(Originally published at Sega-16.com)
You tear the parcel open. The action rips the veil of time and space, and a distant refrain of the Japanese Mega CD BIOS lofts to your ears. The jingle transports you back to December of 1991, to a distant shop in Shibuya where you imagine gamers of a bygone era held the same game you hold now. You run a careful finger across the hand-shaded cover art and smile. Amazing. A time capsule.
Then the feeling of solidarity passes, and you remember you’re standing alone at your mailbox with a used copy of Heavy Nova. It’s true that importing Micronet software from Japan – in 2014, no less – is an act of dedication only other Sega fans could understand. But as the pack-in game for the Mega CD’s Japanese launch, Heavy Nova is a piece of Sega history. There’s no shame in it, right? Wrong. Because you just bought a pretty bad game.
Heavy Nova doesn’t start out entirely bad. The opening song by Studio Riverkids falters, perhaps, with early-Redbook synth and a singer straining to find the correct timbre. But the smooth animation and clean artwork overshadow that hiccup, elevating the sequence into something ambitious for 1991 and serviceable even today. Then the menu screen appears, and what follows is a bitter potion brewed from equal parts bafflement, frustration, and resignation.
You might have known this was coming when you saw Micronet on the cover, but this review isn’t the place to delve into the full history of the company. It’s revealing enough to say that its brief run of B-tier Genesis and Sega CD games stands as the company’s apex. Micronet dabbled in several genres during the 16-bit era, including shmups like the early Genesis title Curse and a solid port of Raiden called Raiden Trad. It also experimented with RTS in the Warrior of Rome series, tried its hand at puzzle games with Junction and took a shot at platform-fighter hybrids. Enter Heavy Nova.
The game’s lore deals with humanoid mecha named DOLLs – an acronym for Derestricted Omnipotent Lethal Lifelike, of course. You’re a newbie pilot for the United World Defence Forces who graduates DOLL training with top marks, only to get dispatched to a floating space station to quell a coup d’état. The story gets almost no screen time, yet Heavy Nova is confused about even this meager premise – the first mission briefing reassures the player they’re in a mere training sequence, only to warn of a coming fight to the death.
The player feels the same confusion over the course of eight missions. These missions culminate in a terse ending where UWDF commander Murakami (after Micronet president Akihiko Murakami) awards the player the title of “Heavy Nova.” Again, the story occupies just a few cut scenes and mission briefings. The meat of the game is in controlling a DOLL through a series of alternating platform levels and versus-style boss fights.
The platform stages range from tedious to frustrating. Your mech is too sluggish to make hopping between ledges and dodging laser barriers enjoyable. Walking is slow, turning is slower, and not even a thruster pack can speed up the snail pace. These stages feel like the product of a game developer who had only seen screen shots of other platformers instead of actually playing one. The basic components are present: obstacles, enemies, platforms, and power-ups. It’s even possible to look at a screen of Heavy Nova and imagine it playing well. But platformers build tension via speed, grace, and fluid motion, none of which feature in Heavy Nova’s lumbering DOLL mechanics.
Even worse, the stages themselves are drab and repetitive. The background art is largely grayscale, and the enemy designs – “Block Head,” “Frogg,” and “Take,” for example, offer less imagination than your middle school sketchbook. Most of the difficulty in fighting these popcorn foes lies in just getting your Doll to turn the right way and then lining up a punch or kick that actually connects with the enemy sprite. There’s no strategy or skill required, just the stubbornness to endure.
Your Doll levels up between missions, automatically unlocking additional fighting moves to be used in the boss battles. It might seem fair to give Heavy Nova a pass for its fighting engine because of its 1991 vintage. Street Fighter II rewrote the book on 2D fighting in February of that same year, rendering Heavy Nova outdated before it even hit store shelves in December. Perhaps if Micronet had been able to follow Capcom’s model, Heavy Nova’s boss fights would have turned out more like Curse – decent, if bland. Instead, these fights surpass the incompetency of the platforming sequences. If someone who’d never played a Mario game designed Heavy Nova’s platform levels, someone who hated both video games and beta testing must have designed the boss fights.
Much could be said about your DOLL’s infuriatingly slow response times. We could gripe about how the move lists are poorly designed, with high-level moves offering little tactical advantage over abusing whatever basic moves break the enemy AI. There’s complaints to be made about the fickle position-based contextual controls as well. With only two buttons, punch and kick, the game’s arsenal of moves is based on the distance to the opponent, the player DOLL’s XP level, and whether the enemy DOLL is facing away or toward the player. It’s a theoretically consistent fighting system that just ends up feeling sloppy in practice. There’s no real explanation for why some hits connect and which moves have precedent over others. These flaws combine to create a fighting engine that is the opposite of Street Fighter II: cumbersome, confusing, restrictive, and miserable.
Even worse is the game-breaking thruster invincibility. In Heavy Nova, a DOLL is invincible when it’s in the air. The DOLL won’t regain the energy bars needed to make high-level attacks, but the player essentially has an immunity button under their left thumb. The AI is aware of this exploit, too – bosses constantly float on their thrusters to dodge attacks. If you can’t land a hit in the millisecond they’re grounded before they lift off again, that’s just too bad. Thanks to this and the huge life bars, versus fights in Heavy Nova devolve into grueling battles of attrition, where damage is accrued by pixels and millimeters as the thruster dance continues. The only interruption is when either DOLL depletes its energy meter, in which case it’s incapacitated (“dizzied”) and must often endure a slow beating without the chance to retaliate.
So, are there positives about Heavy Nova? Well, the music isn’t bad. The tunes are solid, even catchy, with shades of fellow obscure Japanese studio Wolfteam. It’s difficult to say that the CD audio is superior to the punchy chiptunes of the cartridge Heavy Nova, but the Redbook tracks have higher fidelity and fuller tone. (This is outweighed by the lengthy load times, a result of Micronet’s unfamiliarity with the Mega CD hardware.) But other than the music, Heavy Nova has little to recommend it. The game isn’t a smoking train wreck. It’s just an unambitious idea with below-average execution, left behind by advancements in both of the genres it attempted to blend.
Despite all this, the years have gained it something of a cult following. Maybe it’s the notoriety, or how readily available the cartridge version is on eBay, or the strange appeal that obscure games from obscure developers have on the retro community. With so much of the basic gameplay broken, though, it’s difficult to believe that anyone would pick up Heavy Nova from the shelf, even on a rainy afternoon. It’s just not any fun to tiptoe through generic construction zones and trade karate kicks with other DOLLs. And if you can actually find a friend to suffer with you through the two-player versus mode? Keep that friend close.
The greatest joy of owning Heavy Nova comes from that initial meeting, that first blush of nostalgia between gamer and game. It’s the moment where what Heavy Nova represents – nostalgia, history, a connection to an era now a quarter-century past – can be felt in your retro gamer bones. Actually playing the game is the most anticlimactic next step possible. Better to put it back on the shelf where it belongs, beside other Mega CD games of much higher quality.