Iro Hero belongs to a growing subset of Nintendo Switch games. It's an independently developed retro homage that boasts a 16-bit Super Nintendo aesthetic and gameplay. Iro Hero is an attempt to marry old-school gameplay with the newest handheld/console hybrid on the market.
Iro Hero is a vertical shoot-em-up bullet hell arcade experience. Set in a sci-fi world, players control a spaceship that is constantly moving forward as enemy ships descend, determined to blast the titular hero into space chunks. Booting up a game of Iro Hero immediately transports you back to standing in front of a huge arcade cabinet, facing off against hordes of digital enemies. In a visual sense, Iro Hero perfectly captures the comforting nostalgia it aims for. In terms of gameplay though, Iro Hero is a frustrating and unfulfilling experience.
Iro Hero is, in a technical sense, a very short game. There are nine story levels and each should take about 25-30 minutes to complete. Arcade and normal modes exist as well but they replay those exact same story levels for high scores. Yet it becomes immediately clear that Iro Hero doesn’t want the player to beat the game. Iro Hero’s goal is to trigger as many game overs as possible until the level is memorized through repletion or just given up on completely.
In that respect, Iro Hero picks up on the worst elements of the 16-bit era of gaming. The end result of the game isn't to entertain but tather it's about making the game so hard that it becomes a part-time job to master. The game is brutally difficult but not in a way that requires much skill to master or reward to conquer it. The real reward to finishing a level is finally being done with it.
Iro Hero takes a lot of inspirations from games of the past. The most obvious influence being Ikargua, the reigning champ of the bullet hell genre. Yet there are other shoot-em-up influences to be found. The game is bright and colorful and there's a constant amount of stimulation, but Iro Hero falls short of the games it attempts to riff upon because it just isn't balanced well. Iro Hero is unforgiving but it's also unfair.
Like any bullet hell game, Iro Hero requires very fast reaction time. However, often the reaction time required is impossible to achieve. Enemies come up so fast and fill so much of the screen that it’s unavoidable to take damage. This wouldn’t be an issue if there were many chances given but players only get three lives (with no chance to gain more) and it'll snatch those lives away for the slightest error. Death isn't a learning experience, it's a nuisance.
Iro Hero is so teeth-grindingly challenging that it’s difficult to appreciate what the game does do well. As much as Iro Hero looks and apes other bullet hell games, it also has unique mechanics. Iro Hero is part puzzler too, most notably in its later levels. With a simple click of a button it’s possible to change the color of the playable ship from red to blue. This is important as only blue blasts can destroy red enemies and vice versa. If an enemy isn't dying, it's probably because the ship is wrong color.
It’s interesting mechanic that does add an extra level of strategy. However, the base game of Iro Hero is so punishing that color switching becomes more annoying than anything else. The only real thought going into the game is survival. The strategy for playing Iro Hero is just constantly blasting out ammo, hopefully destroying everything before it bites back.
Iro Hero isn’t a failure of a game. If anything it’s a little too faithful to the games it is trying to revamp and honor. The game has all the warts of the Super Nintendo era where difficulty was the main focus. Iro Hero could’ve opened the bullet hell genre up to a new audience and/or bring some of the modern conveniences and conventions to the arcade genre. Unfortunately Iro Hero instead doubles down on the difficulty of arcade shoot-em-up to exclusion of everything else. Iro Hero is designed for someone who is itching to dive back in the deep end of retro gaming, with all the harshness that implies. Everyone else though should steer clear.
Iro Hero is available now on Nintendo Switch for $12.99.