A classic title; the only real problem with this game is its rarity!
A truly unique scrolling beat-em-up, if you were to try and say exactly what it is that makes Guardian Heroes great, you'd probably conclude that it's the way everything is performed and designed on a grand scale, such as;
Big, bright and bold character designs; Large amounts of characters displayed on screen at any given time; The impressive effort involved in fusing action, RPG elements, and fighting mechanics into a fluid product. Massive amounts of playable characters; Immense amount of possible scenarios and endings in the story mode,
All of these elements combine to form what can only be described as one massive game-playing experience. Indeed, unbelievable though it may seem, the game is so well executed that it actually manages to become more than the sum of its parts - an extremely impressive feat.
The gist of the main game (story mode) goes as follows:
The player chooses one of the four playable characters (Expanded to five upon initial completion of the game) who all make up the titular "Guardian Heroes", a motley group of adventurers who have set out to find a legendary sword - "Muramasa". The game starts after Han, the stereotypical "Strong but slow (in more than one way)" swordsman, finds this legendary sword and shows it to the group.
Unfortunately for the Guardian Heroes, the sword not only turns out to be cursed, but is also highly sought after by the sorceror Kanon, who just happens to command the royal army and has no qualms about using it against the heroes to capture the weapon.
This sets the scene for an epic story with far too many possible routes to list. Depending on the choices you make, targets you fulfill and characters chosen, you could end up doing anything from a (relatively) straight-forward plow through the entire kingdom's armies, to taking part in a rebellion and even getting involved with demons (Of both dark and light varieties). This, combined with the fact that the various routes also reward you by unlocking various characters for the versus mode, makes this quite possibly the most replayable game I've ever experienced. With some plot-arcs taking upwards of an hour to complete, this is one game that you aren't going to fully complete in an afternoon or even a week, assuming you don't cheat.
The anime styling of the characters is also nicely done (if cliched) and makes the game feel like you're playing your way through a particularly violent fantasy series (Record of Lodoss War-Lite, if you will ^_^).
The player-characters are also a varied and fun bunch: we have muscle-man Van (mentioned previously), who's handy with large swords, the lithe ninja Ginjirou, who uses lightning-fast attacks and ninja-spells to out-maneuver and out-wit the enemy, young and shy sorceror Randy, who's main strength is his impressive arsenal of powerful spells coupled with staff prowess, and the mischievous cleric Nicole, who combines decent offensive magic with the ability to heal herself (And her allies occasionally). There are also two other characters you'll encounter in the story mode, one who will become playable, and one who becomes your loyal companion. The former I'll leave to your imagination; suffice it to say she plays the position of all-rounder in the group and one who will become your loyal ally for much of the game, assuming you play it in one-player mode.
This 'ally' takes the form of an undead, indestructable skeletal warrior, who is capable of some amazingly powerful attacks if you let him (Though once performed he has to regain his magic power to use them again). You guide him by giving him one of five set 'moods'; attack (He attacks anything on screen, but doesn't use his most powerful attacks), defend (He stays close to you, only attacking enemies he sees as threats to you), follow (He stays behind you and only attacks when attacked and basically serves as a "human shield" or rather, a "skeletal shield") mode, hold (He just stands around and gets pummelled, works as a decoy, and lets you gain experience for every enemy killed; more on that later) and Berzerk (Attacks everything and uses all possible attacks).
The music that accompanies the action is entertaining and suits the game, though it's hardly of the highest caliber. The same can be said of the sound-effects, which do their job but aren't likely to get nominated for any awards.
The controls are quite effective, and make good use of the Saturn's six face-buttons and shoulder-buttons; Unlike most scrolling beat-em-ups, pressing "up" actually makes your character jump, and so (With the default controls) you have to use the shoulder-buttons to change plane (There are three, covering the back, middle and fore-grounds). By default, the main-face buttons cover defend (Blocks attacks in front of you), normal attack (Comboable) and heavy attack (Usually stuck onto the end of attacks). Meanwhile, the minor-face buttons cover magic attacks, NPC control (See above), with one "spare" button (That defaults to jumping planes for you. Okay, so perhaps the game only makes good use of five of the face-buttons; nothing's perfect!). What really sets this game apart from others in its genre, however, are the special attacks. Unlike most scrolling beat-em-ups, these aren't accessed by pressing a "special move" button, and don't drain your health. In fact they work just like a normal fighting game's; You press a certain combination of buttons (Down, down-forward, forward + attack, for example) to initiate them. Each character has a range of unique special attacks, as well as magic attacks (Which are also accessed the same way, though you can select them from a menu if you so wish; Just don't expect the enemy to wait up while you pick which spell to cast).
"But what about the RPG elements?", I hear you cry. Well, first off, calm down and stop shouting at the screen; I can't actually hear you, you know? Good, that's better. Now that you've calmed yourself, I'll go on; At the end of every chapter, depending on the enemies you've defeated, you can level your character up by a certain amount, spending points on various attributes such as strength (Damage dealt), vitality (Damage taken), intelligence (Magical attack ability), mental (Magical defense ability), agility (Speed of your character and his/her attacks) and luck (Chance of hitting the opponent and chance of them hitting you). Generally it makes sense to pick those which suit your character's style (sSrength; vitality and mental/luck for Han, agility; luck and intelligence/strengthfor Ginjirou etc.), but you can also use them the improve your characters weak points (Super-fast Han! Melee master Randy!) if you so wish. All of this leads to a flexible and varied game experience, and it's great fun to try and find your "ultimate" combination.
Now then, what about the versus mode?
In this mode you fight in an arena against up to five opponents, controlled by either a friend or the CPU, and batter the living daylights out of each other. With every NPC (Eventually) available to you, the ability to choose each character's starting attributes and the ability to form "teams", this can lead to crazy matches; Five players controlling basic swordsmen versus one super-powered Han? Check. A three-on-three boss-character mash-up? No problem. The best "versus" mode in any scrolling beat-em-up? Certainly. If you have a six-player adapter (And five friends), then this mode is close to unbeatable amongst Saturn party games (Yes, even against the likes of Saturn Bomberman!).
So, there you have it.
If you want a scrolling beat-em-up, you want Guardian Heroes.
If you want a great party-game, you want Guardian Heroes.
If you want something you'll be able to come back to time and time again, you want Guardian Heroes.