Chalk this one up in the “guy you don’t know prattles on about a thing he loves” category. Black Heart from Battle Garegga is the best STG boss ever designed. Hate the rank system all you like, hate the bullet graphics as you please, but any game seeking to challenge a player and leave a real impression could learn a thing or two from Black Heart.
Black Heart represents a roadblock, twice over, and for different reasons. Her1 first appearance is a fairly sedate boss fight - however, it is at the end of a short boss rush, just before the game really takes the kid gloves off, in the exact stage where your rank-related sins will catch up with you. “Rank” is shorthand for Garegga’s infamously tyrannical dynamic difficulty system, which requires careful consideration of powerup usage and demands frequent sacrifice of spare lives to be satiated. If you have done a bad job of placating that particular devil, this is the point where you’ll be punished for it. This first fight is simply an attempt from the game at kicking those that are sadly out of their depth off the machine, and if you clear it, you prove that are to be taken seriously if nothing else.
Her second appearance, however. A revised form. Movements are yet more erratic, attack patterns even more intense and chaotic. This time, you’re not being judged or speedbumped, you’re being annihilated. Doing well against Mk.I means finishing with enough resources to penetrate stage 6 (read: A Lot Of Fucking Resources) – doing well against Mk.II means surviving by even a hair’s breadth and a real shot at beating the final boss, who can be comparatively a bit of a paper tiger if you can hold your nerves and a little luck. But, you’ve been taught the basic function and rhythm of this boss in Mk.I - this is, merely, an escalation.
All this alongside the fact that players just naturally love to see a boss’s triumphant, patched-up return2, and it’s little wonder that Black Heart is a name that players both curse and adore. People tend to really remember the first few times they punch through roadblocks like Black Heart’s two appearances.
Another of the reasons Black Heart is so compelling a boss fight is its duel-like quality. Black Heart moves comparatively quickly and erratically like a player might, has attacks that are both defensive and scathingly offensive in nature. Her signature attack (oh, we’re talking about that, don’t worry) doesn’t look too far from one of the player ship’s smart bombs. She even has a small “hitbox”, in effect - all areas of the ship but the core being impervious to damage! No extraneous parts to damage, no control over her attacks and no cheap shots. The craft isn’t some weird gigantic ball, tank or manta ray, it’s a simple, pointy stealth bomber - looks like a scaled-up version of something the player may pilot, and even points in the same direction. This sleek devil in black and red passes pretty well for a rival, and she goes offensive while every other boss plays defense.
Black Heart does not really have conventional, rigid boss phases. There are a few showstopper attacks and maneuvers, but she mostly mixes and matches from a chocolate box of attacks - an aimed stream of shots, fans of bullets, cages of glowing flak. Some attacks must be shot down by the player - splashy clusters of grenades, red hot bullets, seeker drones. This random, hodgepodge selection of attacks actually lends the fight a real sense of give-and-take. There are points in the boss fight where you seek to milk score, and points where you’re simply trying to stay alive. Sometimes shit gets really devious, and you’re forced to keep your medal chain up while dodging, and sometimes Black Heart will simply flex on you by parking all the way down the screen to trap you between her thrusters. Some of these ad-hoc patterns give great opportunities to deal damage, others bully the player from a firing angle as the boss thrusts and thrashes to further frustrate the aim. It may be the hardest few minutes in Garegga, but it’s still remarkably well-paced. And Black Heart Mk.II can take enough of a beating that you’re unlikely to get off easy with just a couple of lucky picks.
The scoring potential of Black Heart only makes it all the richer a boss fight. All that invulnerable armor is fodder for “tick” points, all of her splashy bombs and seeker drones are lucrative fodder if you can keep pace and have the resources. The stakes are truly high, and most players will generally find they can score at least one extend during the fight, which may prove to be a much-needed second wind. Play it right and this black heart may become a black diamond.
Right, Left, Right, Left
Let us speak in hushed tones of the vulcan trap now. “Vulcan trap”, while descriptive enough, simply does not do such an iconic attack justice. Fool that I am, I’d have called it something dumb like “BLACK METRONOME”. It is honestly rather rare for bosses to have such a memorable signature attack as this, and every Garegga player in the world knows to respect this one attack.
It is, to speak with candour, a bullshit attack.
You must memorize a very strict position on the screen and a yet-stricter “right, left, right, left…!” timed maneuver that corresponds with that position - the wrong position fouls the timing. Most of the game’s smart bombs will fail to protect you from this attack - really, Garegga’s bombs often fail to protect in crucial moments, but they’re particularly unhelpful here. If stuff like this attack appeared any more than it already does, Garegga would be rightly described as a trash game. But this attack, and specifically the Mk.II version, is the game’s dramatic climax. As ruthless as it is, it can be learned, anticipated and dodged like anything else. It is the part of the game where, when dodged for the first time, Morpheus looks over your shoulder and says you’re beginning to believe. There are only a few other such memorable difficulty spikes in other games that really serve this purpose - untold hells of laser wheels and reverse-scrolling. The vulcan trap is stricter than even those, and yet – dodge it consistently, amidst the enormous pressure this game places upon you, and you have nothing to fear any more. This black heart is broken, and you may well claim a one credit clear.
The infamous fake-out at the end of Battle Garegga and resulting pathetic, unhinged desperation from the last boss is extremely good too, but Black Heart is the star of the game in both of her appearances. One of the best boss themes in videogames might as well be her theme. Making bosses and their bullet patterns was one of the few things I built real confidence in, but every time I look at Black Heart and all the amazing things this one boss does, it’s obvious that I still have so much to learn!
If we can refer to battleships with female pronouns, I’m gonna chase that “old programming book” feel of randomly assigning female gender to something and do likewise. ↩
Star Fox 64 is the only Nintendo game I truly like, partially because you shoot stuff in it, and partially because “don’t get too cocky, Star Fox” ↩