by a company known for games that can stand the test of time, Brøderbund. This is the North American port of a Japanese Famicom game developed by Compile known as Legend of Guardic. While I can understand changing the name of the game to The Guardian Legend, I remain puzzled, all these years later, why they chose a cover that not only has nothing to do with the game but shamelessly rips off the 1985 sci-fi film Creature (a not uncommon act, as the covers for Navy Moves, Metal Gear and Contra, among others, demonstrate.)

Cover choice aside, The Guardian Legend instantly captivated me in my youth and can easily still do so today. One reason for this is how the game starts. You can wait at the title screen if desired, and you’ll gladly be presented with a token one-screen rundown on how you have to save the Earth from a planet hurtling toward it, but actually starting the game, you get nothing but white-knuckle action, as your ship propels through space at insane scrolling speeds which I didn’t even know were possible on an NES at the time. Just because this is the first stage of the game doesn’t mean things will be easy, either. Meteors and enemies zoom in from off-screen, pelting your ship as they go. In most shooters, the instant death suffered as a result would be frustrating in the extreme; because The Guardian Legend operates on an energy meter, here it simply forces you into an adrenalized state of survival. Survive the initial blistering-speed corridor and things slow down as you approach the first boss. That’s right; you have to fight a boss before you’re allowed to get into the game proper. You must earn the right to fully enjoy The Guardian Legend.

After the first boss–consisting of a dozen cannons simultaneously firing on you–is defeated, you’re taken into the actual game, where you’re given a mysterious message beseeching you to explore the ten corridors of the planet Naju and shut down the failsafe in each of them in order to trigger a self-destruct sequence that will stop Naju from colliding with and infecting any other worlds. You’ve now entered into the other part of the game: top-down exploration similar to The Legend of Zelda, only with space-age weapons, alien life forms, and, admittedly, less secrets to uncover. You scour the planet Naju, locating and clearing the ten corridors. While exploring the overworld of the planet, you’ll find and purchase weapons, and encounter mini-bosses, who also provide permanent power-ups when defeated. Each corridor contains two different shooting stages, which you play through when your robot character transforms into a spaceship. Each of these shooting segments is a few minutes long and punctuated with a boss fight. While the bosses do repeat with different colors and attack patterns in different corridors, there’s plenty of variety between them.

The Guardian Legend, Corridor 3

An open corridor, just waiting for you step forth, become a spaceship, and save the world.

To help you defeat the many enemies in your way, you can acquire up to 11 special weapons that can be switched through at will through a sub-menu, and each of these can be powered up to three levels. There’s a massive amount of variety, with lasers, fireballs, enemy-seeking orbs, and even lightsabers that attach to your ship, damaging anything that comes within reach. Fueling these weapons uses up “chips” which serve as a weapon energy supply separate from your main energy; your maximum chips can be increased along the way, which not only increases the power of your primary, unlimited-ammunition weapon, but allows you to use special weapons longer. The lower your chips fall, however, the weaker your primary weapon becomes, so it’s important to balance the use of them.

From start to finish, The Guardian Legend is a quality product. The graphics, especially in the shooting stages, are colorful and varied, and demonstrate the personalities of each zone, from underwater areas where you’ll encounter giant crabs and cosmic anemone, to icy terrains with active volcanoes erupting with ship-seeking  alien debris. Musically, the game squeezes a lot out of the NES’s four-channel processing. While the game lacks the length and depth of dedicated overworld explorers like Zelda or Crystalis, what it has works really well, especially when you consider that it also includes 21 shooting stages (including the opening.) And in the end, it’s this fusion of styles in a smooth package that makes The Guardian Legend an experience that each gamer should try.

The Guardian Legend, Area 11

You're a spaceship flying underwater, fighting giant piranha and space-sea rays. This is totally normal.

For those who love the sound of the shooting stages, but hate exploration to get to them, Compile has you covered. Completing the game or flipping through the most recent Nintendo Power checking the internet will reveal that putting in “TGL” as a password will take you through a version of the game with only shooting stages in immediate succession, with the power-ups you would have found while exploring instead awarded based on your gameplay performance. This turns the game into a monster difficulty challenge, so consider yourself duly warned.

There remains little else to say. By this point, you know if you’re going to try this game or not, but if you’ve ever enjoyed shoot-em-ups, you owe it to yourself to do so. There simply isn’t another overland/shoot-em-up fusion like it out there. Relive the glory of 1988 today.