I’ve always bristled somewhat whenever someone uses the phrase “ahead of its time”, insofar as the usage of the phrase is not always congruous with its literal meaning. It seems to me as though the phrase is often a shorthand for calling something artsy, subversive, or otherwise interesting and different, regardless of whether or not it serves as a portent of things to come in its genre or media (or any other, for that matter). If something is artsy, subversive, and different, just use those adjectives. It’s clearer, more specific, and more informative.
This is a extremely mild gripe. I used to be much more persnickety about these sorts of things, and to an extent I still am (This is a reminder to absolutely everyone alive: “Begging the question” refers to a logical fallacy in which you assume the truth of the conclusions you are arguing in favor of. It is in no way equivalent to, nor should it be used as a substitute for, the phrase “raising the question”). And while I’ve long since concluded that complaining about every idiom that can’t be taken literally is the path to madness, when I see the phrase “ahead of its time” as a stand-in, I usually wish the author or speaker had been more specific.
But, some things were legitimately ahead of their time, and they should be celebrated as such. To wit: The Guardian Legend, released for NES in 1988, was so far ahead of it’s time that its innovations didn’t become standard for more than a decade afterward, and to this day, its completely seamless blend of action and exploration remains oft-imitated but never duplicated.
In The Guardian Legend, you play as a robot who turns into a spaceship (or maybe it’s a spaceship who turns into a robot) charged with infiltrating a giant spaceship/asteroid uh….thingy called Naju, which contains a whole bunch of dangerous aliens and is hurtling toward Earth and thus must be destroyed. There are two modes of gameplay. The first is spaceship mode, a top-down shoot-em-up style mode (think 1943, Raiden Trad, Ikaruga, etc.) where your fly down linear corridors fighting enemies, culminating in a boss fight.
The second is robot mode. Robot mode also uses a top-down perspective, however, robot mode is non-linear. Picture the original Legend of Zelda, except your main weapon is a gun. In robot mode, you poke around the map, finding keys to access new areas, finding new corridors for spaceship mode, and finding powerups. There a lot of powerups in this game, to the point that they dang near constitute the now-omnipresent “RPG elements”, and they increase the uh…power of just about every aspect of your character you can think of. There are health increases and attack power increases and shield increases and special weapons and powerups for your special weapons.
Did I mention there are special weapons? There are so many different dang special weapons, each of which does its own unique thing. What’s better is that all of the special weapons are, at bare minimum, theoretically useful in certain situations. To this very day, it’s rare to see a game where all of the special weapons and/or abilities at your disposal are even potentially useful, and this game figured it out 30 years ago. Granted, some are more useful than others (shoutouts to Tim for pointing out how ridiculous the lightsaber is), but every one is worth experimenting with, at minimum.
However, the single most forward-thinking aspect of Guardian Legend is the map system. In the 8-bit era, most exploration-based games didn’t bother providing the player with a map at all, and those that did had maps that were, at best, marginally useful, and in no way indicated what you should be doing or looking for next. (This isn’t necessarily bad, mind you, but it does mean that modern gamers will often have difficulty getting into even the stone-cold classics of the 8-bit years.) But The Guardian Legend features a map that shows you how exactly many squares are in a given area, and also shows you where the next corridors are. That’s huge! Granted, it doesn’t show you the exact layouts of areas, but that’s totally fine. It’s the earliest instance of objective marking I am aware of, and while there are games from the 90s that featured objective marking, they didn’t become standard until Halo and GTA 3 came out.
And while that may be the most innovative aspect of The Guardian Legend, it’s not the best. The best aspect is the controls, which flawlessly integrate both modes. How do they flawlessly integrate those modes? By being exactly the fucking same in both modes. You move (in eight directions, mind you, in a time when that in and of itself was hardly guaranteed) with the directional pad, you shoot your main gun with the B button, you shoot your special weapon with the A button, you pause with Start, and you use Select to bring up the map, your power level stats, and the special weapon selector, all of which is intuitively condensed onto one screen without sacrificing readability. The net result of this is that despite the sheer amount of stuff is crammed into this game, it takes all of four seconds to learn how to play, even without reading a manual and even without any bullshit, patronizing-ass tutorials. How fucking cool is that!?
All of that being said, The Guardian Legend is not perfect. Enemy, mini-boss, and boss designs are re-skinned early and often. Many corridors require you do something (use a particular special weapon, etc.) in order to open them, and there are more corridors than there are good ideas for ways to open corridors. And while there is exploration, there aren’t any secret areas or rooms. Every room that exists at all exists on the map, so all you have to do to find everything is walk to every room on the map. Personally, this doesn’t bug me much, but if you’re the type of player who gets your kicks from poking around for and finding secret areas, the exploration segments may strike you as dull.
I should also take a moment to address the save situation, such as it is. There’s no battery save, all saving is done via passwords, which are provided at certain rooms on the map. The passwords are 32 characters long, and are comprised of a combination of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers, and punctuation. For the sake of your own sanity, if you play this game, make sure to do so on a platform that lets you save states.
And, of course, as this is an NES game, I should take moment to address the elephant in the room for every 8-bit title: yes, this game is extremely fucking hard. It’s not a constant struggle against everything in the same way that, say, Ninja Gaiden is, but some corridors and bosses are real motherfuckers. Finding all the powerups you can before entering new corridors is highly recommended. Fortunately, while the game is difficult, it is forgiving. The penalty for dying is a slap on the wrist – you respawn at the last save room you found, at full health, with your special weapon ammo the exact same as when you died, and with every power up you found between when you saved last and when you died. (This too, is one of the most progressive elements of the game, as it foreshadows the “death as minor inconvenience” systems of BioShock, etc.)
So, to sum up, The Guardian Legend is one of the most forward thinking and ambitious games of its (or any other) era, a hybrid shoot-em-up/space dungeon crawl/Metroidvania that combines all of its elements so well, you’ll hardly notice they’re all there, and is fun as all fucking get out to boot. Truly and literally, The Guardian Legend was ahead of its time, and you should play it by any means necessary.
Or not, I’m not like, your supervisor or anything.