Video game releases tend to be part of one specific genre in particular. You’ll have your games that are specifically first-person shooters, or specifically platformers, or strategy games, amongst other types. That said, it’s not uncommon to see a game in one genre occasionally take influence from a separate genre in some way. This can be seen with many shooters and whatnot having experience systems and the ability to upgrade weapons, which is typically associated with role-playing games.
However, games that are designed from the onset to be an almost equal split between two separate genres, don’t come along too often. One example of those kind of games is, The Guardian Legend; a definite cult classic.
Released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, this game served as a pretty even mix of overhead action-adventure (seen in The Legend of Zelda), with vertical-scrolling shoot-em-up/shmup action along the lines of arcade shooters like Xevious.
There are twelve shmup corridors that are required to be completed in order to beat the game. There are also ten extra corridors that can be skipped, though provide extra items and upgrades if completed. I found this to be a nice approach to design, as one can skip the optional stages if they just want to finish the game quickly, or they can go out of their way to do them for the extra challenge… or potentially extra help (if you get a really good reward from doing so).
Sometimes, in various other locations, the game will also give you a choice between two or more power-ups to obtain. This adds to the potential replay value, as later playthroughs of the game give you the option to get items you may have missed during your previous playthrough.
When you’re not playing through a shmup stage, you’ll be exploring the overworld, which is laid out in a very similar manner to the original Zelda, albeit, on a somewhat smaller scale. The Guardian Legend is much more action-oriented, but there are occasional puzzles that will impede your progress. These puzzles can be unintuitive, such as one that will… test your patience, or sometimes they’ll require that the player use one specific sub-weapon on said corridor. These puzzles can be solved either through trial and error, or by finding a certain hint that has been left elsewhere in the area via text log.
The controls are generally tight. It can sometimes be hard to aim in a specific direction in the action/adventure sections of the game since there’s no way to aim from a standstill, but it doesn’t take too long to get used to. You can move in eight directions at a fairly swift speed, so movement feels fluid. In the shmup sections, you can move all across the screen, but can only aim upwards with your main weapon. At times it’ll become necessary to rely on your sub-weapons to be able to hit enemies who are off to your side or behind you.
The start button pauses the game. The select button also pauses while pulling up a menu from which you can view your current status, as well as choose between different sub-weapons to equip. This menu is pretty nice as it is kind enough to tell you how many chips will be used up for each time a weapon is fired, as well as showing you exactly how many times you can shoot said weapon before you run out of chips. As you level up each sub-weapon, they’ll become more powerful, yet also require more chips per use. Be sure to not overuse them, as using up all your chips will not only prevent you from being able to use your sub-weapons, but your main weapon’s shot power will also degrade as your chips get used up. As a result, there’s a trade-off the players has to make when deciding whether to rely more on their main weapon, or on a sub-weapon (or both), at any given time.
Also on the select menu, is a map. Each screen in the Zelda-like overworld has coordinates given on an X and Y axis, so you can easily tell where the current screen you are on is located in relation to other screens. The next location you need to enter will always be highlighted, so getting lost is not a concern.
The sub-weapons are pretty varied in design and utility. They range from a lightsaber, to grenades, to an energy barrier reminiscent of the Leaf Shield from Mega Man 2, amongst many other weapons. Every sub-weapon, with the exception of a laser, can be used both in human form and in ship form. Weapons change in color as they power up, from blue to green to purple. You quickly become a powerhouse, easily capable of wiping out enemies you come across. However, you have only the tiniest amount of frames of invincibility each time you get hit, so it can be easy for a single attack or enemy to quickly drain your health down to a fraction of what it used to be. It does not pay to be reckless.
The difficulty curve is a little inconsistent, I should note. Personally, the opening shmup stage is one of the hardest in the game, as you don’t have any sub-weapons at that point, nor any health or shield or weapon upgrades, so you’re stuck with the slow default shot while thrust into a stage that auto-scrolls at light-speed.
Bosses can sometimes be really difficult and require multiple tries to beat, or really easy and beatable on the first try. There are sometimes pallete-swap repeats of older bosses, though made harder or (oddly enough) easier on the second encounter. Despite this, the game definitely picks up in difficulty to a significant degree during the last few areas.
Story doesn’t have a prominent focus here, though there are a few text logs the player can find scattered across the overworld. Most of these simply give out hints regarding how to unlock each main corridor, but the opening text page (upon waiting at the title screen) in particular lays out the nature of the game’s conflict, and informs the main character of what is needed to succeed.
After the first corridor, you’re greeted with a text log from one of the former inhabitants of the planet that the game takes place on. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but these text logs (the first one in particular) reminded me of much more recent games like Dead Space, and how they’ll leave text logs lying around for the player to find in order to find more details concerning the place they’re in, and why they’re alone. In this way, The Guardian Legend is pretty ahead of its time.
I particularly enjoyed the soundtrack. A couple songs are slower in pace and melancholic, like the password theme, but during combat, energetic tunes will usually play over the action. These songs are infectiously catchy, and establish a fitting atmosphere for what’s on screen.
The graphics are remarkably detailed considering the NES’ native resolution. Locations and enemies alike comprise of many different designs and settings, ranging from the delightful to the disturbing. I find the design of the main character especially interesting, as she’s a cute badass girl who can transform into a space ship. This game seems to push the hardware to its limits, as there will sometimes be slowdown or sprite flickering during particularly hectic segments (particularly late in the game). Said slowdown can also be a help when things get really challenging however, so I find its presence justifiable.
The password system is a drag. It does save your exact status, including how many chips you have, which is a good thing, but each password is really complicated as it takes a ton of effort to input each of the four lines. I do appreciate the umlauts placed over every lower-case letter, so as to make them more distinct from the upper-case letters while confined to the NES’ resolution. Bizarrely enough, the numbers are not listed in perfect order; 0, 1, 2, and 3 are listed next to the upper-case letters, separate from numbers 4 through 9, which are listed with the lowercase letters. That can make searching out the specific number you want to input a little confusing before you get the hang of it. Still though, I suppose it’s preferable to having to start the whole game over every time you play, since it’s a pretty long one.
All in all, does this game hold up? I definitely think so. If you’re looking to pad out your NES library and want to play a remarkably great game that is often overlooked in favor of more well-known classics like Metroid or Mega Man, then absolutely give this one a go.