Here's another Japanese PC Engine game that could have been released in North America with just a little title screen revamping -- Irem's Mr. Heli no Daibouken ("Mr. Heli's Great Adventure"):
Irem created seminal arcade games like R-Type and Vigilante, and Mr. Heli is very much in the same tradition. The original coin-op came out in 1987, and this PC Engine port produced a few years later is a game on the cusp of the 8-bit/16-bit hardware transition -- the gameplay is nothing that wouldn't have worked on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but the audiovisuals are clearly a step up. The game features a scrolling, colorful 2-D background, bouncy theme music, and a cute helicopter protagonist pitted against cartoony mecha-enemies:
The first level isn't too hard to beat, once one gets the hang of the floaty controls and can keep Mr. Heli's unwieldy, bulbous body out of the line of fire. But the enemies become quite a bit tougher and the maneuvering tighter in the second level, which starts out in darkness until the player gets the lights turned on and is greeted with an onslaught of enemies, many of whom can pass through the walls:
Fortunately, Mr. Heli can fire lasers to the left and right, toss missiles upwards, and drop tiny bombs for crystal mining and secondary defense. In addition to points earned for destroying the endless bad guys, the player can hunt down hidden crystals for cash, enabling the otherwise unusable powerups scattered through the levels:
Mr. Heli is oddly anthropomorphic -- when he lands, feet sprout from his body, making him resemble a cute little alien robot. But the charming graphics are deceptive -- the Normal mode, which allows Mr. Heli to absorb quite a few enemy hits before he expires, is difficult enough, but the three-hits-and-you're-out Arcade mode is tough. The second boss is no pushover, either -- the six gun emplacements bombard the player and regenerate shortly after they are taken out:
Mr. Heli isn't a masterpiece -- it's harder than perhaps it ought to be, and there's not much of a story, just a chubby little copter fighting the good video fight. But the character was popular in Japan, making cameo appearances in later Irem titles, and it's a solid game, much better than some of what NEC chose to release for the TurboGrafx-16. Irem licensed several of its other titles for the American system, and the game is almost completely in English, so its absence on North American shelves seems like another missed opportunity. Mr. Heli no Daibouken is a fine little import game, with plenty of challenging action crammed onto Hudson's HuCard format, and well worth trying out.
This one's worth playing, but it's on HuCard so it will only work on a real PC Engine. You may be able to find it in stock at this affiliate link.