Aside from similar titles and some well-concealed allusions, Guardian Heroes has little direct relation to Gunstar Heroes. Though the two are Treasure games, the former is an intense, masterfully crafted Saturn beat-‘em-up, and the latter a hectic Genesis action/shooter. However, both of them suffered undeserved neglect at the hands of Sega's American branch. Gunstar Heroes was bundled with a free Fruit Roll-Up as its only real promotion, while Guardian Heroes received even less publicity, with not even a square of edible, artificially-flavored plastic to share its American packaging. Oh, and its cover is terrible.
Yet in order to properly frame the wasteful mediocrity of that cover, one must first examine its Japanese relative. It's a decent piece, showing the eponymous main characters and their skull-faced sidekick, the rotely nicknamed Undead Warrior, standing before the game's logo. Not bad, one might say. Not bad at all.
Ah, but Sega of America would have none of it. Through some arrangement of inept market research and an excess of Sega CD boxes, the cases of U.S. Saturn games are unwieldy behemoths twice the length and thickness of a standard jewel case, and they demand cover art of a different size. Now, Sega could have enlarged the Japanese piece or created a collage of Treasure's official character portraits (more on this below), but instead they commissioned a brand new illustration.
It's unclear if this was drawn under the impression that Guardian Heroes was somehow related to Masters of the Universe, but that would explain the He-Man-versus-Skeletor feel of the cover. On the other hand, the artist could simply have looked over some images from the game and chosen two that would easily appeal to a young male audience: the blond guy with the sword (aka “Samuel Han”) and the scary skeleton man. Where would we be without demographics?
By whatever source, the artist's inspiration bore bitter fruit. Observe Undead Warrior's pleated skirt, which makes him look as though he's assumed the unlikely profession of a medieval zombie cheerleader. Observe Han's awkward pose and the vacant look on his face, implying not shock or valiance but rather an overwhelming sense of “DUUUHHH.” And if you're inclined to speculate, observe that this artwork probably accounted for the biggest expenditure incurred by Guardian Heroes in Sega of America's marketing budget. But why spend anything on an enjoyable beat-‘em-up when you could fund Saturn games like Bug Too and Mr. Bones?
Also observe that the background is completely black except for a castle turning the rainbow-streaked Technicolor hues of a poor television signal, and that the debatable “artwork” even goes so far as to redraw the logo, replacing a sword with a crudely drawn dragon. As a final insult, the diagonal gray lines that run across the “Sega Saturn” border also pass through the upper section of the cover, as though the artist didn't even bother to create a complete work.
Some may suggest that redrawing the original Guardian Heroes designs was a hopeless endeavor, but it's not as though American renditions of Japanese game characters are doomed to failure. Terry Wolfinger, the man behind countless covers of Diehard Gamefan magazine, created this respectable illustration for the April 1996 issue.
Some of the expressions are strange, yet Wolfinger's art is decent, and his depictions of the characters are faithful to the art of Treasure's Tetsuhiko Kikuchi, right down to Han's goofy Popeye arms. Even if some might initially think that the green-haired swordswoman Serena Corsaire is missing her arm, it's clear that Sega of America would have been better off with Wolfinger's cover.
If Guardian Heroes didn't get the box art it deserved in America, at least leveler heads prevailed elsewhere. When faced with the problem of devising an odd-sized cover for the game, Sega's European branch found a more economical solution. Shunning any completely new illustrations, they slapped together some of Treasure artist Tetsuhiko Kikuchi's character art.
For some reason, though, Sega of Europe disregarded the main female characters and replaced them with the effete, jester-like Zur and a shirtless, muscle-bound thug who serves as a minor boss. Make of that what you will.
Next: Robot girls, out. Bizarre covers, in.