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Neo-Retro: A design philosophy for Hyper Sentinel

If retro gaming is collecting and enjoying classic games, the equivalent to owning and watching old movies, then Neo-Retro is the equivalent of Stranger Things – a modern entertainment product which weaves nostalgia throughout the experience.

Nostalgia has had an interesting history. The term was originally coined in the 17th-century by a Swiss physician to describe the anxieties of soldiers stationed far from home and was considered a disorder up until the late 1990s. Today, thanks in no small part to research carried out at the University of Southampton, the emotional significance of nostalgia is better understood.

“Nostalgia, once evoked, re-establishes psychological equanimity. It elevates mood, self-esteem, and a sense of social connectedness; it fosters perceptions of continuity between past and present; it increases meaning in life; and it ‘fights off’ death cognitions. Finally, nostalgia has motivational consequences, as it facilitates approach-oriented (e.g., prosocial) behaviour.”

For the entertainment industry, this will come as no surprise. From Stranger Things to Ready Player One, the indulgence of nostalgia has proved to be a winning strategy in TV and film, and with the best part of four decades of video gaming behind us, nostalgia is ripe for game developers to exploit too.

Nostalgia is powerful in the entertainment industry

Enter Neo-Retro game design. If retro gaming is collecting and enjoying classic games, the equivalent to owning and watching old movies, then Neo-Retro is the equivalent of Stranger Things – a modern entertainment product which weaves nostalgia throughout the experience.

Neo-Retro games like Resogun, Lumo, Broforce and Hyper Light Drifter, to name just a few, successfully inject a blast of nostalgia into a contemporary gameplay experience. The extent to which each game embraces its retro influence varies – pixel art graphics and a chiptune style soundtrack are not necessarily a requirement – but all of these games are unmistakably newexperiences which embrace nostalgia knowingly.

When Jonathan Port conceived of our recently released game Hyper Sentinel, he told we at Huey Games that he wanted to create a game which felt like 8-bit games did in his imagination when he saw screen shots in CRASH magazine or ZZAP!64 back in the 80s, rather than the often-disappointing reality of replaying those games today. Distilling this philosophy and identifying it as Neo-Retro, which we think of a distinct genre which is yet to be widely acknowledged, provided us with important focus for the project.

Mark Brown’s principles for nailing nostalgia

As with any design philosophy, the successful production of a Neo-Retro game is about method and execution. As Mark Brown so eloquently explains in his excellent YouTube analysis “Shovel Knight and Nailing Nostalgia”, there are principles and best practices which set successful Neo-Retro games apart.

He identifies four below, which served as a starting point for Hyper Sentinel:

  1. Take from multiple sources

Rather than emulating one classic game, borrow from multiple sources, creating a rich tapestry of nostalgic references to enrich the experience and capture the feel of a whole era rather than a single game.

When people see Hyper Sentinel for the first time, they immediately notice the stylistic influence of Uridium, the iconic Commodore 64 shooter created by retro gaming legend Andrew Braybrook. Uridium was published by Hewson Consultants (a company founded by our own Chairman Andrew Hewson), in 1986, and when Jonathan Port first showed us an early build of Hyper Sentinel, it was this influence which caught our attention.

However, when you dive in and play Hyper Sentinel, you will find that the speed and feel of the gameplay is more reminiscent of Defender, and that the power-ups and boss battles evoke memories of Armalyte and R-Type. Some of the Alienoid enemies reference Space Invaders and there’s a touch of Cybernoid to the explosive pixel effects. Meanwhile the boost ability was inspired by TLL (Tornado Low Level) and the boss music was influenced by the Doctor Robotnic theme in Sonic The Hedgehog.

  1. Emulate What Works:

Capture the best bits from classic games, such as the instant plug-and-play nature of the experience, the simple control systems or particularly cool mechanics.

Hyper Sentinel emulates the immediacy of classic arcade shooters, providing an experience which is easy to play but difficult to master, and the elegant simplicity of their controls. There is also a purity about the game which keeps players engaged from one level to the next without an overly intrusive storyline getting in the way. The game is unapologetically an arcade experience.

  1. Modernise What Doesn’t

In our rose-tinted memories, we exaggerate the best elements of classic games and forget the worst. Things like the punishing death systems, lack of checkpoints or thin, limited game modes. This is where modern designers can get creative and weave in contemporary game design principles.

In Hyper Sentinel, the “3-lives + continues” legacy of the arcades is replaced by a contemporary regenerating health and checkpoint system. We have found that even the most dedicated retro fanatics, who appreciate the arcade influences of Hyper Sentinel the most, did not notice or care that this is fundamentally different from the arcade classics of yesteryear. Checkpoints are now an expectation.

Following the success of our Kickstarter campaign, we’ve also been able to add Survival and Boss Run modes, in addition to the core Arcade more, and have included 60 medals for players to complete in modern, meta-game style. These allow the player to choose different goals while adding replay appeal to the experience, again a modern expectation amongst all generations of gamer.

Finally, just because you’ve been inspired by the past, that doesn’t mean you can’t look to the future. For Hyper Sentinel, we teamed up with the Mixer team at Microsoft to implement a cutting edge MixPlay mode – the worlds first interactive livestream arcade game.

  1. Give it a Rose-Tinted Look

If you are considering a retro aesthetic for the graphics, make sure you are doing so for the right reason. In Hyper Sentinel, the 8-bit visual influence is not just a stylistic choice – the high contrast, crisp pixel art style has been specifically tailored to aid readability when enemies are flying at you thick and fast.

And if you do decide to give your Neo-Retro game a classic look, that doesn’t mean you should stick religiously to the technical constraints of a bygone era. Keep the style, but ditch the limitations.

Hyper Sentinel is like 8-bit on steroids. As you might expect, it runs at as blistering 60fps in 4K resolution, but we are also filling the screen with enemies, spectacular bosses, and explosive lighting effects which would not be even remotely possible on actual 8-bit hardware.

And while the soundtrack is very much chiptune in style, the SID chip, mighty as it was, could never dream of producing the richness on offer here.

Some Neo-Retro rules of our own

The general principles in Mark Brown’s Shovel Knight video provided an excellent starting point, and if you are developing a Neo-Retro game, I’d strongly recommend watching it.

However, Shovel Knight is a platformer, not a shoot ‘em up, so for Hyper Sentinel, the next step was to drill down into these principles to determine a checklist of crucial criteria specifically for Neo-Retro shooters. We divided this checklist into two categories; Neo, where we were considering the contemporary angle and Retro, were we were considering nostalgia; the yin and yang of our Neo-Retro philosophy. It included the following:

  • Contemporary Challenge (Neo): Classic shoot ‘em up games were challenging in the extreme because they were emulating arcade games and because they needed to get maximum play time from the minimal content developers could cram into a few kilobytes of memory. Today they feel overly punishing, but when players experience a Neo-Retro game they are not making a direct comparison. Hyper Sentinel needed to feel challenging in a modern context, so players are kept on the edge of their seat. We wanted people to have the perception that Hyper Sentinel is a hard-as-nails shooter, just like classic arcade games, without being as unforgiving in reality.
  • Difficulty Options (Retro): Having said that, while players should not be required to experience the brutality of a classic shooter, why not give them the option to do so? This led to the inclusion of the ferocious Retro difficulty mode.
  • High Score Heaven (Retro): Classic arcade shoot ‘em ups were all about chasing high scores, and we wanted this to be at the core of the Hyper Sentinel experience.
  • Medals (Neo): High score chasing alone would make Hyper Sentinel feel a bit one-dimensional. Including a medal system, Survival Mode and Boss Mode would provide players with the freedom to pursue other goals while adding replay appeal.
  • Juicy Feedback (Neo): The best modern games include multiple layers of feedback for every event in the game, creating a sense of dynamism, sometimes referred to as “game feel”, which classic games lacked. We wanted Hyper Sentinel to feel ultra-fast, just as classic shooters like Defender did, but with so much more happening on screen a rich set of intuitive cues for the player was essential to keep them in the zone.
  • 4K, 60FPS (Neo): Classic shooters dazzled us with graphical showmanship, fighting to provide a feast for our eyes across a crowded and noisy arcade. It goes without saying that Hyper Sentinel needed to run at 60fps, in 4K resolution.
  • CRT Filter (Retro): On the other hand, if you want to bathe in the nostalgic glow of a curved, CRT-style display, you should also have that option.
  • Spectrum & C64 Filters (Retro): Why stop at CRT? Thanks to successful stretch goals on our Kickstarter campaign, players can also play in the graphical style of their favourite 8-bit system.

Neo-Retro marketing

Having embraced the Neo-Retro philosophy in development, we began to explore how it could also influence our marketing and PR.

The USB Cassette pre-order edition of Hyper Sentinel, conceived as a reward for our successful Kickstarter campaign, is itself the epitome of Neo-Retro. An authentic cassette jewel case houses an authentic cassette inlay and an authentic cassette shell, but the magnetic tape inside has been replaced with an eight-gigabyte USB drive packed with special features and bonus extras, including several Neo-Retro game demos from other Indie developers. It was a huge success on Kickstarter, and never fails to delight the punters when we show it off at expos.

Even the Kickstarter stretch goals were conceived from a Neo-Retro point of view. Although we knew the CRT, C64 and Spectrum graphics modes would capture the nostalgic hearts of our backers, Survival Mode and Boss Run Mode, two contemporary gameplay options, had to come first, because they were a crucial for delivering the depth and variety which modern players expect.

Reaching the Neo generation

Identifying Neo-Retro as a distinct genre and applying its principles to Hyper Sentinel has provided the framework for our entire production process. The payoff has been most apparent when exhibiting at expos, where we have found a diverse audience engaging with the game enthusiastically.

One gentleman, passing our stand with his young son, was drawn to Hyper Sentinel because it reminded him of the classics he played in his youth. He drooled over the USB Cassette and beamed when we showed him our collection of original Hewson games and signed copies of Sinclair User. His son, on the other hand, wasn’t particularly interested in any of that. He simply sat down to play Hyper Sentinel and set about beating the day’s top score.

When the pair returned for a second time later that afternoon, the father gestured to his son, who had jumped back into Hyper Sentinel enthusiastically, and said to me “he actually came here today to play Minecraft, but Hyper Sentinel is his favourite game of the show”.

Hyper Sentinel was brought to life by the passion of the retro gaming community, but if by embracing a Neo-Retro philosophy we can also engage a new generation of players, we will be satisfied indeed.

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