Summary Judgement: Forget about being just an “indie” darling, this is a fantastic game, period.

Game by: Locomalito

Soundtrack by: Gryzor87

PC Exclusive

I don’t want to over play my hand, but it’s hard to look at Hydorah and see anything other than a near flawless title. On the surface it looks like a standard side scrolling shooter. Peel back the layers a little and the game presents itself as a homage piece, nay, a renaissance piece dedicated to a long since passed era where game designers had the nerve to challenge their audience. You see, I’m of a mindset that games have trophies and achievements because they are too easy. Nobody had to give me +10 gamer score for beating the level 5 boss of Legend of Zelda. I got a piece of the triforce and went on with my day feeling a little more chuffed up. Now, a culture of blasé level design has yielded a crop of games where beating the single player campaign is no big deal. Case in point, nobody is going to earn any gamer cred for beating Halo 3, even on legendary. However, beating Contra is something worth talking about. Hydorah takes its cues from the latter, though perhaps a little more forgiving in its execution, as it offers a gaming experience that puts a premium on achieving something that is brag worthy.

Before the game even begins, Hydorah proclaims itself a throw back to 80s arcade shooters. Much like Sergeant Hartman, it’s tough but fair. Putting that into context, if, on a scale of one to ten, Space Invaders is a 1 and UN Squadron is a 10, Hydorah is probably a 7 or an 8. So there’s no doubt that the game is challenging. Yet there’s also an expectation of perfection within each level. Finishing a stage without getting blown up yields a promotion and a significant score bonus.

 

 

 

 

Even in 16-bit format, Hydorah looks and sounds amazing. The soundtrack, composed by Gryzor87, perfectly captures the retro spirit that permeates this game.  Battling from planet to planet requires navigating through sandstorms, asteroids, creeping vines, exploding plants, and no shortage of actual enemies. To its credit, Hydorah avoids one of the dubious hallmarks of the side-scrolling genre: frame rate drops due to too much stuff on screen. Every level is nice and consistent from start to finish.

Progressing through Hydorah’s sixteen levels is a somewhat linear affair. A Starfox-light level selection offers players a bit of freedom to chart their own course. Some paths through the game are easier than others, but increased challenge offers greater rewards in the form of different primary and secondary weapon unlocks. As well, there’s a “secret item” system within the game. I’d like to say that I know what happens when you find one of these items. Sadly, I’ve yet to snag one.

Remember how I said that Hydorah is a game that encourages perfection? Well, the game also punishes failure. Each death causes weapons and engine upgrades to decay. Despite the relative ease with which extra lives are earned, rapid successive deaths will make completing a level infinitely more challenging. To give would-be saviours a fighting chance at finishing the game, Hydorah includes a save game function. Be forewarned, the game limits players to three saves over a campaign that, depending on your route, is at least 10 missions long.  Of course, if you want a real challenge you can ignore the saves and treat Hydorah like a proper arcade game.

What makes this title all the more interesting is the fact that the designer is giving it away for free.  It’s a fully realized game that costs nothing. No catches, no “free to play” bullshit, it is as free as the air. Make no mistake though, were it to appear on Steam, I would buy it without any reservations.

There’s no doubting that Hydorah can be frustrating at times. The joy of this game, however, is in the deep satisfaction that comes with overcoming level design that seeks to capitalize on a player’s mistakes. When I make my basement arcade, and trust me that day is coming, I will beg, borrow or steal the fabrication skills necessary to build a stand up case around Hydorah. It’s smart, fun, challenging, simple, and elegant.

Want to play? Head over to Locomalito’s website and download yourself a free and legitimate copy.

Hits:

+1.5 for downright brilliant level design and a smooth as silk game engine.

+1.5 for a tough but difficulty level.

+1.0 for an amazing soundtrack.

+1.0 for being free when any honest gamer would be happy to pay for it.

Misses:

-0.5 for being a little too linear.

Overall Score: +4.5

Hydorah trailer from Locomalito on Vimeo.