The overhead run-'n'-gun genre never quite blossomed on home consoles to the extent it did in arcades; although, with quality side-scrollers like Contra, who could blame the NES players? For those looking for ports of the cabinet classics that featured a bird's-eye view of the gun-blasting action, one fine choice was Heavy Barrel, as published by Data East for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System in 1990.
The plot is generically generic: There are terrorists, who have a plot to take over the world, and Earth's only hope is a ruthless mercenary soldier or two that are sent in to wipe them out against all odds. Of course, those looking for an in-depth storyline would probably seek elsewhere, because all Heavy Barrel has to offer is a grinding, grueling trudge through the trenches.
As stated, this is an overhead-view game, consisting of one or two players controlling gun-toting warriors set on killing all opposition in their path. The A button fires the gun, the B button tosses a grenade. There are limited grenades, and the first, basic rifle has unlimited ammo. There are, however, upgrades available.
In Heavy Barrel, those weapon upgrades are unlocked in a literal fashion: The killing of soldiers in red outfits, as opposed to green mostly, will drop a key. Picking up this key keeps a key until it us used to unlock an on-screen locker, which opens an item available for pick-up. These include a new weapon, ammo for the current weapon, more grenades, alternatives to grenade like the circling shuriken, or maybe even a part of the Heavy Barrel weapon itself.
The Heavy Barrel weapon requires six parts to be found. When all are gathered, the player then has 99 seconds to use the Heavy Barrel, which is a cannon with a wide blast that takes out almost any enemy in a single shot, including most bosses.
Heavy Barrel, then, has an interesting pacing: The action is not quite an all-out non-stop slaughterfest like in some other NES titles, yet it is certainly not a stealth-based static-screen wave-based cartridge either. While it may sound like a bold statement, one could say that Heavy Barrel is well-balanced.
The enemies are plentiful, but move slowly. Even their arsenal, though plentiful, tends to fire projectiles moving so slowly as to be quite possible to dodge. The lockers require keys, but keys abound. The special weapons have limited ammo, but a decently skilled player will actually spend much more time using those secondary guns than the basic rifle.
Heavy Barrel requires both reflexes and tactical thinking. Do I dodge the fire from those stationary arms and merely run past, or spend a few rounds of flamethrower ammo to dispatch of them? Should I be tossing grenades ahead of my path every once in a while, or stick to saving them for boss fights?
Yet, with all the player-friendly features, Heavy Barrel does carry one big consequence: A steep challenge. The difficulty level is impressive here, as the player only begins with two extra lives, with one-hit kills in play. In fact, not only does one hit kill the player, but the stray rounds from enemies merely have to graze the player-character sprite in order to be lethal.
This is all fair and dandy, except that certain portions of the game squeeze the player into rather tight spaces, which not only makes it more difficult to dodge incoming fire, but can be nearly impossible just to account for enemy soldiers about to walk on-screen.
Thus explains Heavy Barrel's reputation among the crowd of NES fans in the retro gaming community: “Decent but hard” would seem to be the consensus. For those who enjoy an old-school test of gaming fortitute, Heavy Barrel might be right up their alley. For those who want a bit more of a quicker-paced, lighthearted experience, however, this is going to be one to avoid.
At least Heavy Barrel looks great. Seriously, for a conversion from an arcade title, the pixel artwork is rather good. The levels explore across the whole spectrum of the 8-bit palette, rather than just sticking to mostly browns (looking at you, P.O.W.). The background details are fantastic. For one example, check out the three-tiered shading of the metal pipes during the elevator portion of level 4. Whether the screen is still, auto-scrolling, or scrolling at a pace slightly slower than the player moves, there is always plenty to take in. This makes the barren areas feel especially, appropriately sparse, such as the boss fight that feels like it takes place in the middle of a desert. Furthermore, Heavy Barrel manages to present an impressive array of moving sprites at a time while suffering minimal flickering and slowdown.
Data East has a wonderful “pause” sound effect, as seen in their other games like RoboCop. One could debate which is superior: That, or the one used by Konami in titles like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game and RollerGames.
Pause-effect fetishes aside, Heavy Barrel manages to hold its own in the soundtrack arena, without bowling anyone over. The background music manages an effective complement to the action, skillfully using the NES hardware to arrange the wave instruments in a way that should never truly offend any playing ears. At times, the music even approaches “good,” if never great.
One gets the sense that Data East may have, in converting Heavy Barrel to the NES, sat back and watched SNK's efforts with the very-similar Ikari Warriors game (and subsequent sequels) before they bothered with their own. The first Ikari Warriors cartridge was releases three years ahead of Heavy Barrel.
Yet, for all its refinements and hat-tips to the home players, Heavy Barrel stills ends up as a middling, not-quite-polished title. It still feels like an arcade-style quarter-chugger, and the cheap deaths can feel really aggravating, even with the extra lives that accumulate. For the genre, Guerilla War still stands as perhaps the top-shelf pick for the NES, although D-Pad jockeys could do much worse than Heavy Barrel.
Overall score: 3/5 stars.