Channeling retro games is something that the indie gaming community has embraced wholeheartedly. We’ve seen games like Blossom Tales put it’s own spin on the 2D Zelda titles, and Celeste, which took old-school pixel graphics to create an engaging platformer with a great story to boot. But what makes these games special, and stand out from the games that inspired them, is that they are able to create their own niche in the genre, they do something that makes them stand out among their predecessors. Hyper Sentinel, a new Switch game from Four5Six Pixel, isn’t able to do this in quite the same way, giving a hit of nostalgia for late 80’s shoot-em-ups, but not much else.
Similar to those throwback titles it tries to be, Hyper Sentinel’s controls and gameplay are tight, rewarding players who perfect the tricks you need to get that high score on the leaderboard. Every game mode is simple and to the point, it really feels like an arcade game of old, putting 25 cents in to blow stuff up and get demolished and outnumbered by enemies. Those who master the controlling the small ship will be able to negate damage, and those who memorize level designs will be able to weave through cannon fire all while maintaining that tricky score multiplier. Surviving Hyper Sentinel takes dedication to the craft, especially if you want a great score after finishing a run.
The thing is, besides these basic layers of gameplay there isn’t much of a draw to replay the levels over and over again. There are only 12 levels total, and while you can unlock different game modes and difficulties after defeating a ship in the default Arcade mode, the two additional modes don’t make for exciting or even different experiences. Boss Rush mode is the biggest violator of this. It is essentially the same exact thing as Arcade mode, except the boss (or guardian as they call them) comes during the main fight as opposed to afterwards. That is literally the only difference. The level schemes don’t change, and neither do the enemies. The third mode, Survival, is different enough, but it’s still the same level, the only difference being it throws enemies at you until you final blow up.
In a lot of cases with games like this, gameplay is the saving grace. It’s not like people still play classic arcade games like Galaga or Centipede decades after their release because of their layered gameplay, people play them because they provide addictingly simple experiences. Hyper Sentinel has great controls and a good premise but just doesn’t have that spark that brings people back to the classic games that it is so inspired by. To start, the ship is just boring. You can dodge, speed up, shoot…and that’s really it. Even the upgrades that you can get for a limited time are hit or miss, ranging from completely useless to straight up overpowered.
Then there’s the level designs. The goal of Hyper Sentinel is to destroy parts of a ship without being blown up by its defences. This means you’re dodging in and out of flying squadrons of ships, as well as whatever cannons the ship might have on its surface. In theory, this could make for some exciting level design and set-pieces. But in execution, this isn’t the case. The ship design rarely varies. The components you have to destroy never change, and while some levels mix it up with the different defences or shields and obstacles, by the time you get to the third sector of levels, you’ve seen most of what the game has to offer.
The only thing to look forward to are the unique guardians you must defeat to complete the level, but even they vary from memorable to utterly forgettable. Where one boss might be difficult or encapsulate the entire screen, others are just plain boring to defeat or provide almost no challenge. It’s the latter that makes replaying certain levels even more difficult than it already might be. Thankfully, the good guardians outnumber the bad and can make for some hectic gameplay, especially if you’re partial to Boss Rush.
Being inspired by 80’s shoot-em-ups doesn’t mean that the developers wanted Hyper Sentinel to perform like one. I played almost exclusively on handheld mode on the Switch and never experienced frame rate dips or lag of any kind, no matter what insanity was going on on the screen, and there can be a lot. But perhaps the game’s greatest and best ode to the games it was built upon are the different graphics settings the game has to offer. There is a Commodore 64 mode, ZX Spectrum mode, and even a mode that looks like it is being played on a CRT tv or monitor. These options will please the most hardcore of fans of the genre, especially if they grew up on games like Uridium.
Hyper Sentinel wears it’s inspirations on its sleeve, for good and for bad. When it’s good, it’s good. If you want a game to just pick up and play for a quick round, it can be that. But Hyper Sentinel’s strengths lie with those who seek the nostalgia of a genre that has been mostly forgotten. There are few games that capture that feeling so well, much less have the graphics settings to emulate them. It’s just a pity that there isn’t more to do with the game, and those who aren’t familiar with the game’s it’s trying to be can’t really appreciate it for what it is. But for those who need that hit of nostalgia or another fun leaderboard chase, Hyper Sentinel is the place to be.