Monday, November 15, 2021

Game 298: H.E.R.O.

It's the end of an era at Data Driven Gamer, as today, I'm covering the final Atari 2600 whale, and possibly revisiting the system for the last time. Activision's H.E.R.O. is by no means the last game on it; there would be new first-party releases as late as 1990, but by 1984 the venerable platform's ecosystem, once domestically synonymous with home video games, was in the throes of market recession. Furthermore, it was becoming undeniably dated, and clever programmers could only do so much to overcome its inherent limits. Atari's own follow-ups, the 5200 and 7800, had failed to make comparable impacts, in part due to the 2600's oversaturation. Nor would their 8-bit computer line make up the difference - it had been quickly losing sales ground to the Commodore 64, which was on track to become North America's de facto 8-bit computer, and which Activision themselves would soon switch to as their main focus.

H.E.R.O., short for Helicopter Emergency Rescue Operation, casts you as R. Hero, a mad scientist/tinker type fellow on a mission to rescue miners trapped in a cave-in. Equipped with his own rinky-dink homemade equipment - some dynamite for blasting through walls and debris, a helmet-mounted lasergun for zapping deadly cave critters (and, if the dynamite runs out, cutting through the walls), and, most crucially, a helicopter motor assembly strapped to your back which, when mastered, allows controlled descent, hovering, and flying through the mine shafts - you must navigate 20 areas of progressively increasing complexity and difficulty, reaching the miners at the end. How you actually rescue them after reaching the unplumbed depths of their locations is a mystery.

Using my typical rules, I finished all 20 levels in five segments. The later levels get hard. Once you beat level 20, you'll cycle through pseudo-randomly selected levels until you either run out of lives or attain a maximum score of a million points (good luck).


At first, H.E.R.O's caves take on a puzzle-like nature. Linear, and yet mazelike, you'll have to figure out just how to get through each screen in a way that avoids hazards and minimizes use of dynamite, as levels often require every stick you've got.

Just slip through the second shaft from the left, blast the rose-colored divider wall, kill the bat with your laser, and drop down the shaft on the right and keep going all the way down to bedrock.

The puzzles can only get so complicated - it's not exactly Boulder Dash, or even Sokoban. It's just mazes with an effectively finite number of walls you can bypass. The real challenge rears its head just over halfway through, when H.E.R.O. starts demanding fancy and impossibly precise flying technique, made so much more difficult by deliberately fiddly controls. You see, the helicopter motor takes some time to spin up enough to generate lift, and when the controls are released, it takes some time slowing down before you descend. It's like the helicopter controls are affected by horrible input lag, only this is quite purposeful.

The levels, then, keep coming up with new ways to challenge you almost up until the end. One moment you have to time a descent to avoid being crushed by a moving lava flow, the next you must hover through a tight passageway with a low overhang above you and a swimming tentacle monster below you, and the very next moment you ride a raft through a river, zap a spider hanging from a red-hot ceiling, and rev up your motor at just the right time so that you take off from the raft before it reaches the end of the river, but not any earlier where you'd fly right into the ceiling. And that's just one level! The linear series of challenges can feel somewhat like Pitfall, but far more varied and mechanically difficult.

No spare lives and you've got to dip below the overhang without landing in the water. If your glide becomes a lift you'll touch it and die. Stall and you'll drown. And your rotor's spinning on fumes. Godspeed.

GAB rating: Good. Challenging, often frustrating, but well-designed and never unfair beyond reason, H.E.R.O., along with that other 1984 Activision title Pitfall II, really push the boundaries of what the Atari 2600 can do, and makes for a fitting end to this years-long system retrospective.


  1. 1984 isn't looking great for The Ivory Deck, is it?

  2. We loved our old 2600... it was a Christmas present in what I would think was 1980... everyone on the block had them and we rotated cartridges back and forth!

    Extreme good times.

  3. I really loved H.E.R.O. I'm not sure what (if any) would count as the 'canonical' version of the game, but I played it on the C64. I did try the 2600 version once and, apart from graphics, it seemed to play much the same. The fine-tune twitch control on the jetpack was a lot of fun, and timing the closing lava 'jaws' was always pretty tricky. The thing about the game is that it's very forgiving with extra lives - I think you always get a new one at a certain score threshold (10,000?) so you can build up a buffer to help you with the occasional failure of technique. I was able to get 1 million points (at which point the score switches to !!!!!!!!!), so I guess I conquered it.

    1. Wikipedia says that all subsequent versions were ported from the Atari 2600, so for my purposes, that's the canonical version.

      True about the lives generosity. That version gives you a life every 20,000 points, which is more generous than most, but still only affords you a mistake every two levels or so. Maximizing points becomes an important strategy too, though in almost all cases, going out of your way to kill stuff isn't worth the points you'd get for time remaining.


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