♪ Marginal Consciousness

We’ve reached the end. That much should be obvious from the music alone, as it continually builds into a perpetually-elusive crescendo. And as we pick apart this massive ship—apparently an escape vessel—you can’t help but wonder if there’s anywhere left for the game to go. We’ve seen all of this before, in one form or another. Even when its emergency unit breaches the hull, it’s still too easy to jump to the direct comparison.

♪ Stab and Stomp!

So let's just make the direct comparison, OK?

Though, as much as I want this analysis to be spotless and to double as a functional piece of propaganda, I’m honestly quite conflicted about Black Heart mkII. On one hand, its presence is vital to the game’s pacing; remove it and the final boss would feel underwhelming. However, the sadistic glee embodied by its predecessor is gone, which removes the need for that specific body plan and attack flow. In its place we get a bizarre chimera which is only Black Heart in form alone; in function it is a cross between a kid with new toys and a lunatic on the edge.

Then again, on a narrative level perhaps that is the point. To explain, the blueprints for nearly every enemy in the game were designed by the player characters and then handed off to the opposing Federation. The same is true of Black Heart, except that the design notes used were the rough drafts for your own ships, which explains why it exhibits the same freedom on you as you have on everything else. Yet when it came time to improve on the model, they had no more notes to crib from, and were forced to come up with something on their own. Perhaps mkII then was a design-by-committee affair; the result of engineers taking a pure core and throwing their mental sprawl all over it.

Of course, the screwiness in its design also extends past the thematic and into the stuff that impacts the player’s chance of just making it through the fight. Although the first two forms aren’t that bad, the combinations on display during the final form can range from unusually-simple to near-undodgable. Had you chosen to spend stage 6 accumulating resources, these attacks could just be bombed away or even tanked through. On the other hand, go into stage 7 with no resources and you’re largely at the hand of luck. There aren’t enough bomb chips available to accumulate even a single full bomb, and the amount of points available from the start to Black Heart mkII is meager. There are a couple scoring tricks you can perform to offset this, but taking advantage of them would require using, well…you know.

♪ Erupter

Time to finish this.

As we saw earlier, the progression of this boss is quite similar to Black Heart’s, up to even having Black Heart mkII as its escort. And while the two share similar attributes—such as a single damageable core and distinct attack waves, the overall feel of the boss is nevertheless different. The boss both moves and attacks in predictable waves, and instead of using combinatorial attacks it chooses to take one weapon at a time and max it out. It’s strange, but if you think of its role as an escape unit it makes sense. Unlike everything else we’ve faced so far, this ship was never designed to fight on the front lines. Everything about this boss is defensive, and you can tell that it’s pushing the few countermeasures it has to the brink.

Next comes the second form, where we see how underpowered it really is. Although it gains two extendible arms which can swap weapons out at will, the decline in firepower from the rest of the body shows just how little power it has at its disposal. Perhaps it was a flawed design, and the arms are chewing up the majority of the power budget. Or perhaps internal damage was incurred, and this setup makes the most out of what little it has left.

Finally the body goes down, leaving just the core to fend for itself. Its movements are highly erratic, and it switches from one attack to another at such a rate that you can’t help but think that it’s searching for something that’ll work.

It’s sort of a shmup cliché for the final boss to be an execution. The Gradius series is most famous for this, with its final bosses behaving more like masterminds who command fleets yet have no fighting prowess of their own. Move to more direct influences and you have Gun Frontier, where the final boss is fought as an honorable duel. And this setup makes sense. Every faceless militia has a few people pulling the strings, and the easiest way to take out the whole is to aim for the head. The affair takes on a tone of intimacy, even when you can’t see the person behind the machine.

By the end of stage 6 you’ve destroyed their base of operations. Their military might has been crushed, their political power is soon to follow, and they are left with no other choice but to run. After the horrors they have committed, they now find themselves at the end of the blade and feel the meaning of their actions. It’s only natural for them to react like their victims had, running and flailing, doing anything they can in a frenzied grasp for life.

Time to take it from them.