PUBLISHER: Toho (originally Taito)
DEVELOPER: Kaneko (port by Funari)
RELEASE DATE: 12/26/90 – (JP)
ALSO AVAILABLE: Arcade, PC Engine
Like the majority of shoot-em-ups released during the Great Shmup Deluge of the 80s and Early 90s, Heavy Unit is forgotten today. The side-scrolling shmup was released in 1988 in arcades worldwide, but the home conversions were only ever released in Japan, for the PC Engine and Mega Drive respectively.
Perhaps the lack of a Western release hurt the game’s chances of being a better known title, but the truth is, many shumps that were brought over to the West during this time still remain fairly unknown to all but old-school shump fans and people like me who choose to rummage through old game libraries. On top of that, while Heavy Unit is a serviceable shooter that fulfills any overwhelming urges you may have to destroy things, the experience won’t provide you with any lasting memories.
Heavy Unit‘s hook is featured prominently on the game’s cover. While you begin the game as a ship, once you collect the rare ‘T’ icon, your ship transforms into an awesome mech, complete with its own unique weapons. Controlling a mech is never not cool, and this mech’s design, movements, and power are all top-notch. Unfortunately, ‘T’ icons are only provided a handful of times throughout the game’s six stages, and the robot party’s over once you’re killed. When you respawn, you’re back to your slow-moving ship and a dream of what once was.
Outside of the mech’s presence, it’s easy to see why Taito and Kaneko didn’t have much faith in Heavy Unit – to the point where they let Toho publish and Funari port the game to the Mega Drive. There are no jaw-dropping set pieces, no boss battles that will leave you sweating profusely on the controller. The level design is a cliched blend of alien machinery and miscellaneous debris, and shmup veterans won’t even flinch at the game’s moderate difficulty. What makes all the aforementioned even more disappointing is that the game’s foundations – controls, music, mechanics – are sound. Had Kaneko invested more effort in the details, Heavy Unit may have left more of a imprint.
So what makes Mega Drive Special so special? The graphics and music are much improved from both the arcade and PC Engine port, Stage 2 now has an underwater theme for some reason, and enemy placements/movements are different than they were in the arcade/PC Engine versions. The options menu is first-rate as well, and allows you to choose difficulty level, number of lives, rapid-fire (turn it on), and even inertia for your mech. I’m not sure whether these options were available on the arcade/PC Engine, but they’re a nice addition to the Mega Drive port.
If you’re a shoot-em-up fan who’s explored much of what the genre has to offer, you’ve played C-tier shooters like Heavy Unit before. Indeed, in 1990, C-tier shooters were just fine. They play well enough. They have decent graphics and a catchy soundtrack. As long as you have fun while you’re playing them, who cares if they vanish from your mind once you turn them off? Today, however, there’s just too many awesome shooters to play, and especially on the Genesis/Mega Drive. Unless you want to get your mech on, Heavy Unit‘s best left to the dusty shelves of gaming history.