Playing Hyper Sentinel (Windows)

Time for some current generation, retro-themed shooting action; I’ve mentioned it in passing previously, but Hyper Sentinel is a bi-directional scrolling shoot ’em up for the current generation of consoles and Windows boxes – the latter being my platform of choice via Steam – where the player’s craft must destroy all of the ground installations on a space-faring Dreadnought before defeating its guardian and finally getting to watch the huge craft boil away into space. And if that sounds more than a little familiar, publishers Huey Games are basically a reincarnation of Hewson Consultants who, amongst many decent games and a couple of rather iffy conversions back in the day, published Uridium.

But when I sat down with Hyper Sentinel after buying it on launch day something felt… well, off. Most of the reviews I’ve read had described it as a “spiritual sequel” to Graftgold’s classic but it only took a few swings at the thing to realise that wasn’t really the case; Uridium‘s Manta has a huge amount of flexibility to the controls so players can constantly tweak their speed with touches of the joystick, but the Hyper Sentinel lacks that level of finesse and moving the controls horizontally just causes the craft to put its foot down in that direction if it wasn’t already doing so. The only option to tweak the speed is holding down the boost button to go faster for those times when the enemies or power-ups would be too quick to keep up with otherwise, but that faster speed also disables the main gun so must be used sparingly.

For the first week of on/off playing I really wasn’t enjoying it at all but, whilst writing that last paragraph earlier this week, something clicked; I stopped trying to play it like I would Uridium, properly got my head around how to use the boost and Hyper Sentinel suddenly felt more fun to play. Leaving a wake of destruction was enjoyable – even more so with the beefier power-ups – and some of the bosses became easier since I could chase them down. There aren’t background collisions to worry about unless players stray out of default difficulty territory and, rather than dying immediately, the ship gets ten shields which act as lives and can either be recharged with one of the items or just by hiding to avoid collisions for a while until they regenerate.

Personally, I can take or leave the neo-retro visuals these days in part because there are so many games going for a similar look that it’s hard to get excited any more; the pounding but not particularly memorable soundtracks are similarly reasonable and I think my less than sensitive ear is picking up some early Rob Hubbard drums in there too. But the gameplay is the most important part and that feels pretty solid and I’ve gone back to it a quite a bit over the last week. Granted, if I felt the need for a full fat Uridium-style experience with beefed up graphics and power-ups then the excellent Uridium 2 on the Amiga is the option I’d go for, but I do feel that Hyper Sentinel on its own terms is still a solid, playable blaster and I’ll no doubt return to it, either for the main game or to play the survival mode some more.

Thinking about Uridium (C64)

Kim Justice recently posted a video about the just released Hyper Sentinel and its predecessor Uridium – I’ve been playing the former and have a few thoughts, but need to spend a little more time organising them for a post – and I’ve been making something of a nuisance of myself in the comments by, amongst other things, explaining how the background scrolling and parallax starfield work for Uridium on the C64. Whilst writing those comments I ended up coding a simpler version of my own with controls like Hyper Sentinel into the bargain, so I might as well show off demonstrate it here.

Despite the Dreadnought only being 17 character lines high that scroller is actually refreshing 21 lines of the screen from a 256 byte wide map which has been cropped down from Uridium‘s final level where it was 512 wide. The stars work in a similar way to Andrew Braybrook‘s, with two possible characters being displayed (or not if the character cell they’d be occupying as a piece of Dreadnought in it) as high resolution rather than multicolour so the points being plotted to them can cleanly counter whatever the hardware scroll register is currently up to. Braybrook’s stars are randomly placed at the start of each level whilst mine are limited to one every second character line, but it still looks okay and I could at least make it randomise the X positions.

For some reason I even got around to making the Uridimine launchers pulse using what are essentially primitive software sprites which are only being written to the colour RAM, although Rassilon alone knows if that’s how Uridium actually does it. Just for reference, where the border colour is green there’s free processing time and red indicates that my slightly clunky scroll engine is weaving it’s magic; the border also changes to pink whilst playing the music – a cover of Jason Page’s Uridium 2 loading music by Andy Vaisey – but that happens well before the visible screen actually starts so can’t be seen.

I’ve got no plans to continue this right now because it was just a doodle really, but the scroll engine started off as part of something else and the upgrades I made today might end up being passed back to that project… and I’ve literally and rather randomly just realised that what I’ve actually written here is a partial clone of Sensible Software’s Uridibad, haven’t I?!

Playing The Last V8 (C64)

The end of the world has already happened and what remains of humanity ekes out an existence in fallout shelters, biding their time by monitoring the environment and, in one particular case, tearing apart a car and modifying it for this new, radiation-soaked world. The day finally comes when this supercharged and heavily shielded vehicle rumbles out into the post nuclear wilderness to explore and perhaps track down survivors, only to be surprised by an alarm going off on the dashboard signalling that a delayed nuclear strike is on its way. For any other car the journey back to the Undercity and on to the safety of the Sci-Base would be impossible… but this is The Last V8.

David Darling‘s Mad Max-inspired, post-apocalyptic driving game is divided into two parts, the first is a manic race through twisting countryside back to the relative safety of the underground city before the incoming nuke hits – the car’s shields are good but won’t withstand a full-on nuclear blast – requiring the V8 to be driven as close to the edge as possible despite hairpin bends in the road and fatal to the touch surrounding foliage. Once underground the pace settles down a little as the player manoeuvres through the tight, maze-like passageways to the Sci-Base’s entrance, avoiding collisions and trying not to dwell too long in the invisible but deadly radioactive zones which are a result of that recent detonation.

The Last V8 has always divided opinion in part because the difficulty is deliberately and frustratingly high, presumably to draw things out since a seasoned player can complete the entire thing in under three minutes. Meeting that challenge starts with learning how to properly control the V8, practicing until able to clear the first level consistently or at least knowing where the short cuts are – I’ve included the most common one as a bonus in the video after the main playthrough is done, along with the rarer second option that I tended to use personally – and then working out the path through the Undercity which had the least radioactive zones. Making the levels punishingly hard in this way is a cheap design choice, especially since there would have been more space for maps if the two low quality but reasonably long chunks of sampled speech hadn’t been included.

Despite the unforgiving difficulty I’ve always been fond of The Last V8 personally, absolutely loving the in-game soundtrack whilst playing it extensively on both the C64 and Atari 8-bit back in the day – the Amstrad CPC version is a bit of a car crash, if you’ll excuse the “pun” – and managing to complete the entire game on countless occasions despite claims of it being declared “impossible” online. I think there was actually a time in the late 1990s where the only map of the Undercity was one I made in ASCII and posted to Comp.Sys.CBM on USENet, although I sadly can’t find it now. This game does stir a few other childhood memories of living through the cold war with that imminent threat of nuclear death hanging over all of our heads that the game’s scenario is based around, although I’m not sure those are strictly speaking good memories…