The Black Heart — a remastered horror gem

The official Steam version banner of the game.
Ten years later, the horror begins anew.

The horror, the horror!

But let’s take it slow, shall we? This underrated gem was (and is still) available for download for free from GameJolt and was the result of seven years of work by a single developer: Andrés Borghi. The six characters featured in the game were originally built as separate, original characters for the M.U.G.E.N. engine. Their creator, at some point, decided to use them all in the same game, crafting a story around them and putting together a narrative centered around the theft of the titular Black Heart. This artifact is the literal heart of the former ruler of the demon world and was stolen by Final, who also serves as the very unfair arcade boss (more on this later). Each character has their own unique motivation for chasing after Final, which is narrated in deliciously crafted intro and ending cutscenes.

A comparison between the remastered and the original graphics, showing a cutscene with the character Ananzi and the character selection screen.
The graphics is where the remaster truly shines. The improvement in the cutscene department is nothing less than stellar: compare the new aesthetic (left) with the original (right)

Fatality!

The combat system of The Black Heart is pretty simple, yet effective. There are four buttons (light punch, heavy punch, light kick, heavy kick). Special moves are usually performed, with some sporadic exception, by inputting quarter circle motions followed by punch or kick, but diagonals can be skipped, as it is common in Netherrealm Studios’s games. Each special move has two variations, depending on the strength of the button used. There are both back dashes and a forward run, accessed by double tapping back or forward twice respectively, and it is possible to block while in the air, by holding back. Grabs are performed by pressing forward/backward plus heavy kick or heavy punch while standing near the opponent.

One of Noroko’s super attacks involve the use of an oni mask. This screenshot showcases the effect on super activation.
Noroko can be scary as heck. She is A LOT of horror tropes condensed into one, including The Ring and The Exorcist, among others.
Ananzi Fatal Move, where she turns into a giant spider and deals the finishing blow to her opponent, by filling their body with smaller arachnids, ready to burst out of them.
Fatal Moves can be fairly brutal. Animus is not going to have a good time with this.
Peketo’s Killer Mode has him detach his head and throw it around like a bouncing ball.
Don’t lose your head, Peketo. It’s not healthy!
Animus, in his “ballerina” form attacking Noroko with a creepy dance move.
Animus is a creepy animated doll that alternates between two forms, one of which is a sort of construct ballerina with a tutu and surprisingly versatile joints.

A spooky cast

The Black Heart features only six playable characters (with the arcade boss Final being an unlockable in the original version of the game, using a password on the zip archive containing it), but each of them feels interesting and well crafted. The game doesn’t have the equivalent of a shoto, and relies heavily on the peculiarity of each character. Ananzi, the spider princess, has projectile attacks, setup tools and something similar to Sheeva’s infamous full-screen stomp (but blockable); Peketo can throw knives and perform “ghost dash stabs” with some invincibility, on the top of being able to detach his head and throw it around as an unpredictable, bouncing ball of doom; Noroko has the best mobility options, with a double jump, a back dash that teleports her on the other side of the screen if performed in the corner, and a creepy “ceiling climb” stance for additional combo and setup potential; Shar-Makai is the slow, heavy hitter, who can summon larvae minions for oki and pressure potential; Hashi has strong setup tools, very good zoning and excellent screen control; Animus is a weird character with counter attacks and a mix of rushdown and control moves.

Noroko has a stance that allows her to grab the ceiling and keep moving up there for a while. This stance has damage-dealing followups.
Okay, Noroko, come down or we will have to call an exorcist.

Opening Pandora’s Box

The 10 years remaster does a very good job in updating the cutscene graphics and upping the music quality to higher levels. While graphics get easily most of the praise, the soundtrack in itself is still a treat for the ears. I have probably listened to the vocal track of the credits, “Red”, more times that I’m comfortable to admit.

A 22 hit Ananzi corner combo ending with a super.
Aside from some exception, the game isn’t REALLY combo-centric. That said, once can perform some very nice stuff with a bit of setup.

The arcade boss — or why I have almost given up on writing this article

I won’t lie, I am almost a filthy casual. I tend to play arcade modes blindly, for the enjoyment of steamrolling AI opponents and unlocking well-crafted ending scenes, which explain the story and teach me something about the game’s world. I genuinely loved the new, remastered intro cutscenes that show why each character decided to join the fray and mount a last stand against Final, the creature who stole the titular Black Heart.

Final’s super beam, disintegrating his opponent on K.O.
You will see your character disintegrated more times than you‘d expect it.
Ananzi fighting against three blood clones created by Final’s second super move.
You get grabbed, see ominous alchemic circles, lose 30% of your health bar, and then Final duplicates your character THREE TIMES, forcing you to fight them while he stays safely outside the screen and cannot be dealt damage. If this isn’t unfair, I don’t know what it is.

Final (no pun intended) words

Despite my bug-affected issues with its single player experience, The Black Heart is a very solid game, with responsive controls, moderately fast paced gameplay and incredible character variety, even with such a limited cast. This remaster gives justice to the original version and expands it to higher highs, by carefully and craftfully refining the existing package. This game is one of the few M.U.G.E.N. original IPs that managed to become a cult and, in my opinion, is a must play, if only for the battle system, aesthetic and flair.

Nine different shades of Ananzi: each of the nine frames contain a costume from an intro, win animation or Fatal Move.
Ananzi has one too many costumes (or lack thereof) in her intro pose, winning pose or Fatal Moves.

How to play it?

You can buy the Steam remaster for 9.99USD or play the original game, which is still available for free on GameJolt. If you are on the edge about giving this game a chance, I suggest trying out the original version first and supporting the developer by buying the Steam version if you were convinced by the gameplay. The extra features of the Steam version are not a deal breaker for hardcore players, but are definitely nice-to-haves, and increase significantly the value of the game’s package.

Update 21.10.2021 — The horror, now complete

The final version of the game has finally been published, with a secret boss character — Janos — that can be fought and unlocked when some conditions are met (I still have to find out which!), Final finally being unlockable, and a hefty list of quality-of-life changes (among which, Easy difficulty, a fix to the limited story mode continues bug, and an in-game gallery)! I still have to go through the new features myself, but, in the meanwhile, here’s the updated trailer for the complete release on Steam:

Game summary

Name of the game: The Black Heart — 10 years edition
Developer: Andrés Borghi, Saibot Studios
Available on: PC (original: GameJolt; remaster: Steam)
Price: 9.99 USD
Year of release: 2009 (original); 2019 (remaster)
Engine: M.U.G.E.N. (original), I.K.E.M.E.N. (remaster)
Netcode: none (Parsec)
Status: complete (original); final release scheduled for 21th October, 2021
In one sentence: 2D horror-themed pixel art fighting game with unique characters, fatalities and a creepy horror aesthetic.

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Andrea "Jens" Demetrio

Andrea "Jens" Demetrio

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PhD in Physics, indie game developer, fighting games connaisseur (he/him).