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I have to admit to being something of a list addict. I love reading articles or watching videos about other people’s favorite games. I know, I know. Lists are “lazy” content. But I’ve always found them fun, and they’re a great way to learn about games you haven’t played yet.

I’ve talked before about how I’ve rededicated myself to the Sega Genesis this year. And so, I’ve been watching a lot of “best Genesis games” videos. That’s how I realized I needed to play titles like Shinobi III.

You know which game I’ve noticed tops those lists more than anything else? No, it’s not a Sonic title. It’s Gunstar Heroes. And you know what? It should.

I need a hero

Gunstar Heroes is a co-op run-and-gun game from Treasure, a studio that made multiple Genesis greats like Dynamite Headdy and Alien Soldier. Heck, they made a licensed McDonald’s game — McDonald’s Treasure Land Adventure — and somehow even that one is good.

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Gunstar Heroes remains the studio’s masterpiece.

If you played any of the 16-bit Contra games, such as Alien Wars for Super Nintendo or Hard Corps for Genesis, it’s a bit like that. But the creativity level is on overdrive, and it has an extra emphasis on boss encounters. It’s non-stop action and wacky intensity. You’ll find yourself fighting an elbow-dropping army meathead on top of a flying helicopter. Later you’ll be playing a board game of death where the roll of the dice decides your next encounter. At another moment you’re racing down a corridor with a giant robot, using a moving mechanical platform to jump from the floor to the ceiling to dodge its attacks.

The final stage is fabulous. It’s a boss rush, but the presentation is so clever. You view the stage through a giant security camera that all of the baddies are watching. One by one, they leave the room to confront you. That’s a level of out-of-box creativity that was unusual in the 16-bit days.

Gunstar Heroes also stands out for it weapons system. Like in Contra, you can pick up items that unlock different weapons, like a short-range flamethrower or less powerful bullets that can home in on enemies. You can equip two of these at a time, and your attack changes based on the combination. If you have the chaser and fire weapons, you now shoot giant balls of flame that track down enemies, for example. A lot of the fun in Gunstar Heroes comes from trying all of the different combinations.

Just play it

This game is too well known for me to call it a hidden gem. Still, I imagine that there are plenty of Genesis owners who never played much besides Sonic, Mortal Kombat, and NBA Jam. If you haven’t tried Gunstar Heroes before, you should rectify that.

Thankfully, the game is easily available these days. It’s on just about every Genesis compilation, including the Sega Genesis Classics Collection for Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. You can even buy it on Steam on its own for just $1.

That’s more than a fair price for what may very well be the best game on the Genesis.

The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.

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