3 Difficulty levels
Ship speed by icons
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Developed by Kaneko
Published by Toho in 1990
Spaceships turning into robots (or vice-versa) is always a good thing to have in any cartoon, movie or video game. Is it an infallible formula for success? Probably not, but on the outside every single product built upon this concept looks extremely cool. Unfortunately, Heavy Unit belongs to the lower half of the success spectrum within its mecha-based shooter siblings. It's not as bad as BlaZeon, but putting it above material with more coverage such as Arrow Flash also sounds like a far too generous stretch.
Originally born on the arcades, the game saw its first console port on the PC Engine, then the Mega Drive version followed. Before venturing into its own publishing venue Kaneko was under the wings of Taito, that's why Taito's stench is all over the Mega Drive version of Heavy Unit even though there's no mention to the company anywhere in the game package. The port was instead handled by Toho, which added a "Mega Drive Special" subtitle to the game's start screen - perhaps to give a hint at how different it looked when compared to the arcade game. After all, on the Mega Drive Heavy Unit comes with more color and a better array of graphical effects, making some spots look even better than the original. Don't get your hopes up though, these aesthetic upgrades aren't any more impressive than the standard 16-bit shmup of the era. What hurts the overall assessment of the game is how easier and watered down it is when compared to the arcade original or the PC Engine port, definitely the most faithful between both home versions.
"A giant snake? Where are the 'toads?"
The game starts out with a pleasing contrast in colors and some nice space music, followed by a couple of large serpents that hurl on screen and fall apart in segments that hover there for a while after being shot at. One of them releases the single most important item of the game, the first speed-up (S). This first speed-up is important because depending on where you die the game descends into brief hell as you need to cope with the extremely slow speed of the ship. Later on other items can be taken from small capsules, ranging from power-ups (P), shields (B), extra lives (E) and transformation switches (T). The starting spaceship form allows the player to shoot (buttons A or C) and drop bombs/missiles (button B) in a style similar to Darius. As you take power-ups the regular shot evolves to a spread pattern and missiles will eventually fire from both sides of the ship. Once the transformation switch (T) is taken you change into a robot. He's larger than the spaceship but he's also more powerful: the main weapon narrows down to a straight shot and missiles acquire a homing ability. Getting back to the spaceship form is only possible when another T item appears, and the cycle goes on and on.
While I do like the use of color in Heavy Unit, the graphics aren't really creatively fleshed out. Dragons and fire-spitting creatures are mixed with enemies of the organic kind, and bosses are generally huge albeit devoid of much movement. Parallax is parsimonious, as well as bullets. In fact, bullet count in this game is quite low, most of the time you'll only have to do some dodging when fighting bosses. Either regular bullets are non-existent or too fast to be avoided (closer to laser beams), and the ones fired by enemies are there because the player often lets them live long enough to shoot. Stage design is mostly straightforward, with the best parts being the ones that show influence from H.R. Giger (first boss) or Konami (with its growing walls, the organic stage is a more than explicit take on Salamander). Although it's quite short, Heavy Unit seems to last longer because of the checkpoint system and its inherent trial and error learning scheme. A few enemies can be pretty cheap in the way they attack, and experiencing that painful burning death is quite common as you start to play the game. Some levels have a vertical width that spans more than one screen size, and depending on the path you take the hazards and environments can lead to unavoidable death.
As I mentioned above, everything changes for the better once you get a speed-up. Be careful though, taking more than one speed-up makes the ship/robot move too fast, and since rubbing against anything in the game means instant death and restart at a previous checkpoint I just avoid all speed-ups after the first one. Transforming from spaceship to robot has advantages and disadvantages. Facing the third or sixth bosses with the robot is plain suicide due to the boss's narrow attack patterns, but the robot is obviously the best option to take down the fifth boss. Damage on larger enemies, including bosses, is recognized by a faint metallic clanking sound.
The initial perception from most people is that Heavy Unit is a tough game. However, despite some tricky sections such as the third boss fight there aren't many hindrances to beating the game once you get a hold of how and when to switch from spaceship to robot. The spaceship is weaker all around but it's a must in tight spaces, whereas the biggest worry with the robot, besides its larger hitbox, is that its homing missiles will lock on to the nearest power-up and stay there spinning until it leaves the screen. Unless you intend to take said power-up the extra firepower from the missiles is temporarily useless.
Another lone Transformer in the vastness of outer space
(courtesy of YouTube user Mushaaleste)
Some interesting features can be found in the Options screen for Heavy Unit. One of them is the ability to play the game with a bit of inertia applied to the ship by switching Control to "Equalize". There's also a password option that allows some cool tricks such as stage select, checkpoint tracking and game save/replay (provided you don't turn off the console).
Avoiding the feeling of emptiness is almost impossible once the game is finished. It's a shame that Heavy Unit feels so hollow, because given the few graphical improvements the potential was definitely there for the developer to deliver an experience on par with or even better than the arcade original. Instead we're presented with a cheap checkpoint memorizer that lacks excitement (due to the low bullet count), has a broken scoring system (it's possible to counterstop the game by hanging above the dragon head halfway the first stage) and on top of that feels unbalanced (in certain spots you're better off resetting the game if you die). Another example of sheer unbalance is in the second boss fight. That poor creature doesn't even shoot if you get to it with a fully powered robot, and is probably one of the greatest jokes in the history of 16-bit shmup bosses. At least the music has some very catchy themes, generally with more than one BGM per stage.
Since the game has no high score table of any kind, the picture below was taken a split second after I dispatched the last boss. I played on NORMAL difficulty and did absolutely no milking on the first stage.