Hyper Zone on the Super Famicom. An Ode to Mode 7.
By Danny Major aka @GuyFawkesRetro
Describing an underrated game in it’s essence to somebody who may have not played the game in question, or has just simply never heard of it is a godsend in the retro gaming world. Retro gamers strive to play the games that they never had as kid, a teen or even an adult. It’s all about finding new taboo’s in this market, games that you’ve never played, or recently been interested in trying. The godsend being, if you know what game you want to describe, tell and educate other gamers about, if you get it right, they will be also able to enjoy ( or not enjoy ) A game that time had forgotten. In this case, the game is Hyper Zone, for the Super Famicom.
Now, you may be wondering why this article is not talking about the western release. Well, the fact being, it’s not as good. The western version is also different (Hal America toned it down), for unknown reasons, Hal Laboratory Inc completely revised levels 1 & 3 for the Japanese release, with good results too. The gameplay is slightly faster, obviously up to 17 to 20% faster than the Pal release, and smoother than the North American release. Research undertook comparing the three different releases made clear sense, that in this industry, things are done for a reason and that reason is simply unattainable on the internet, due to many different ‘reasons’ and ‘opinions’ that are drafted by different people. Enemy AI & ‘positioning’ seem to be different between the east & west releases too. Is this because our Japanese cousins are more advanced gamers? Or simply because Hal Lab just felt like it. Who knows? Also research indicated that the game was a pure rip off and a direct ‘visually’ taken copy of an old Amiga game, Eliminator. That’s rubbish, as history shows, the market was packed with so called 16bit & 8bit ‘ Rail-Shooter’s’ in the late 80’s, early 90’s.
One thing is for sure, you have never seen Mode 7 work like this before and you will never find a game pushed to its Mode 7 limits as much as this one. This game, depending how you view it, and excluding Square Soft’s ‘Official Demo’, Hyper Zone was a pure Mode 7 Demo.
Released in 1991, a year after F-Zero in Japan, Hyper Zone was over shadowed by the Mode 7 greatness of F-Zero. However, since F-Zero was released in other territories in 91-92, the market had already decided that F-Zero was the one to wait for, simply because Nintendo was hyping it up ‘beyond belief’. After all, who better to make a Mode 7 game than Nintendo? Surely they knew its potential capabilities? Nintendo knew that the digital ‘buffer’ between good gameplay interlaced with great graphics would only work while Mode 7 was running at half its potential. As we all know, there is no point releasing a graphically advanced game that’s unplayable (Rise of the Robots for example), because the gaming world will not stand for that. Mode 7 and its ‘Radix Point’ (Yeah, that that stuff!) limitations only dictate that backgrounds, not sprites, can be powered by mode 7 (Mode 7 ‘effects’ would travel or rotate around a centre focal point, the sprite)
So, Nintendo didn’t want to make a game entirely form Mode 7, which would have been just ‘ugly’. The sky drops / Backgrounds in F-Zero are standard, only the bottom half of the game, excluding the sprites that are being circled by the Mode 7 graphics. Like Super Mario Kart, Mode 7 is only ‘half’ being used by Nintendo.
Now, enter Hal Inc, or Halken as we know it now, are well known for the birth of Kirby. But the first real test they faced with Nintendo was producing a game that only Nintendo should have attempted. A full on, top to bottom, visually spectacular Mode 7 game.
The first thing you are going to notice, are the colours. A full 256 palette. It’s so bright, so enticing that it sets you up to believe that you are in for a treat. The music, from start to finish is not the greatest Super Famicom outing, but it’s not bad either. With cool music, bright colours and the Mode 7 chip at full capacity, nothing can go wrong, right? Well, actually, it can. The Nintendo ‘buffer’ that is the fine line between graphical greatness and superb gameplay, that’s out the window. With so much going on in whatever FPS this game seems to be running at, the speed of the game is simply ‘dull’. Yes, it’s slightly faster in 60 Hz on the SFC, but still, it’s not great. Not like F-Zero. The game also had the unique feature of being able to produce Stereoscopic 3D visuals, but without the correct glasses and the codes to enable this, it was a redundant feature (thank god, as it would have damaged your eyes long term).
The aim of the game is to control your craft through a high-tech world with high speed racing tracks. While along the way, trying to shoot basic AI enemy craft with your cannon. At the end of each level, you will come across a ‘boss’ of sorts. Your ship won’t be able slow to a halt, in fact you can slow down, but this will kill you for some reason. The design of the craft you control is not the best looking delight you will find in this type of game. Craft vary, slight shape differences and colours add to the overall experience, but they could have been better. The Enemy isn’t actually anything to worry about, but the random firing of enemy laser balls are. The game becomes increasingly difficult, if not annoying, while trying to dodge these. The fact is, you have to keep to a single and sometimes split track, if you go over the designated track, you will loose power and speed. This can be annoying, especially since you need to avoid enemy fire as well as not going off the track. That may be the challenge here, but sometime’s a little fun is needed in games. That’s what is missing here, it looks great, almost spectacular considering its age but that does not count for much with near almost impossible gameplay is thrown in.
Obviously aiming to hit the enemy while travelling at reasonably fast speeds is hard, but the only aiming mechanism in the game is to shoot in the direction your facing, basically unblock the pathway and earn a high score. End of level clearances are not easy either. Bosses can be tedious, but as they are well designed and colourful, it makes the player increasingly determined to ride it out and overcome them. What about the ending? No fear in this department, because once you do finish the game, it continues. It becomes harder and more furious, on an 16bit infinite loop like SEGA’s 8bit underrated Transbot, you simply carry on until you die trying to reach a high score.
The sound effects are not superb either, but thankfully the music is actually quite funky. Composed by Jun Ishikawa, who worked on a few tiles such as Ghostbusters 2 for the NES, Arcana on the SFC, Alcahest on the SFC and pretty much every Kirby game released, the music has a good feel and measurement of the game.
Hyper Zone is a great game, but not because of its gameplay. The game has to be truly measured on its impact from the graphical side of things. Mode 7 was few and far between making graphically advanced games. Only Nintendo knew how to harness its true potential and get those fine balances between ‘looks’ & ‘gameplay’. Mario Kart is a prime example of a Mode 7 game in its true ‘balance’.
Unfortunately Hal Lab / Halken only succeeded in showing the world how powerful Mode 7 could be with a colourful ‘Demo’ game. But, they had the pleasure and added bonus of a middle finger gesture through the window of Nintendo’s Kyoto office with a big speech bubble appearing from far away and at a safe distance, showing the words ‘ Look what we did, we over clocked your stupid chip’