Friday 31 August 2018

Snes Review - Sydney Hunter and the Caverns of Death (Game 169)

Recently there has been a growing movement to make modern games for older system. But is it fair to judge them against the titles originally available for the systems they target?

Developed by CollectorVision

Published by CollectorVision

Released in 2018

As gamers of the past grow up and start creating games themselves there seems to be a desire to replicate the feel, look and gameplay of the titles they used to love. Digital distribution platforms like Steam are awash with games offering pixel graphics and chip tune music. “Just like you remember” and “recreating the classics” seems to be phrases you find in a lot of modern game descriptions. For some developers though, creating a game that nods to the past isn’t enough. Many wish to create a new game that actually works on an old console; working within the limitations of legacy hardware. VBlank Entertainment has been applauded for making ‘Retro City Rampage’ work on a plethora of consoles, both new and old. The game’s creator Brian Provinciano has talked at length about how he has taken a game that works on a PS4 Pro, and distilled it to the point that it runs on a 486 PC (provided you have a whopping 3.7 MB of hard drive space, and 4MB of RAM to get it up and running).

Similarly the creators of ‘Tangle Wood’ and ‘Paprium’ have delighted fans by promising to create brand new games for those who still have the Mega Drive as their primary console. 

There’s even a phrase emerging to describe these new/old games and ‘Sydney Hunter & The Caverns of Death’ is another “neo-Retro” title. Perhaps inspired by the success of games like ‘Shovel Knight’ and ‘Super Meat Boy’ in March 2015 John Lester took to Kickstarter hoping to find funding for a “new retro-style adventure/puzzle platformer for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System”. The Kickstarter was a huge success partly because John Lester is known by many as “Gamester81” and he understandably used his popular YouTube channel and website to promote the campaign. 

Originally the game was scheduled for a January 2016 release; however it took three years for Lester’s vision to become a reality. “Game development just takes a lot of time” he notes. “That’s one thing I learned about making new games; it takes a lot of time especially for classic consoles like the Super Nintendo”. “Our motto at CollectorVision is: make things right even if takes more time” adds graphic designer Jean-Francois Dupuis. “Each consoles have their own challenges and we’re always learning with each project we’re working on.”

The end result of “three years of love and dedication” is a game that can now be bought on a physical SNES cartridge (in PAL, Super Famicom and NTSC flavours) in a box with instructions. This isn’t a case of Lester’s company, CollectorVision Games, repurposing donor carts and replacing the ROM file with their own game. The cartridges were custom moulded; the box and instructions are both beautifully printed and are full colour. It’s the attention to detail and the quality of the packaging that really helps sell ‘Sydney Hunter’ as a genuine long-lost Super Nintendo game, that has only been unearthed decades after the console vanished from stores. Indeed were it not for the 2017 Copyright message, I would have forgotten that I wasn't playing a legacy SNES game. “Offering physical copies of our games is certainly something fans appreciate “Dupuis says. “We’re doing everything we can to deliver quality products to them”.

Despite having created games for The Colecovision and NES, The SNES proved to be a stumbling point for CollectorVision. “There aren't many dev tools available for the Super Nintendo so that's why you don't see many new Super Nintendo games. You might see old games that were unreleased that maybe someone finished up, we might see some hacks, but as far as a game from scratch [where] everything's original (graphics, sound, production) you don't see many games like this.” 

“Doing a SNES game was A LOT more complicated than we thought! It’s really not a walk in the park” agrees Dupuis. “The SNES is a very challenging platform to work with, but in the end, I think we’ve managed to make a fun game (hopefully)”.

The game’s story is set up in an attractive opening animation the inclusion of which fulfils a stretch goal promise made to Kickstarter backers. In the South Pacific, lays Mt Doom, a tower on an island. All but Sydney Hunter are afraid to explore here, but ancient curses do not put off this adventurer. With torch in hand he ventures into the islands caverns eager to plunder its treasures, unaware that a volcano god has awoken.

“The Sydney Hunter character was created by our friend; Keith Erickson” recalls Dupuis. “The first ‘Sydney Hunter’ game was ‘Caverns of Death’, an online Flash game. We later bought the character from Keith to create a series of games using this character.” Since then CollectorVision have created several games using the character and they’re available on a diverse array of consoles from 8Bit all the way up to the current generation of machines. However all of the games are designed to be familiar and accessible, perfect for a quick “pick up and play”. 

“We didn’t re-invent the wheel so to speak” Dupuis admits. “I just wanted to make a simple but fun game, easy to play, hard to master”. Armed only with a boomerang, the goal of each of the twelve levels is to guide Sydney through dark caverns while avoiding bats, ghosts, skeletons and other obstacles. Throughout the stages are pedestals, above which a specific treasure is shown. Sydney must find this lost treasure and then return it to the rightful place. Doing so opens another section of a level. For the most part you’ll have to find a couple of treasures per level, so as you leap between platforms and vines a player should try to memories the intricate levels. Thankfully a map is drawn as you go, which can be viewed at the press of a button. This avoids backtracking in the wrong direction once a treasure is found. In places these are very dark caverns, but fortunately Sydney has a torch that lights the area around him. At the press of a shoulder button the whole screen can also be lit up but it’s impossible to move during this. 

In tribute to the challenge of old games ‘Sydney Hunter’ is unforgiving and incredibly difficult. Each screen will feature a number of complicated jumps, which usually require you to pass between sharp spikes along a very specific jump trajectory. A player will have to leap at precise points, or they’ll meet an immediate end on the level hazards. If that’s not tricky enough, a single enemy hit will also kill the protagonist. Although you’ll restart at the screen you died at, with initially only three lives there’s little margin for error. Thankfully there’s a slightly more forgiving easy mode that gives Sydney a hat from the outset. With this on he can withstand an additional hit before dying. The game also includes passwords which allow you to continue at the start of a level should you run out of lives. 

The formula does change slightly from the fourth stage onwards. From here each level ends with a vertical climb up a chamber that’s slowly filling with lava. To successfully Ascend, Sydney must leap between platforms and ropes while fending off flying foes with well timed boomerang throws. On paper this may sound exciting, in practice it’s frustrating. You’ll need to know the correct route from the outset as often a vine can lead to a dead end. There’s also very questionable collision detection during this stage and frequently Sydney will pass through ropes rather than grabbing them. 

There are three bosses in the game, living in the fourth, eighth and twelfth levels. They’re not that challenging and almost identical to each other. However the final one is only accessible if you play on “extra mode”. This adds two additional stages bringing the total up to twelve. Given that the eleventh stage is shaped like a K and the final one resembles an S it’s obvious that these are the promised Kickstarter Stretch Goal additions.  

Visually ‘Sydney Hunter’ is underwhelming. The main character sprite is attractive but seems to have been influenced by characters seen in the Japanese version of ‘Pang’. There are only a few frames of animation for anything on screen and everything feels a bit static. Of course caves should be dark, but this doesn’t excuse an almost complete lack of background layers. The caverns of ‘Super Mario World’ and ‘Pitfall’ show that 16bit caves can be visually exciting. Parallax scrolling could have given a sense of depth but instead Console Vision has decided that, for the most part, black with occasional blue lines is all that’s required. It’s a half-hearted approach that may be acceptable in a flash game, but in a £50 game you’d be forgiven for expecting more. The music however is much better, thanks to the wonderful work done by Ben Allen. This talented composer has created dozens of memorable tracks that skillfully create a sense of tension, while paying tribute to Mayan culture. It’s obvious why a CD was included with many games to appease frustrated Kickstarter backers - it’s by far the high point of the game and would fit neatly in many legacy SNES games. 

“I'm really happy with the game as it’s turned out” notes Lester. “If our goal was to make a tonne of money on this game honestly we would have released this for the switch and for modern consoles. But for us we really appreciate the retro games and we want to breathe new life into those classic consoles. so that’s why we're making games for the super Nintendo, NES, Genesis and so forth; because we want people to have the experience of playing a brand new game on those classic consoles”

The problem is you have to ask how good an experience you get for the price you pay? There’s no escaping the fact that Collecting Super Nintendo games is an expensive hobby. Desirable Games typically sell for at least their original £50 RRP, which is how much you must today pay for a brand new copy of ‘Sydney Hunter’. In practice this means you must weigh up the merits of this game against buying a second hand copy of an existing SNES game. While it’s certainly impressive that a small team created this, I don’t quite understand why it took three years to make. A similar sized team made ‘Mega Man 7’ in three months and its obvious which is the better game. ‘Sydney Hunter’ is buggy and during the majority of screen transitions there is a glitchy flash. While it’s not game breaking, it is annoying and hardly presents a polished final product. In various videos Lester acknowledges theses short comings and states that the team simply weren’t able to fix the bugs using the development tools available. This wouldn’t have been an acceptable excuse for the big publishers or developers of yesteryear and it creates a dilemma for modern customers: 

For £50, do you buy a new modern but inferior game or an old but better one? 

With its elaborate packaging and physical cart ‘Sydney Hunter’ clearly is a game designed to sit alongside your exciting SNES collection, but it simply isn’t as good as the majority of games available twenty years ago. Those who baked the original Kickstarter campaign weren’t always impressed with what they received after the three year wait. “I feel really bad for the 171 people who paid $100 to $150 for an unpolished game that even after so long feels like a very rushed out product” says one backer. “This game is very glitchy and buggy, the way the screens have to constantly load is quite poor and the gameplay is a janky very underwhelming shallow playing experience for a 2018 SNES”. “Why is this game littered with bugs? It’s more frustrating than enjoyable” wrote another backer. 

‘Sydney Hunter’ is perhaps a game for SNES collectors rather than players. It’s great that people are still making content for the system and were this game able to match the quality of ‘Shovel Knight’ or ‘Retro City Rampage’ you’d be well advised to spend the money on it. But realistically ‘Sydney Hunter’ is at best a mediocre game. 

Judged on its own merits it’s an interesting curio; a talking point in a collection. In some respects it’s a shame the content of the box doesn’t match the quality of the impressive packaging. However, as a SNES game, there’s so many Better physical cartridges that are more worthy of your time and money. 

Where did I get this game from?

My brother is clearly well informed when it comes to Home brew Retro game, as he knew about this game even though I was oblivious. He is also clearly a patient man, as he backed the original Kickstarter campaign hoping to give the game to me as a birthday present the following year. Thankfully after a 3 year wait he did finally gift wrap ‘Sydney Hunter’ and I really do appreciate it.  

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