Retro Game Review: “Cyborg Hunter” (SEGA Master System, 80s August Special)
Welcome back to 80s August, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of the greatest decade since the invention of the hurdy-gurdy.
Today we’re going to take a look at Cyborg Hunter, one of the very few third party (sort of) games released for the SEGA Master System.
Developed by SEGA and published in the United States by Activision in 1988, Cyborg Hunter is a nonlinear action adventure game that some might call “Metroidvania”-esque today. Players take control of a cyborg bounty hunter named Paladin, who has infiltrated the base of the villainous Vipron and his cohorts. So no, you’re not actually hunting cyborgs, you’re a cyborg that is hunting other things. Adjective confusion? In translating Japanese games during the 1980s? Bah!
The base itself is separated into seven areas – A through G – each with five floors and their own unique map. Once you begin, you will immediately notice that Cyborg Hunter’s screen layout is unique. While the bottom half of the screen is where the main action takes place, the top of the screen has both a map of the area and a sensor that detects oncoming enemies (sort of like the motion trackers in Aliens). This may look like a waste of space at first glance, but having the map onscreen (including elevator locations) is really helpful, and the sensor helps to alleviate the typical 8-bit problem of enemies popping out of nowhere.
At the beginning of the game, Paladin has only the abilities to run, duck, punch, drop bombs, and use a special limited power: the “psycho punch,” a more powerful attack that drains your psycho power meter as you use it. That may seem like a decent set of attacks to start off with, but what kind of secret organization sends its operatives off – bounty hunter or otherwise – without some kind of a gun?
Paladin is assisted remotely by a hot blonde colleague named Adina, who will break the action from time to time by filling you in on how to progress, or what upgrades can be found nearby. These upgrades include shields, a jetpack, a ray gun, light gun, psycho gun (the last of which also drains you psycho power). Each tool often brings the ability to reach new areas, some of which are closed off until you collect the correct key cards from defeating bosses. Along with a central hub hallway with doors to each area, this technically makes Cyborg Hunter a “nonlinear” game, but you still mostly progress from stage to stage without much issue, unless you didn’t find the item that you wanted or you want to return for a psycho meter or health recharge. It would be nice if enemies dropped power-ups from time to time rather than having them only at set locations.
As you explore each floor, you will often be confronted with a number of enemies that vary in design. Some look robotic, others look like monsters, and some look like they are reject concepts from Alien Syndrome. Most of the more common enemies aren’t much trouble once you obtain a guns, but the fast, flying drones can be a pain. In addition, each area has several enemy “chiefs” which must be defeated before you are allowed to return to the hub world. These chiefs can be a bit tougher, even with a ranged weapon, and you will probably take some hits when you first encounter them. There are a few environmental hazards, too, which include flashing floors and laser-blade block things. Like many other obstacles in Cyborg Hunter, the jetpack handles them all with relative ease. You will also occasionally find a section or two with no enemies, no hazards, and no power-ups. Why do these areas exist? It’s anyone’s guess.
Despite having seven areas, there are only four bosses including the final boss – Vipron. Both the third boss and Vipron are pretty darn tough – that is – they are tough until you realize that you can exploit your jetpack to keep your hide out of harms way and lure them into a pattern where you can slowly whittle their life away. For Vipron, stay floating in the top center as he dashes across the screen below you, then descend to get one hit in, then fly straight up over his dash attack again.
The basic action controls – running, jumping, ducking, punching, etc., all react smoothly enough and Paladin has enough reach with his fist to be a potent fighter even before you find a gun. However, there are two extremely strange control decisions in Cyborg Hunter that baffle me. The first is the elevator controls. Someone at Activision had to realize that it was overcomplicated, because it received its own section in the manual; and you will need it. You can only control the elevator from the right side of the screen, and you can’t leave (even to return to your own floor) until you’ve managed to travel and open the door. Then, walking to the right where the door is won’t allow you to exit, either. You have to walk all the way to the right edge, and then tap right again. It’s really weird.
That elevator thing may sound confusing, but it gets much worse. To change your weapons and equipment, you can’t hit a button on the controller (Master System controllers only had two buttons), and pressing pause only pauses the game. To see your equipment screen, you have to plug in a second controller to the other controller port and press a button on it. Equipping the right gear is essential to progressing through the game, so you will have to own and use two functional controllers to successfully play a one-player game. I can see why hitting pause can be a problem on the Master System as it is on the console itself, but requiring players to use a second controller as the solution is really bizarre.
Formatted to Fit Your Television Screen
The layout of the main screen obviously gives Cyborg Hunter its own unique visual flare, but it also squishes the action to a wider, more “cinematic” field of play. This helps mask the fact that the environments aren’t remarkably detailed. They repeat at times with a few palette swaps, but the colors generally pop and they look okay.
Paladin himself looks cool, almost a cross between Boba Fett and RoboCop in my mind. I would say that he animates well, but once you equip the jetpack, Paladin just floats around in a frozen position without any effect or animation at all, and it honestly looks silly.
Fairly early in the game, you will need to find a way to light a dark room to progress safely. To do so, you’ll have to track down the “light gun” weapon, which flashes brightly enough to light the room temporarily. The effect is pretty neat for a Master System game, and the light gun doesn’t drain your psycho power, so you’re free to fire away and progress at whatever speed you prefer.
The music in Cyborg Hunter isn’t consistently great, but most of the tunes in the actual action stages are catchy enough. On the other hand, the track for the hub world irritated me pretty quickly.
It’s worth mentioning that the box art looks great for a Master System game, a console that was mocked for having laughably minimalist designs. Like many of the games of the 80s, it doesn’t really convey the likeness of the in-game characters, but it’s still a good illustration and the black background (similar to what Activision used for Bomber Raid) makes it stand out nicely on a collector’s shelf.
Lost in Translation
I wouldn’t say that Cyborg Hunter is easy, but it is a bit easier than most 8-bit games have a reputation for. You only get one life, but you can continue from the title screen when you die, and if you learn to play by keeping distance and properly exploit your jetpack (which really should have drained your psycho power), a veteran gamer should be able to make it to the end. It’s not terribly long for a nonlinear game, either.
Once you beat the game, you will get an ending that includes a simple, line art rendition of Paladin, Trevor and Catherine. “Who the &%$# are Trevor and Catherine?” was my first thought, and for a moment, I considered the possibility that I might have unlocked new characters, but after confirming how dumb a thought that was for a 1988 game with no save feature, I went to the internet for an answer. Apparently, Cyborg Hunter was released in Japan as a licensed game based on Chōon Senshi Borgman 超音戦士ボーグマン (aka Borgman/Sonic Soldier Borgman) a super sentai-esque animated tv show. I guess SEGA didn’t want to do the work of rebranding the game for a western audience, so Activision took on the task, and the ending still shows the anime characters as a leftover artifact. Neat.
Do I recommend Cyborg Hunter today? I found myself wanting to enjoy the game more than I actually enjoyed it. The basic nuts and bolts Cyborg Hunter are solid, but the wonky interface for swapping weapons and equipment is so irritating that playing becomes burdensome. It’s probably still worth a play through, and the great aesthetics of the unique box art design is probably enough to keep the game in my collection, but it’s a soft recommend at best, and even so, Cyborg Hunter is probably only worth playing through once.
Thanks for reading!
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