The Black Heart — a remastered horror gem

Andrea "Jens" Demetrio
11 min readOct 7, 2021

I admit this is a little break from my usual formula, because today’s indie game has a publisher — Saibot Studios (a reference to Mortal Kombat?) — but it’s for a good cause: The Black Heart, a one person effort from back in 2009, recently got a HD remaster, which is going live in its entirety/final version on the next 21th October, 2021.

I have first met The Black Heart back in 2014, when browsing through games on GameJolt. It was the only original IP traditional fighting game on the website, at that time, and it struck me both for how well it was crafted and for its difficulty, especially for a casual player.

Finding The Black Heart there was one of the reasons that led me to publish my first fighting game Schwarzerblitz on GameJolt too. Had I not found The Black Heart, I am not sure if I would have gone on with my intent or if I would have published my game anywhere else, so — in a sense — I owe it something.

Which brings us to the point: what better way to inaugurate the spooky month, if not by revisiting the modern retelling of a cult horror-themed indie fighting game?

(Note: my review is based on the current version of the remaster, as of the 5th October, 2021. The final release on the 21st might still be subject to changes.)

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)

Story mode is a sequence of six encounters, including a mirror match, and concluding with a face off with the big bad, Final, in a single round last stand. The theme is prevalently, exquisitely horror-based, with several atmospheric stages, a downright apt soundtrack, monster-based tropes for all its characters, and plenty of 2D cartoon-y gore.

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.

Attacks flow into each other following a cancel system, with each normal canceling on another normal of equal or higher intensity on hit or block. Most normal moves can also be canceled by a special or a super move. Some attacks can be jump canceled too (e.g. Ananzi’s crouching heavy punch) and followed up with a short air combo.

There is a super meter, divided into three stocks. It can be filled by hitting, being hit or even by whiffing normal moves.

Each character has around three supers, usually accessed by performing a quarter circle motion and pressing both punch buttons or both kick buttons at the same time. They cost one stock of super meter and deal okay damage. There are different flavors of supers, ranging from combo enders, utility moves, and even universal counter attacks.

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.

There are also two additional mechanics to add some spice to the traditional formula: Killer Mode and Fatal Moves. Killer Mode is the equivalent of a V-Trigger from Street Fighter V or Instinct from Killer Instinct (2013), except it was added much sooner than when those ideas surfaced. Killer Mode costs two bars to activate and can change the way a character is played completely, at the cost of disabling their specials and super moves until it is kept active. For example, Peketo detaches his head and throw it around like a bouncing ball, effectively shutting down the opponent’s offensive until the bar is drained, Ananzi is covered in spiders, which are thrown as projectiles with each of her normal moves, while Noroko starts possessing her doll, acquiring a completely different moveset. Killer Mode can be deactivated by means of inputting the same command again. Alternatively, it lasts until the super meter is completely drained.

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!

Fatal Moves are insta-kill moves, which double as gore-y finishers. They can be performed for the cost of three bars if the opponent’s energy is lower than 33% and — if they connect — instantly end the round in a gruesome shower of cartoon entrails. Despite this, the opponent will be able to walk unscathed again for the next round, provided that it wasn’t the match point. Some supers double as Fatal Moves too (with additional graphical effects) if they are used to knock out the opponent.

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.

Overall, every character feels unique enough and Killer Mode adds even more to the variety, making the best possible use out of the limited cast. There is something for everybody, and this is definitely a plus.

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.

The rest of the package is standard, if a bit bare, 2000s fighting game content, including an arcade/story mode, a survival mode, a barebones training mode without any additional options, local versus with team battle (both sequential and simultaneous), options for audio, video, difficulty and input assignment. It’s surprising that this remaster lacks some accessibility options, like the possibility to map button macros (e.g. heavy punch plus light punch), which would make performing super moves and Killer Mode activation easier.

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.

However, I couldn’t manage to clear story mode even once, with evident frustration on my side. I played at Normal, and — while I could kind of manage my way through the AI opponents fairly consistently, with some basic combos, AI exploits and careful zoning — I hit a major roadblock when I reached the boss, Final.

Final’s super beam, disintegrating his opponent on K.O.
You will see your character disintegrated more times than you‘d expect it.

Final is unfair, as it is good and always should be for an old school arcade boss. He cannot block, but has a longer life bar and super armor on all of his moves, except at seemingly random times, during which he can be shortly staggered. He hits like a truck, has stage-wide eye beams, can teleport on the other side of the screen when you press buttons, completely disregards your multi-hit specials and has two very situational — yet devastating — supers. The first is a two bars full-screen beam-of-death that deals up to 50% damage on hit or around 20% of chip damage on block. His second super is a blockable claw attack without any clear tell that, if connects, deals significant damage to your character and removes Final from the stage. In his stead, three blood clones of your character will appear on screen and you will have to dispatch them before the boss comes back to the center stage. In this sequence, Final receives no damage, so it’s a net negative and a chore to deal with.

So far, so good. Final is a challenging boss, but not unbeatable. I was actually finally picking up on his patterns and slowly chipping away at his health bar, but, after around the fifth “Continue?”… the game booted me out to the title screen.

Twice.

As I had later understood thanks to getting in touch with the developers, this was due to a default engine feature that was mistakenly left active, causing the number of “continue credits” in story mode to be limited to a fixed number. I’ve almost thrown my controller against the wall, before knowing this about detail, going on a rampage rant with a friend of mine about how arcade modes with limited continues and an overpowered boss are more frustrating that fun, at least for someone like me who plays them mostly to learn about the story and unlock the endings. Fortunately, it wasn’t an intended feature and it has already been fixed for the 21st October final release.

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.

Just out of curiosity, I asked around in the game’s official Discord server if someone had suggestions on how to beat him. One of the players there, UncleSenpai gave me the following pieces of advice:

* use short, safe, multi-hit combos, like jumping Light Punch, Light Kick, Light Punch to have more chances to break his armor;

* try to bait his “blood clone” one-bar super to avoid him using his deadly full-screen beam super; this requires however a bit of AI manipulation;

* for characters with a good Killer Mode, make extensive use of it to whittle down his health;

* multi-hit supers are also very good for interrupting him, but you need to be very careful while using them.

With this newfound knowledge and without that pesky “limited continues” bug in the way, I will face Final again, at Normal difficulty. No matter how many tries it takes, this time I will take him down for good.

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.

Special thanks to DeCav, for rekindling my interest in this game and for directing me to The Black Heart’s Discord server for getting in touch with the developer, and to both Saibot Studios and Andrés Borghi for explaining me the issues with the bug I found during my playthrough and being available for clarifications.

If you are interested in more coverage about indie fighting games, you can find me on Twitter at @AndreaDProjects

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Andrea "Jens" Demetrio

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