Friday, 8 July 2011

Hyper Viper (C64)

Not to be confused with the recent BBC Micro game (which confusingly has the same name), Hyper Viper is in fact a new C64 title from Exeter-based programmer Jamie Howard, and the latest release from the hyper-prolific 8-Bit publisher Pystronik Software.

Based on an obscure MSX game that Jamie used to play as a kid, Hyper Viper may look like a pacman-clone or snake/nibbler derivative, but the game concept is actually quite different from these oft-aped retro-gaming staples. In Hyper Viper the player's goal is to chase the snakes around a maze, gobbling them up from behind whilst avoiding being eaten themselves. Accidently bite into the middle of a snake and it will split into two, and although you can grind the 8-way scrolling levels for points and extra lives by eating the fruit bonuses, the little critters that drop them also occasionally lay eggs that hatch into 'blue meanies'; very fast and invulnerable variations of your character who will eventually hunt you down if you take too long to clear a maze.

Neatly wrapped up with an 1980's coin-op style title screen and attract sequence featuring an officially licensed SID rendition of Grandaddy's 'A.M. 180' (better known as the song from the shopping sequence in 28 Days Later), Hyper Viper is a superb debut that is well worth the budget price tag (£1.99 for the download).

Being a somewhat uncommon hobby, it's very rare that I meet up with retro programmers outside of expo's or demo parties, so when I found out that Jamie lived within 15 minutes walk from my house I dropped him a line to ask him out for a beer. Or several, as it turned out to be.

Stumbling back home in the early hours of the morning (much to the wife's displeasure) after far too many alcoholic beverages, my memories of the evening are a little hazy. However, I'll do my best to (mis)quote Jamie as I relate the details of the game and his other projects in the rest of this review.

A web-engineer and programmer by trade, Jamie was attracted to the 8-Bit coding scene for both nostalgic and practical reasons. After recently rediscovering the original MSX version of Hyper Viper, he thought it would make a good introductory project to help him learn C64 assembly. He explained that "unlike modern platforms which generally require a team, on 8-Bit machines it is possible for one person to develop all aspects of a game on their own relatively quickly and still end up with a decent result. That, and the opportunity to learn ASM, was the main appeal."

Ever the professional, Jamie went on to discuss how he had contacted the programmer of the original to formalise the legality of his remake, and the process behind licensing the soundtrack from Blue Mountain Music, the company holding Grandaddy's publishing rights. "I initially thought that they'd refuse my request outright, but after negotiating and explaining what I wanted to do they were very reasonable. Hyper Viper is probably one of very few 8-Bit games to feature a properly licensed soundtrack from an indie label, and most likely the only game in the world to use a Grandaddy song!"

Jamie was keen to hear what I thought of the game, and especially if there was anything I didn't like. When I mentioned that the joystick controls felt a little unresponsive (particularly in fast mode), he explained that this was something he had tried to address, but after many attempts he still couldn't get the control to be as tight as when played via keyboard, and stated that really that was the best way to play the game. Other than that, he modestly accepted my praise, and expressed that he was keen to show me a version of the game that he was developing for the iPhone.

Viewed from a fresh and unique perspective, the iPhone version of Hyper Viper is played from within the centre of a rotating cube (I really wish I had taken a photo, it’s hard to explain). The game still takes place on a 2D plane, but uses all six faces of the cube. "I thought that this cube idea would be an interesting way of getting around the small screen size on the iPhone whilst maintaining the original low resolution pixel graphics. As you approach each side of the cube, it rotates so you can see what's ahead". It's a really cool effect, and although the game is currently little more than a tech demo, already the concept looks quite promising and original.

On the C64 side, Jamie also showed off another MSX port that he and STE'86 are currently working on. "Polar Star is a really cool shoot 'em up, and I've not seen anything like it on any other 8-Bit. I've tried to contact the Japanese developers, but the language barrier is proving to be problematic, so we've decided to redo all the graphics, change the design a little and call the game something like Arctic Star instead. Of course, we'll still credit the original game as the inspiration."

Again, at the moment Arctic Star is no more than a proof of concept, a demo with a little player ship flying over a scrolling, first person perspective landscape (the three dimensional illusion is quite convincing). The game will play as an arcade shooter, with a boss ship slowly emerging over the horizon and each level climaxing in a frantic battle during which you have to charge your weapon and hit moving weak spots whilst avoiding enemy fighters. To be frank, it looks fucking awesome, and I'll be sure to keep this blog updated with news as the game is developed further over the coming months.

In conclusion, not only is Hyper Viper a great little budget release, but as a newcomer to the C64 scene Jamie is definitely a developer to keep an eye on. Check out the gameplay video below, and if you like the look of it drop by the Psytronik site and grab a copy from their shop.
4 out of 5

Buy it from Psytronik Software here.
Run it using VICE (free software).