The mysterious story of Gunner's Heaven

What you're about to read, viewers, is the semi-enthralling tale of a tireless investigative journalist's lonely and dogged quest for ultimate truth and justice in a world of confusion and lies, combined with a eulogy to one of the finest games ever published. But first, a little background.

Videogaming is a cultural form incredibly badly-served by reliable historical documentation. There's no videogame equivalent of the British Library, no depository where every single new title released can be recorded for posterity with authentic and verified information. The vast majority of reference information about games is held in unofficial fansites on the internet, where dubious or outright wrong facts are presented as unquestionable truth, and where 95% of the information published is about 5% of the games which have ever been released. You can find a thousand websites about Pokemon or Final Fantasy or Street Fighter 2 at the drop of a hat (though since 992 of them will totally contradict themselves and each other, that doesn't actually make locating definitive truth substantially easier), but spend hours, days and weeks searching in vain for the most basic data about the release year of some semi-obscure Japanese Saturn football game. 

(The one exception to this rule is cheats - name just about any game ever, and the first 100 Google results for it will be pointless crappy popup-riddled cheat sites, all containing the exact same untested cheats that all the other sites also nicked from Gamefaqs in the first place, and which everyone who wants will just go to Gamefaqs for anyway, rendering all the other sites a massive global waste of bandwidth that all their 14-year-old webmasters should be clipped round the ear and sent to bed without any tea for.)

(A case in point - almost every cheat site quotes the same cheat mode for the Japanese game we're about to discuss and its 50Hz PAL version, even though the Jap cheat code doesn't work in the European release. But anyway.)

Nowhere is this information gap more lamented by your correspondent than in the case of Gunner's Heaven. One of the first games released for the original Playstation, it also remains one of the greatest games ever created for that or any other console. An all-action arcade shoot-'em-up with minor platforming elements in the vein of Treasure's belatedly-famous Gunstar Heroes (a game now universally regarded as a work of genius, but dismissed as generic mediocrity at the time by everyone except your reviewer), Gunner's Heaven is in fact so similar to Gunstar Heroes, in so many ways, that it's almost impossible to imagine that it isn't the work of the same authors. But is it?

Nobody knows.

Gunner's Heaven was released in 1995 in Japan by Sony Computer Entertainment, and the game is credited in the title sequence to Media Vision, who also wrote games like the RPGs Wild Arms and Wild Arms 3. (Oddly, Wild Arms 2 appears to have been written by someone else entirely). It's symptomatic of the sort of InfoGaps that this article is partly concerned with that searching on Gamefaqs turns up just three known games by Media Vision in 11 years, none of which is Gunner's Heaven. (The third being the Xbox rodent-based puzzler Sneakers.)

The notoriously-unreliable MobyGames (which inexplicably credits your reporter with work on Duke Nukem Advance, Carmageddon 2000, Activision's remake of Space Invaders and Jackie Chan Adventures: Legend Of The Dark Hand, in addition to the two games he actually DID work on in reality) produces another couple of results - a fantasy space adventure and an educational gardening game, both on the PC - but again, there's no mention of Gunner's Heaven, as either publisher or developer.

Searching the wider internet brings up little but a vast and impenetrable mass of unimaginatively-named companies going under the same moniker, and an unconfirmed report that the developer also produced the 1994 Playstation RPG Crime Crackers. All of the supposed games-industry reference sites miss out whole bunches of the 24 known official Treasure titles. (The ever-laughable Spong hasn't heard of anything before Radiant Silvergun.) So much for the net. Clearly, your intrepid fact-hound is on his own.

The most plausible justification for the conviction that Gunner's Heaven is the unbilled work of Treasure comes from simply playing it. The briefest of runs through the respective opening levels of this game and Gunstar Heroes will give any gamer the distinct impression that they were written by the same hand. The four different weapons (normal shot, lasers, homing beams, flamethrowers); the crouch-and-slide attack; the way you throw opponents rather than shooting them if you get really close; the mid- and end-level bosses with numeric strength gauges; the hordes of little round diagonal-laser-firing hoverbots combined with loads of cannon-fodder soldiers and a few tougher enemies requiring multiple hits; the way your character hangs one-handed from the underside of platforms, able to fire or shimmy along them, but not at the same time; your single life with large replenishable energy bar; but mostly just the sheer joyful pyrotechnic carnage. If these two games weren't made by the same people, then one of them, frankly, is the most unabashed, unashamed piece of blatant plagiarism in the history of gaming.

That impression only gets stronger in later levels, as both games - for example - throw auto-scrolling levels featuring giant trains at you, or Rainbow Islands-ish vertical stages where you have to leap up a series of platforms without falling off the bottom of the screen. Only Gunstar Heroes' trademark "boardgame" final section doesn't find a parallel in Gunner's Heaven, presumably on the grounds that that would be taking things just too far. (Heaven has its own unique sections too, like the jet-pack aerial battle stage, and also takes advantage of the Playstation's extra power to do things beyond the capability of the humble Mega Drive, particularly with regard to some gigantic sprites and explosion effects.)

There are other, more nebulous, Treasure signatures here too. The two characters (see also Bangai-o, Mischief Makers, etc); the two-word title (like Alien Soldier, Dynamite Headdy, Light Crusader, Radiant Silvergun, Rakugaki Showtime, Stretch Panic, Freak Out) starting with the same letters (GH) as Treasure's other games of the era, Gunstar and Guardian Heroes (Treasure have always had something of an obsession with two - see the black-and-white core dynamic of Ikaruga or Silhouette Mirage, for example); the highly distinctive style of the cutscene graphics and the character animation.

Of course, none of this amounts to conclusive proof, and we've established the uselessness of the internet as a videogaming-history research tool already. So how to find out? Games mag Edge interviewed Treasure in Japan in 2001, but when your reporter found out and contacted the Edge team to get them to ask the developer once and for all whether they were responsible for Gunner's Heaven or not, the interview had already taken place and nobody from Edge could be bothered to ring them up again and get either a confirmation or a denial. The sloppy amateurs.

The next cunning plan was to complete the game and see whose names showed up on the closing credits sequence. Unfortunately - and quite rarely for a Japanese title - it turns out that all the in-game text, including the end credits, is in kanji, leaving Western eyes none the wiser.

But wait! A quick(ish) 200MB eMule download later and suddenly there's also the option of completing the PAL version, Rapid Reload. Tragically, that's hampered by the fact that the handy cheat mode of the Japanese game doesn't work on it, and the first time your reporter ever finished the game properly it took about 16 gruelling hours (you get infinite continues, but every time you die you have to restart the current level from immediately after the last-defeated boss, so it's not just a Metal Slug-style case of "buying" your way to the end) and to be honest your reporter doesn't want to know that badly. Or does he?

A lengthy search eventually reveals that some clever soul has written an Action Replay plugin for the Playstation emulator ePSXe, and while Rapid Reload doesn't have a cheat mode, it does have some Action Replay codes. A study of the pidgin-English readme seems to make operation of the plugin clear enough, and after a bit of trial and error Alex and Ruka are equipped with infinite energy. Result! End sequence here we come!

Except that in this case, "infinite" means "until the end of Stage One". As soon as the second level starts, our hero and heroine are somehow as vulnerable as drunk kittens again, so it's back to the old Action Replay codes to add infinite bombs and weapon energy as well, and then start from the beginning again, sledgehammering our way to the end by simply smart-bombing any enemy with the temerity to show its face on screen. Which is a fine and dandy plan until Stage Five, when the infinite smart bombs inexplicably and quietly stop working too, leaving our protagonists with none just as they reach the unbelievably evil end-of-stage boss. Unpleasantly, Rapid Reload - unlike the Japanese release - limits the player to nine credits, and without a lot of extra smart bombs that's not going to get us past the Stage Five boss, so (hnngghh) it's back to the start again.

Your correspondent's a little weary by now, so scans through the ePSXe manual and realises that it has a built-in save-state function which could make life a good deal easier. So off we go once more, judiciously quicksaving every time a tricky enemy is passed without loss of life, and eventually it's time to face the Stage Five boss again, but now with a dozen carefully-saved smart bombs in our pocket. It still takes 20 or so attempts to survive through the boss's blizzard of seemingly-undodgeable fire, including one particularly galling moment when the boss and Alex die at the same moment, and though the game looks as if it's going to allow play to continue, it decides at the last moment that we've actually failed and must try again. Sigh.

A few more attempts, though, and the boss is beaten, this time with energy to spare. Breathing a sigh of relief, your exhausted reporter hits the quicksave button to consign this Beelzebub of a boss to history. Except in a daze of confusion, some idiot accidentally hits the quickload button instead, and can only gape in horror as all the previous good work is undone in a fraction of a second of rock-brained stupidity, and the boss has to be tackled yet again.

Third time round, with the aid of a Post-It note stuck to the screen to remind the terminally thick-witted player which button is which, Stage Five is safely cleared and saved, leaving only the climactic final battle to fight, though it's going to have to be tackled without any smart bombs left. Thankfully the final guardian is more learnable and less unfair than the previous boss, and it's the work of a mere 10 minutes or so - and some more judicious quicksaving - to send him packing and enjoy, in English, the comedy twist at the end of the story. All that remains now is to watch the translated version of the end credits, note the names, and see, by cunningly cross-referencing them with the end credits of other games, how many of them are connected to Treasure, hence finally discerning whether Gunner's Heaven is a lost Treasure classic or merely a scandalously flagrant rip-off by someone else entirely.

Except the credits aren't translated.

Yes, out of the entire 380 megabytes of program code, the ONLY words that nobody's bothered to translate into English are the ones we want to read. At a painfully slow pace that seems to be openly gloating right in our player's face, the Cast and Staff lists scroll up the screen in the same kanji as the original version. Your reporter weeps quietly, then calmly makes several additions to his when-the-revolution-comes up-against-the-wall list. Near the top.

So at the end of it all, after several hours of  dedicated effort, on top of all the years previously spent trying to solve this historical enigma, the world's videogame lovers STILL have no idea whether Gunner's Heaven/Rapid Reload is a Treasure game or not. But here's the thing:

Who cares?

And yes, that is an odd rhetorical question to arrive at after the shenanigans described above. But the truth of the matter is that Gunner's Heaven is such a glorious game that if you need it to be the work of a "cool" developer in order to enjoy it, you need your brain rinsing out with bleach. (Rapid Reload - by virtue of its lazy, half-arsed, thick-bordered PAL conversion - is somewhat less so, but is still well worth seeking out if you've got no way of playing Japanese PS1 discs. Running either image-file in a PS emulator, incidentally, produces minor graphical glitches in some of the levels and some occasional slight slowdown, but nothing which detracts significantly from playability.)

If you loved Gunstar Heroes (and you should have), this is a game that's extremely similar, but in several ways even better. It's faster and more action-packed than Gunstar, and with slicker, more responsive controls. (Also you get a grappling-hook gun, which is entirely unnecessary for completing the game but a lot of fun to show off with.) On the other hand it's a touch less sophisticated and not quite as inventive as the Mega Drive game, but you'll be too busy grinning like a loony at the constantly explosion-filled screen to either notice or care very much about that.

Gunner's Heaven predates Metal Slug by a year, and it  single-handedly blazed the trail for the survival of the 2D shooting platform game in a world that seemed to have left the genre behind. (Also, not being an arcade game it didn't have to bow to Metal Slug's need to constantly kill the player and suck more coins out of his pocket, but it's no pushover for all that - indeed, being sent back to the start of a section when you die makes Gunner's Heaven considerably the more challenging game in a home context, where there's no chance of running out of cash just as you reach the end.) But if we've learned one thing from these words, it's that its cultural impact doesn't really matter a dang. Don't play this game because of who wrote - or might have written - it. Play it because it's brilliant. This is truly where all good gunners go when they die.

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