Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Review: Hero Core

The need to innovate is something that is something that has been a persistent theme among developers now more than ever.  Big name studios like Valve, Rockstar, and Bioware are constantly working on ways to mix up the way their games are played, and driving the industry forward as a result of it.  Likewise, the independent scene is an oasis for innovation, with Jason Rohrer's Inside a Star-filled Sky and Frictional Games' Amnesia: The Dark Descent paving the way for an interesting new breed of electronic entertainment.  Now, while I do love all of these brilliant new ideas flowing out into the market (I absolutely adore Amnesia), there's always a part of me that yearns for a simpler kind of game.  In the early 90s, a period of time that many still call the "Golden Age of Gaming," innovation took a back seat to another important factor: fun.  Earthworm Jim, Sonic the Hedgehog, Toejam and Earl, Banjo Kazooie, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Perfect Dark; all of these titles weren't terribly innovative, but damn did they ever do a good job of entertaining.  It's this sort of "fun" factor that so personified the games of yesteryear that seems absent from most of today's games.  Iji creator Daniel Remar was not content with this, and with Hero Core, he set out on a mission to kick boredom's ass all over the place.  And succeeded.

"On a distant asteroid, I last fought the machine warlord, Cruiser Tetron, who threatened to invade the Earth with his mechanical minions...  Can I now defeat him once more - and can I find a way to forever stop his return?"  From the moment you read this opening monologue, Hero Core already oozes retro.  In fact, everything - from the 2-color palette to the pixelated aesthetic to the chiptune soundtrack to the Metroid-y atmosphere - is a wonderful homage to previous eras in gaming history.  The pure amount of charm in the general aesthetic is lovely, and the simplicity of the style never once detracts from the overall experience.  Hero Core is by no means a graphical powerhouse, but it's quite easy on the eyes, and the level of detail and readability in the environment - especially given the start black and white color scheme - is astonishing.  But downloading Hero Core for its art is like buying a hot dog for its bun; it's merely a cover for the real substance: the gameplay.

At first, the controls might take a little bit of getting used to.  Moving is pretty standard, but shooting is done with two keys; "Z" for left firing, "X" for right.  After a while, though, it just becomes second nature.  As with any Remar game, however, Hero Core takes these simple mechanics and tests your skills considerably during the playthrough.  Reflex is the name of the game here, as hardly ever are you given a moment to breathe in the midst of dancing around a flurry of enemy fire.  It's no bullet hell shooter, per say, but you'll certainly have to have some fast fingers to avoid them, especially during some of the many challenging boss encounters.  Remar most certainly compensates for this frantic demand of the player through filling the levels with a large variety of incredibly clever enemies.  The cast of goons you face is wonderfully mixed with things that will test every bit of your skill.  From the harmless, wandering drones to the "oh crap gotta get away from those" laser cannons, each individual enemy has a different distinct pattern that, with practice, can be figured out and thought around.  In comparison to the gargantuan boss fights, however, the other bad guys are little more than an appetizer to a marvelous main course.

You know, even if Hero Core were nothing more than its series of bosses, I'd still have a goddamn blast.  Every single boss in the game just oozes with creativity, and their patterns are both well thought out and challenging to overcome.  During one encounter (pictured above), I spent the entire fight inside of its mechanical shell, firing away at its weak points while dodging both its deadly interior lining and the spiral of bullets it was sending in to destroy me.  At first, it was damn near impossible.  I must've spent a good 10 or so attempts figuring out its pattern.  It was challenging, sure, but the feeling after defeating it was intensely gratifying.  There's this incredible feeling of grandeur that I experience every time I come upon a new boss in Hero Core, which is spectacular, as I never would have suspected that such a primitive-looking game could have ever given that to me.  What I really loved best is the fact that every single boss in the game was equally as satisfying to defeat as the one I described.   

Hero Core plays on its reward system beautifully, awarding you for exploring, but never punishing you for failure, something I feel that more and more indie games are forgetting to do these days.  Every boss fight awards you with an upgrade or a new item, which in turn allows you to explore more of the map and find more bosses to defeat.   Death has almost no real punishment other than sending you back to one of the generously placed save zones (which, conveniently, also serve as teleporters to other save zones).  The lack of punishment for failure and insatiable urge to explore egged me on to finish the whole thing in one sitting, which I have found few things in my life (including movies and books) to be capable of doing.

Daniel Remar is one of those rare developers that come around every now and again and consistently churn out titles that put most others in their category to shame.  In 2008, he did just that with indie legend Iji, and by god, he's done it again with Hero Core.  This game is the pinnacle of polish in freeware titles, and it's really breathed life into the previously worn genre of 2D exploration games.  How it manages to bring out my childlike passion for discovery and retain a memorable atmosphere (made possible by a gorgeous, gritty chiptune soundtrack by Brother Android) at the same time has made it a true downloadable gem that will more than likely live on in my memory for years to come.  If you don't go out and get it right now, I may very well lose whatever faith I had left in humanity.

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