Genre: Shooter, action adventure
Developer: Daniel Remar
Platform: Windows, Macintosh
Release: May 3rd, 2010
Latest Windows version: July 22nd, 2013
Hero Core is an open-ended shooter game from Daniel Remar, the creator of fellow freeware title Iji. While Iji is an unusually intricate Game Maker creation, with complex stat development, branching plot, hacking minigames, and two competing enemy factions, Hero Core takes a simpler approach, and ultimately a better-rounded one.
You play as Flip Hero, a being locked in never-ending combat with a war machine called Cruiser Tetron. With his legion of robotic soldiers, Tetron aims to destroy the earth, and you simultaneously. Flip Hero has defeated Tetron many times in the past, including in one of Remar’s prior games, but the machine’s servants rebuild him each time, and relief is fleeting for both both sides.
It’s a familiar plot for a game, but Tetron receives more development than you would expect, a predator enslaved by his own programming.
The game contains two primary difficulty levels, each with different architecture and enemy placement. Both take place in Tetron’s asteroid base, a black-and-white maze of angular combat machines and automated war industry. The entire game is drawn in flat, colorless pixel, from the largest mecha to Flip Hero’s own health bar. The artwork made me skeptical at first glance, but it fits the tone perfectly, vibrant and alienating at the same time.
Tetron can be challenged from the beginning, if you desire, but you start with a single weak blaster and minimal health. The other areas of the base contain numerous upgrades, guarded behind blast doors, turrets, molten metal, and fearsome bosses. Each room spans only a single screen, imitating older games on primitive consoles, but the enemies are quite diverse, with robotic snakes that jerk across the screen, mobile turrets armed with heavy cannons, lethal fish-shaped machines that summon smaller ones, and mecha with every combination of those attack patterns. Many robots also have smaller destructible parts, removing weaponry when disabled.
Combat in Hero Core is more complex than it appears. The screen tends to overflow with bullets in harsher stages, but there are plenty of walls to duck behind. Your blaster can only shoot left or right, but you can move fluidly in any direction, and with good enough reflexes, you can weave through most bullet patterns without harm. The primary keys shoot slowly, but you can activate a faster auto fire mode, offering devastating power at close range. Since only eight (player) bullets can exist on screen at once, this mode is less effective at a distance, delivering a potent initial burst with a mere trickle afterward. It’s an elegant system, encouraging strategic pauses in use.
You also acquire the Blade, a melee weapon capable of deflecting bullets and smashing environmental barriers. For combat, I found it less satisfying than my blaster. It inflicts severe damage, but it charges slowly, and the range is uncomfortably short. It’s easy to crash into an enemy you were trying to cut up, reflected shots don’t harm them, and many stronger attacks will run right through it. Regardless of your health and armor upgrades, sustained fire is impossible to withstand.
I died many, many times on each playthrough, but I rarely found the game cheap or unfair. Enemies respawn on each screen if you return, but they’re frozen for a few seconds on arrival, granting time to dart past. If you die, you respawn at the last save station you visited, shaped like a save icon on a computer document.
You can fast travel between each station, easing navigation, and different areas can be conquered in almost any order. The interface displays a relative threat level for each section of the base, from the opening Natural Caves to the lethal Guardian Zone, and I generally found it accurate. In addition to weaponry and suit upgrades, you’ll find small computers hidden throughout the base, providing lore on Tetron’s past and his nature. He becomes easier to empathize with, though clearly hostile. Each area has a different chiptune theme from Brother Android, adding bleak color to the monochrome design.
The boss encounters are the strongest aspect of Hero Core. From a walker that splits into three parts to a drone that attacks with arms made from copies of itself, they offer battles as diverse as they are lethal. Some bosses spawn with numerous minions, and some fight as a single overwhelming combatant. One machine encases you within their body for the entire battle. Many contain destructible weak points, and some even split into multiple units. Subverting conventions, most weaken as you hammer them away, aside from a metallic hydra that simply grows more heads.
Except for the final boss, each uses the same haunting soundtrack. It becomes repetitive over so many trials, but when fighting machines, it feels appropriate.
One optional boss appears randomly throughout normal screens, engaging you in a duel it flees if you don’t kill it quickly enough. It doesn’t pack as much firepower as other machines, but it’s difficult to shoot down in the allotted time. I’ve played Hero Core for years, and I rarely succeed. Fortunately, it can eventually be challenged without a time limit.
It’s possible to beat Hero Core in a few hours, but Normal and Hard mode contain different level geometry, and both are well worth playing. A third mode, Annihilation, appears after completing the game on either difficulty. Annihilation is a side story that takes place on the starship Ciretako. Compared to the primary game, it lacks upgrades, but it provides a short, punishing change of pace. You can also unlock a Boss Rush mode, a hidden minigame, and several other items.. I would not be adverse to paying $20 for that amount of content, and for a free application created by a single developer (plus the musician), it’s remarkably polished and durable. Iji spends more time on characterization, but Hero Core doesn’t punish you for combat, and the gameplay is stronger as a result.
Hero Core emulates the past visually, but the presentation and enemy design are decidedly modern. It has some of the most varied boss encounters I’ve ever seen, freeware or otherwise, and the fact that it is freeware only makes it easier to admire. The controls work perfectly, and aside from the limited utility of the Blade, I have few complaints about combat. Tetron wears the familiar mask of a doomsday villain, but his war with Flip Hero becomes more pitiable the further you look, as colorless as the robots that follow him.
If you’re interested, the game can be downloaded here:
Rating: 9/10 (Remarkable)
An excellent game with few identifiable blemishes, or too many positive aspects to do much harm. Won’t turn bread into wine, but belongs firmly in the upper echelon of its genre.