UPL published made some original, yet mostly unremarkable shmups in their time. Omega Fighter was an entire game against one large battleship with a scoring system based on how close you are to enemies. Bio-Ship Paladin featured a very original targeting system that was cool but clunky. One standout in their library is the side-scrolling shooter Black Heart, developed by NMK Co, the same folks behind other second tier shooters like Saint Dragon, Task Force Harrier EX, P47 Thunderbolt, Zed Blade, and Riot.
Black Heart is quite dark. You play as a knight riding on a dragon off to save a girl from an evil wizard. Between levels, you can see the girl chained up and being beaten within an inch of her life, much like some of the intermissions in Konami's XEXEX and Namco's Phelios. (Something of a vaguely disturbing trend, then.) On top of that, in the last level, when you finally get to save her, the evil wizard kills her right in front of you. The ending does not make things much better, as the world is still in ruins and the girl is still dead. Some moments can seem pretty chilling, especially in the final battle, where the girl you're trying to rescue is killed. Unlike every other death in this game, her body stays there, and never explodes or fades away.
The graphics are quite strange. There are very large and somewhat off-kilter reminiscent of Cotton or Parodius, but at the same time very menacing. If Black Heart could be considered a cute 'em up, it has to be the darkest cute 'em up ever, as some of the enemy designs look like the things straight out of nightmares.
As mentioned before, you play as a dragon-riding knight. While your sprite is huge, you only die if the knight is hit, a progressive idea for the time, before the microscopic hitboxes of modern bullet hell style shmups. Your dragon mount has two attacks, a small fireball that acts as your main weapon, and a special, destructive fire breath. The fire breath is fairly short range, making it risky to use. It also takes up an energy meter that's replenished by saving caged blue fairies. This attack is only really useful against bosses, as most enemies go down in one shot anyway.
Another way you can upgrade your firepower is by collecting red fairies. Red fairies will periodically float through a stage, unlike their blue counterparts. If you can collect one, it will hover above, below, or behind you and help you by firing small arrows. These fairies are indestructible and can protect you from enemy fire or use to crush enemies directly above or below you. You only lose one fairy when you die, making Black Heart slightly more forgiving than most shooters where you lose all your powerups when you die.
There are eight levels, the first one taking place in a forest, outside the villain's castle with all the others being inside it. While the background graphics are mostly stone corridors and trap filled dungeons, every so often you see something weird and out of place. A great example is the giant bird in level three. The creature pokes his head out of a dark hallway periodically through the level for seemingly no reason other than to be a distraction. Another one of these strange sights is the giant fish that hides behind trees in level one.
The enemy designs are also quite varied. Some of them are silly looking, like the whimsical flying monkeys or the stick figure magicians riding on fishes that flop around outside of water. Others are quite disturbing, such as the recurring mini-boss, which is a creepy looking eye inside a star, or the demonic fly enemy that will aggressively assault you, and is one of the only enemies that won't go down in one shot. The bosses follow a similar pattern, the first one obviously being the weirdest, as it's a giant that rides on a fish that'is eating an elephant while being carried by minotaur. The second level contrasts this, as its boss is a long, feathered snake that has a monstrous face and is easily one of the creepiest monsters in the game.
While Black Heart's graphics are strange to say the least, its sound is nowhere near as impressive. There are only a handful of songs and most of them get reused. There are a few standouts such as the intense theme for the first stage. The level five and six theme is annoying and since it's so repetitive, it is hard to tell when it starts and ends.
Where Black Heart really shines however, is its level design. Levels always have a clear top and bottom and there is never any vertical scrolling. The first four seem pretty standard and kind of easy, but once level six starts, the difficulty increases dramatically and never really stops. Large walls of spikes will hop on the ceiling and floor, forcing you to be in a specific place, sometimes without much warning. Sometimes they link up and become indestructible. The bosses also get much tougher, throwing huge, fast moving and unpredictable pentagram shaped projectiles that are very hard to dodge. You can only shoot in front of the knight and the only way to hit enemies above, below, or behind, is by ramming them with your fairies. Levels are full of stairs and ramps, and enemies will be placed in hard to reach areas. Some tricks Black Heart throws at you are so diabolical and clever that it feels a bit cheap sometimes. Even though Black Heart is difficult, it's nowhere near as hard as better known horizontal shmups such as R-Type or Gradius, though it can still destroy you if you don't know what you are doing.
If you manage to complete Black Heart, you open up a second loop. The second loop adds in some impressive bullet patterns and tons more challenge. It plays more like a traditional bullet hell shooter, except horizontal, making it somewhat strange for the genre.
Black Heart was never ported to any home consoles, possibly adding to its obscurity. The United States version of the Black Heart makes some needless changes, such as attack effects lingering longer than they should, enemy placement that makes little to no sense, and a larger hit box. The Japanese version is much better. Even though Black Heart was a commercial flop, it is still a very fun, if a little bit dated shooter that was ahead of its time in many ways.