It's tempting for gamers of all ages to look upon their earlier days in the hobby as the 'golden age' of gaming; that's how nostalgia works. Yet we're in a genuinely exciting period in the medium, as we not only get staggering modern day masterpieces of incredible scope and technical delivery, but our gaming systems can easily reproduce and enhance retro-style games. The cutting edge of 8- and 16-bit graphics is now accessible and common in low priced download games, with pixel art and games inspired by the classics being a common sight on download stores, including the eShop.
The Nintendo Switch is already home to some experiences that recreate, reimagine or take inspiration from retro games, and there are plenty more on the way. One that takes the mind back to the days of Commodore 64 and systems of that ilk is Hyper Sentinel, a game developed by Jonathan Port with publishing and support from Huey Games. While Port was a child of the '80s and that era of gaming, the CEO and Creative Director of Huey Games, Rob Hewson, is the son of Andrew Hewson who founded Hewson Consultants, a well-known publisher in that long-gone decade. Andrew Hewson went on to be founder of what would eventually become UKIE (the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment) and is a consultant on the upcoming Hyper Sentinel.
Port's game was initially successfully Kickstarted through the lead taken by Huey Games, and confirmation of a Switch version followed in early May. With inspiration from the likes of Uridium and Defender, it brings to mind that era of arcade shmups. Yet when projects like this are unveiled some question what it truly offers that's new, and whether it relies too heavily on nostalgia; for others, that old-school gaming simply sells itself.
We had the chance recently to talk to Huey Games CEO Rob Hewson about that topic, his company's experiences in meeting the game's developer and beginning on the road to a Switch release. As it turns out, Switch and 'Neo Retro' - as Hewson calls it - seem like a great fit.
First of all, can you tell us about how you became aware of Hyper Sentinel and met its developer, Jonathan Port?
It was through an Indie group here in Manchester (England), where we're based. The first Tuesday of every month some Indie developers meet up in the pub, and we became aware of the game through another developer - Tim Keenan - who is actually a colleague of Jon's at his day job. He posted the trailer for Hyper Sentinel on the group's Facebook page and we thought it looked pretty cool, bringing back memories of the games my Dad and his company did in the '80s. So I got in touch with him and we met up at one of those monthly gatherings, he brought the game along on iPad and we got talking about bringing it to more platforms, offering feedback and saying that we could help polish the game and do porting work. It developed from there.
We've seen various retro-themed projects succeed on Kickstarter, with Hyper Sentinel raising over £20,000 in its own campaign. What are the key reasons for these Kickstarter successes of retro projects?
It was our second successful Kickstarter thanks to that community, our first was a book project. It's just an incredible amount of enthusiasm in the retro gaming community. It's a number of things - first of all the passion, enthusiasm and excitement in the '80s was massive, because it was this new world and medium. Magazines captured that, and because most people grew up with that they're in their 30s and 40s and maybe have some disposable income. On top of that we have the internet, so all these people with lovely nostalgic memories can group together and, all of a sudden, you've got events and so on popping up.
It's the best community in the world I think. Massively enthusiastic and passionate, and we're grateful for the support we've had in our Kickstarter campaigns.
The '80s, before and during the NES era as many of our readers will know it, was a hotbed for small development teams to share games. Platforms like Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum here in the UK had a lot of games by so-called 'bedroom coders'. In this age of download stores and 'Indies', is this the return of the bedroom coder?
From the mid '90s for about 10 years, until the first iPhone and the App store, the industry had gone a bit closed off, and you had to be tied to big publisher or company to produce any kind of game. A lot of people left the industry, and to an extent there wasn't as much creativity around.
The open platforms have returned, and now the bedroom coder is back. That's what Hyper Sentinel is all about and Jonathan Port is just that. He grew up playing these games in the '80s, so he's a passionate fan who can now produce games, which he wouldn't have been able to do before. In many ways it is a return to the '80s, but it is also a very different market, much bigger and more competitive.
When did the process begin to bring Hyper Sentinel to Switch?
We started to reach out to Nintendo as soon as we could. Obviously it's early in the system's life, so our Kickstarter was going on as the Switch launched at the beginning of March. We started to have conversations earlier in the year, putting everything in place and registering on their system.
It's been a great experience, they've been really helpful. We're excited about coming to Switch and think it's a good fit for Hyper Sentinel.
And how has it been working on the Switch, from a technical viewpoint. Has the porting gone well?
It's fantastic to develop for the Switch. Hyper Sentinel is developed in Unity, which is great, so it's been really straightforward. Nintendo's been super helpful and it's been a pleasure to work on.
Our colleagues from Eurogamer showcased the game's touchscreen controls on iPad last year. So far it's confirmed that the Switch will have the physical controls as per the PC, Mac and console versions.
You mentioned earlier that this game is coming to iPad, but it's also coming to Switch, PC and various consoles. What control options are you bringing to Switch; will you include touch screen options too?
We're looking at control options, we haven't finalised anything. There'll definitely be the physical controls which are the best way to play; even on the tablets we're supporting Bluetooth controllers because it's the optimal way to play, even though we've worked to make good touch controls. We haven't finalised it 100% but it'll probably be physical controls on Switch.
With the Switch being a hybrid device, suitable for TV or on-the-go gaming, how do you envisage most playing Hyper Sentinel?
It is a pick up and play game so you can play in small chunks on the go, it's great for that. Equally, it's a tough and challenging game like the classic shoot 'em ups like Defender and so on, so if you're really trying to beat a level or get the 60 medals in the game - which are tied to doing certainly moves, beating a specific time etc - then it's got that classic formula of drawing players in to beat challenges. It'll hopefully work really well in both ways.
Do you think there's a particular affinity for retro gaming in the Nintendo audience, does that make Switch and Hyper Sentinel a good fit?
The Nintendo audience is very receptive to retro styles, because Nintendo's obviously got an incredible retro legacy. For Hyper Sentinel, our philosophy is that it's Neo Retro, where you take the best things from those retro experiences - pick up and play, some of those cool mechanics - and even the look, kind of like 8-bit on steroids. You've got modern effects and lighting, you take out some of the annoying things from back in the day too - lack of save checkpoints and punishing death scenarios - and put in some more modern touches. It's that combination of retro style with a cutting edge game that makes it Neo Retro.
That resonates particularly well on a Nintendo platform; they've got that fantastic retro heritage, and Nintendo does that itself all the time. Like the New Super Mario Bros. games, which are in effect retro games but they're Neo Retro because of modern features.
With any retro-themed project like this there's always a big focus on the soundtrack and sound design. Can you talk about those aspects of Hyper Sentinel?
The soundtrack is by 'Fractures', that's Rob Fenn, and is an homage to chiptune music. If you're a fan of the SNES or even the Commodore 64 you'll recognise the style. Again, though, it's the Neo Retro philosophy; though it's a recognisable sound you wouldn't actually be able to reproduce that music on a 3-track sound chip from one of those 8-bit systems. It sounds like that style but it's souped up to the max, it's a heart thumping soundtrack. It makes it feel 'right' and authentic, keeps that nostalgia going through the whole experience. Rob's done a cracking job, including boss music and that Neo Retro ambience.
He even did some digitised voices that you'll hear come out. You can actually hear a voice at the start of the Switch announcement if you listen carefully. It sounds awesome - when the end of level guardian appears, the lights go down, the music changes and the voice says "Guardian detected". It can make the hairs stand up on the back of your arms. It encapsulates that rose-tinted retro feel that so many of us enjoy.
When we published a news article on the game's announcement some in the comments section were unconvinced, questioning why games with that retro style are so prominent. You've mentioned Neo Retro a few times, so can we finish with a pitch for that idea, and why you think games like this are an important part of the gaming scene?
The whole point of Neo Retro is that it's not just reproducing stuff from the past. It's taking the best of those games, like pick up and play - Hyper Sentinel has one-button controls, for example - and putting a modern spin on them. That pure gameplay is something that so many enjoy. But you've got to put in modern features, like the medal systems, online leaderboards and all that good stuff to make a contemporary experience that's exciting to play.
When we're taken it out to expos the great delight is seeing parents saying it reminds them of a classic, but then their kids play the game and enjoy it over and over again. You can jump right in, it's colourful and fast, it's pure arcade fun. I think there's definitely a market for that, and I think it's important when doing a Neo Retro game that you don't just say "we're doing a retro game". In some ways those older games are best being left as they were and to be appreciated that way, but they don't resonate as well, necessarily, with a modern day audience.
The way Jonathan phrased it when he spoke to us is that he wanted to make a game to be how he imagined they would be in the '80s when he saw screenshots in Zap64 magazine. Or how he pictured the games through rose-tinted spectacles, whereas in reality you can go back to some older games and they're not quite how you remember them. That's the ambition with Hyper Sentinel, to find a sweet spot of new ideas that also bring those classics to mind; if you get it right like Shovel Knight for example, you can produce a creative and original experiences but tap into that warm nostalgia glow that we all enjoy.
We'd like to thank Rob Hewson for his time, and Tom Copeland for helping to facilitate the interview. You can download a demo for PC and Mac if you want to try the game out.