The titular Roderick Hero of H.E.R.O. (“Helicopter Emergency Rescue Operation”) is a man with a mission, but for once it’s not killing everyone and their little dog too. Instead you and he are tasked with rescuing the sole trapped miner on each of the game’s 20 levels. Those levels apparently repeat randomly after you’ve completed them until the score is maxed out at a million points. Initial levels are trivially short, but as you progress they become longer with a few new hazards gradually added. The five selectable game modes allow you to start play on various later levels, but the difficulty switches have no effects on gameplay and there’s no Bear-Head Easy Mode.
The game’s largely-bloodless search and rescue theme reminded me of PS1’s Roscoe McQueen (Firefighter Extreme). Saying that, the fact that the dominant verb in video games is “Fire” is oft-remarked upon and even here you’re still called upon to dispatch vertical-flying bats and sine-wave-describing giant moths with your short-ranged helmet-mounted laser.
The main focus of the game is learning and perfecting your route through each level, as well as getting the hang of flying. There’s one correct path through each mine although later levels may require you to backtrack a screen or two, often having accidentally turned out the lights on one of the screens in the process. Level design is very consistent so you’ll quickly get a good feel for when the game is trying to fake you out and which tunnel you should actually go down. None of the levels seem particularly large, the first few being only a handful of screens and even the later ones are substantially smaller than Pitfall II‘s, for example.
You’re on a time limit and interestingly it’s the conceived of as the power of your high-tech equipment, rather than the oxygen or health remaining to the trapped miner. POWER decreases at a consistent rate from the start of each level or life regardless of what you do, which does make me wonder if the timer originally represented something else at an earlier design stage. Death usually occurs as a result of contact with something nasty and permits you to continue from the current screen. Running out of POWER however sends you back to the start of the level. There’s little reason for that to happen when playing, as the ever-larger levels mean that the fixed time limit gradually moves from overly-generous to merely sufficient.
The physics of your back-mounted propeller are a little odd, but not overly difficult to handle. Rather than simply moving up/down/left/right, pushing up on the joystick causes R. Hero to launch into the air after a delay of about a second. Similarly when flying gravity will reassert itself after a second or so. Pushing up again will stabilise him in mid-air, and after that same delay start lifting him again. Like I say, odd but fairly intuitive. The delay means launching off one of the fast-moving rafts is incredibly tricky and navigating foes and tunnels near water is probably the games biggest challenge (read: ragequit here).
Right from the off you’ll find that thin walls in the mine can be destroyed with dynamite, of which you have a limited supply which is replenished at the start of each level. If you run out then your laser will suffice but takes time and doesn’t award points.
At the end of a level you’re awarded substantial points for POWER remaining as well as each stick of dynamite you’ve managed to hang onto. The rescued miner lifts his hand in acknowledgement too, possibly anticipating a high-five. Interestingly you can’t place dynamite anywhere on the miner screen, although what sort of monster would even consider attempting to blow up the person they were rescuing, eh?
The hazards you go on to find include a lot of these glowing red whatever-they-ares. Maybe lava? I always imagine them to be Laser Gates-like killer forcefields, frankly. Especially the moving ones. Care should be exercised when descending into a new screen, which from a practical standpoint means charging/buffering a hover Street Fighter-style as you exit downwards.
Extra lives are accrued every 20,000 points. As the route is fixed and the points you score for completing the level are so large compared to destroying the handful of creatures or hazards, you’ll find yourself earning lives at more or less the same point every game. Unless like me you died already.
Neat little touches include the arcadey-feeling display of points after dispatching a ferocious wall or bat, the aforementioned flight/hover physics and a repeating attract mode which accurately demonstrates several levels worth of play. Great for the beginner or the bemused.
Because it’s set underground, one small thing missing from H.E.R.O. is the WIBIL-worthy Activision sunset graphic as seen in a number of their games. A larger thing is music, of which there is none. The sound effects are uniformly good though and so what if the little pop of the dynamite going off is a touch weedy?
When all’s said and done, H.E.R.O. is a fun, distinctive cave-navigating game which plays surprisingly quickly. Definitely worth trying if you enjoy Pitfall!-type or Thrust-type games.
Particular thanks go out to the Atari Age website and the fans who have contributed to it, without which this article wouldn’t be possible.