It’s the ship that made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs. I’ve outrun Imperial starships. Not the local bulk cruisers, mind you. I’m talking about the big Corellian ships, now. She’s fast enough for you, old man.
-Han Solo, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
With all of the Star Wars talk recently thanks to Star Wars Day, “May the Fourth be with you”, and “Revenge of the Fifth”, you’d think TWRM would tackle any of the wide selection of Star Wars video games out there to commemorate. There’s Super Star Wars, Knights of the Old Republic, Rogue Squadron, Battlefront, Force Unleashed, frickin’ Lego Star Wars! Instead, I played Hyper Sentinel ’cause I’m so counter-culture.
Haven’t even seen this yet. Take that, you big, faceless corporations!
Hyper Sentinel, a retro-inspired shooter by Four5Six Pixel and Huey Games, gives me the impression that I’m ducking into a bombing dive in that corridor of the Death Star in A New Hope. This was much more of an unexpected feeling than I thought I’d have playing this game. I typically think of space-faring shoot ’em ups (shmups) as the kind of games I can ease myself into, settle down into a trance-like state where only my intuitive reactions are lit up, and I spend some time relaxed dodging bullets and lasers. In actuality, there’s so much going on in Hyper Sentinel that I felt I had to stay on high alert almost all the time.
That’s because as opposed to most shmups I’ve played that set your fighter against a vertically or horizontally scrolling environment, with the odd full 3D shooter getting a mention here, Hyper Sentinel is a side-scroller that lets the player double back. Each level is a set of what feels like bombing runs across a space station. Turrets blast at you as you zoom past. Enemy ships streak in all directions. There’s no stopping the speed of your ship so you’ll have to fire at opponents as you pass them by or if you maneuver yourself into chasing them down.
Knowing when to turn your ship around is crucial as there’s a moment of invincibility afforded right when your fighter flips. Likewise, turning your ship to grab a score multiplier or special power-up rather than tail another fighter is a split-second decision you’ll have to make frequently. Keeping up the pressure and the pace is essential in order to achieve the best scores, though it’s easy to get lost and panic in the chaos of meteors, projectiles, explosions, and points collecting.
Hyper Sentinel can be positively gripping in this respect, in the same way the arcade classics of yore it attempts to emulate grabbed you and refused to let go, coin after coin after coin. Meanwhile, in our time, the degree to which a game is capable of maintaining player interest is no longer dependent upon the high stakes of losing your lunch money or burning through the tokens your parents bought for you.
This is a conversation that cropped up after my recent critique of Rampage, the NES port, specifically. As a home console port of an arcade game, of course there had to be numerous limitations put in place. The NES’ own hardware capabilities couldn’t match the scope and scale of the arcade’s Rampage.
It’s more than just that, though. Either Data East could’ve gone with a limited set of lives and make the NES port super challenging, demanding players make it through the whole 128 days of destruction on without infinite continues, or they could’ve gone with an easier game model with infinite lives guaranteeing that the only obstacle between the player and victory is the massive amount of patience required to endure the drag of 128 almost entirely similar stages. The latter is what they chose but it turns out that the transition from arcade to port meant losing more than just better graphics and a huge werewolf. The port lost stakes when it lost the coin-op play structure.
Picture yourself playing Skee-ball, you know that one game in the old arcades where you had to roll a ball up a ramp and land it in any number of holes in order to get a high score. Imagine if you started playing and you got an infinite amount of balls to roll. The machine just kept cranking it out. How exciting would that be? Sure you could get the highest score possible if you stood there all day rolling balls but that’d wear out pretty fast. Even if the game involved tickets as rewards, eventually you’d purchase all the rewards if you could play for forever and it would still be meaningless in the end. Sorry if that’s depressing!
Actually, I thought of Skee-ball because when I was a kid I played a game of it once at this Chuck E. Cheese and when nobody was watching I ran up the ramp and wedged my hand under the protective barrier and dropped the ball in the “100 points” slot every time. Got a ton of tickets. Got caught. Didn’t think it was worth it in the end. Breaking the game took the fun out of it.
It seems to me that the draw of collecting high scores is wed together with the concept of a limited amount of playtime, whether you measure that in terms of a limited amount of attempts through lives, continues, or coins in your pocket. There must be real stakes in order to sustain tension. A game without stakes, without the risk of running out of lives or money, risks becoming boring (my take on NES Rampage). It risks becoming an exercise in interaction, pressing buttons until you reach the end on account of your endurance rather than luck or skill.
Now, I wouldn’t vouch for some sort of add-on that forces players to deposit real money into their games in order to succeed (beyond certain microtransaction models, of course), so then how do console games developed in the vein of arcade classics like Hyper Sentinel generate stakes and thereby tension? By maintaining a respectable level of difficulty and by ensuring you get only a handful of attempts, limited lives, limited health, limited continues.
These limitations make all the difference. This is something that resonates throughout this game. Hyper Sentinel nails the arcade classic influence because its chorus is one of challenging gameplay where stakes matter. Lose the last of your health on the boss? Start the whole level over again. You can try as many times as you like but there’s a decent length of time that will be lost should you fail. You only get one shot per round, even if it is no bigger than a two-meter womp rat.
The 8-bit Review
Marketed as a love letter to arcade classics, Hyper Sentinel is as brilliantly neon as the arcade cabinets of your nostalgic dreams. In fact, it’s brighter than anything I’ve played in recent memory. In some of its most effulgent moments, flashes of light and explosions become almost too much to look at. It’s the over-the-top, dizzying, and wild, exactly as it should be.
Hyper Sentinel doesn’t merely boast its retro-inspired visuals set at “blistering 60fps”, there are also three filters to crank up the nostalgia dial to 11. “CRT”, “Spectrum”, and “C64” bevel the screen like you’re playing the game on the ol’ tube. “CRT” adds scanlines and motion blur. “Spectrum” harkens back to the ZX Spectrum with its heavy pixelation and ultra-limited color palette. “C64” emulates the 8-bit 1982 classic computer through its muted colors. There’s enough there to please retro fans and, more importantly, to provide some much needed variety and break up the vivid, explosive mayhem.
Music is one easy way to tell the difference between neo-retro and the truly retro. The soundtrack for Hyper Sentinel is no exception. Remember, a lot of golden age arcade classics from the ’80s had no real soundtracks. There were short jangles that played at the introduction to each stage or on bonus levels but the majority of the gameplay itself was dominated by silence punctuated only by the iconic electronic beeps and boops of that era. Galaga from 1981 is one famous example of this. I’m not sure how much modern players would tolerate absolute silence in games (just as surely as modern blockbuster moviegoers might be unsettled by prolonged silence in films), and so Hyper Sentinel has its fully formed soundscape.
I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the music almost seemed to get faster, tenser, when the action ramped up and my ship’s health was hanging by a wire. It’s energetic enough to match the on-screen intensity. I could only wish it had more of that dubstep from the Switch trailer (see below). I love me that robot music. At least I got a sweet robot voice to tell me when I got a Game Over!
Hyper Sentinel boasts several stages of gameplay spread across multiple sectors of space. Each stage consists of a back and forth sweep over a space station where you’re tasked to take out turrets and portions of infrastructure while dodging barriers, bullets, and enemy ships. After destroying each ground target on the space station, the level guardian arrives as a kind of mini-boss. Once more, if you lose here, you’ll have to restart the stage. Defeat the mini-boss and you’ll be able to move on to the next stage. Special attention can additionally be paid to unlocking medals, achievements for distinguished battle prowess and skill.
Beyond the standard arcade mode I’ve just described, there are also survival and boss modes. The first pits you against waves of enemies increasing in difficulty with a timer to track how long you can endure. The second sets you in a duel against the level guardians, which is great practice for better arcade runs.
Hyper Sentinel does put a little more maneuverability into the hands of the player. Flipping the plane is a unique and strategic ability, though occasionally a little too cumbersome when precious is most wanted. There’s also a boost ability that allows you to play catch up with some enemy ship that’s a little too fast, or snag a power-up racing across the screen. Speaking of which, the power-ups are interesting and diverse compared to the traditional ones that merely elevate your main weapon’s power or width. There are side-mounted lasers, shields, a mine-field you can drag behind you, even a bunch of wrecking balls you can swing around your ship. These all stack too, which makes the agile player a flying death machine if you can collect multiple power-ups before they disappear.
Since the game is fundamentally about score acquisition, there are leaderboards to peruse. In the game itself, there are tons of score multipliers that burst from turrets or alienoids to look out for that can dramatically raise your high score. Keep up your rate of fire otherwise your multipliers will evaporate. Though the levels are each fairly short, there’s plenty to collect and even more than that to keep you on your toes.
Particular to retro gaming, there’s a degree of familiarity with the game and its systems that requires developing. You can jump straight into Hyper Sentinel’s arcade mode but it’s doubtful that every power-up and collectible will make immediate sense. Even after playing through almost all of the game’s stages, I’d still be hard-pressed if you asked me to describe what every collectible item or power-up does exactly. At least there are only two things to care about: get a high score and destroy things. Well, and don’t die. Three things.
With three different modes, plenty of stages, unique bosses, and the draw of attaining a high score for those into that sort of thing, Hyper Sentinel has enough bang for your buck to satisfy those looking to scratch the shmup itch. Again, this is a Nindie perfectly at home on the Switch where portability affords you a few quick rounds of play on a lunch break or a commute while out and about. So far, survival mode has really been where the replay value is for me.
I found Hyper Sentinel to be quite difficult! I got more than the average share of game overs. Note that I’m not some child prodigy when it comes to shooters or even to arcade-style games, no matter how much I talk ’em up. I found myself hitting the wall pretty early on before I realized I had to step it up and begin playing much less passively than I was. Concentration and good timing, as well as knowing when to swoop in and deliver a few key strikes before flipping your ship and making another run… these are essential for survival in Hyper Sentinel.
As far as shmups, indies, and retro-styled games in 2018 go, there is more than a ton to choose from. Why pick Hyper Sentinel, then? A few quirks in its gameplay, a bit of a different structure, and attention to detail are some of its strongest points. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s just about blowing up ships in fantastical space wars if you’re a fan of that kind of thing, but isn’t that why you’re reading this, anyway?
One thing that I think really could sell this game, maybe for a future port to other systems, if the developers are listening, is some slick ’80s style science-fantasy art that used to decorate the sides of arcade cabinets and headers. The pixel art in this game is pretty and all, but I’m sure it’s meant to evoke something far more majestic and deliciously anachronistic.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
I liked Hyper Sentinel. It wasn’t the shmup I was expecting but I ended up being okay with the surprises. The bombing run style of gameplay is something that took getting used to but the difficulty, the visuals, the flair of the filters, and the sound design were enough to take me back to those hallowed neon halls of my youth. I can see why it met with a successful Kickstarter campaign!
I’m delighted to thank Four5Six Pixel and Huey Games for supplying us with a copy of their game for this critique. Thank you and…
SEE YOU PIXEL COWBOY …
Aggregated Score: 6.4
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