Stay on target
It was probably inevitable that “retro” would become a subgenre unto itself in the indie gaming scene: Development costs are expensive, independently-developed games tend to have more in common with their arcade and console ancestors than their megabudget 21st Century AAA contemporaries, plenty of indie devs came up during the 8 and 16-bit “Golden Age” of gaming – it only makes sense that drafting new games as though they’d been released for the Nintendo Entertainment System or Sega Genesis 20 years ago would become a “thing.”
Likewise, it’s also not a surprise that this trend would wind up running parallel with the broader pop-cultural “rediscovery” of the 80s (and early-90s) “exploitation” aesthetic. It’s got an ultraviolent direct-to-video action movies, moody synth-scores, and underground neon/grime design aesthetic – the darker side of an era previously celebrated for its plasticine candy-colored optimism (think The Wedding Singer). Video games themselves, after all, are inextricably linked to much of that sensibility – the underground art/music/club scene’s shift from a the glitter-and-haze Disco-era aesthetic to the stark neon-on-black futurism (aka “strip club lighting,” for you Millennials) always felt directly inspired by early arcade graphics.
In any case, Easy Trigger Games’ Huntdown is the latest indie title to take aim at merging both concepts, applying the neon-synth schlock aesthetic successfully adopted by the likes of Far Cry: Blood Dragon and Double Dragon Neon into a pixel-art arcade shooter that feels structurally right at home in that same mid-80s nostalgic ephemera. The resulting creation – boiling down to, essentially, Contra in the universe of Final Fight – certainly looks like “home” to anyone who longs for the pool-hall quarter-munchers of yesteryear (or younger fans who never got the chance to appreciate the same firsthand). But how does it play?
Within expectations: Not bad at all. More so than most other entries in the neo-retro stable, your enjoyment of Huntdown is likely to correlate directly to how fond you are of the era in gaming that inspired it – not just regarding visuals and sound. The level layout is intuitive and self-explanatory, enemies and obstacles are dispensed at a rate that feels both fair and adherent to the ways of an era where such things weren’t effectively limitless. This is where too many such games fall apart – forgetting that the “Golden Age” classics that endure generally do so because they were meticulously built “around” their limitations – not in spite of them.
Right from the outset, it’s clear that Huntdown isn’t looking to “fix” the 80s arcade run-and-gun genre so much as inhabit it, and apart from the employment of the der-riguer “screen shake” effect for explosions and heavy hits, there’s little on hand that doesn’t stand out as authentically old-school. It’s no small feat, especially when set up for show at a convention space whose entire overriding visual/aural sensibility is grounded largely in gamer-nostalgia.
If you’ve played a round of Contra (or Metal Slug, or any of the thousands or so side-scrolling shooters that have come since), you know the score. Run and jump through sidescrolling levels, collecting items for points and differently-armed guns for power-ups, blasting away at enemies in either single or two-player co-op. Ostensibly, the premise is that you’re bounty hunters infiltrating a lawless near-future city (think Escape From New York) to obliterate the membership of colorfully themed/nicknamed street gangs (a la The Warriors) for profit, but that effectively boils down to kills = points – again, fairly self-explanatory.
Whether or not this translates to long-term replayability remains to be seen – the games Huntdown so enthusiastically recreates were largely designed to “work” for a few minutes of play in an arcade or a few hours on a console, with both timeframes extended by difficulty rather than by content. But as a ready-made distraction (the game is currently slated for Steam, PS4, XBox One and Nintendo Switch) Huntdown seems to do its job admirably.