Remember how over used Mode 7 was at the beginning of the SNES life? Dear god most developers showed little restraint shoving it in their games! Did we really need the gratuitous map zoom in Actraiser? Personally I didn’t really care if Master Higgins was swallowed by a giant scaling whale but whatever. For every game that grossly misused it there were others like Pilotwings and F-Zero where it was integral to gameplay. Lost in the shuffle among those two classic was Hyper Zone, equal parts ambitious gameplay and tech demo.
There’s a very flimsy plot that provides a bit of context to the rest of the game. In the distant future the leaders of the world make a push to colonize the rest of the Solar System, including the regions beyond our borders. Aliens from beyond our galaxy decide they are comfortable with humans sticking to their little box and now it’s up to you to clear them out for the sake of humanity.
The best way to describe Hyper Zone is a three way cross between F-Zero, Space Harrier, and Star Fox. Like Space Harrier you control a character, in this case a ship, with full 8-way movement around the screen. The F-Zero DNA comes in the form of the overall presentation and the design of the “track”. But rather than a racing game this is a shooter like Star Fox minus the polygons. It’s an interesting mix of games that doesn’t quite gel as well as it should have but it remains an interesting technical show piece nonetheless.
The easiest summary of the game play is keep moving and don’t stop. And I mean that literally. Although Hyper Zone is a shooter it still has many elements conducive to racing games. The levels are on a set track which splits into multiple pathways at numerous points. Straying beyond the borders of the track will result in damage and a loss of speed, which you do not want. Dipping below 225 miles per hour will incur damage. There are familiar light strips on the ground which will restore life; another idea lifted from F-Zero.
Although there aren’t any power-ups in the game scoring high enough on each stage will reward you with a new ship and earn extra lives which are important. Each ship looks different but controls the same with the only difference in how your charge shot is affected. The charge time and the shape of the blast changes with each ship, making it easier to kill enemies in clusters for more points.
Surviving to the end of each level is the main objective, a task that proves much harder than the actual bosses that book end each one. Enemies never attack alone and swarm in groups from all sides. Sometimes they even come from behind, the tricky bastards. Dodging enemy fire becomes a lot trickier when the track is only a narrow path, forcing you to go off the rails a bit for the greater good. The stage hazards such as rising fire and dead end paths increase in frequency the deeper you get, which makes every level intense. The one major disappointment would be the bosses, who are lacking in interesting design and fight mechanics.
Ultimately though Hyper Zone is a shallow game. The lack of any weapons aside from the charge shot sucks, there’s no other way to put it. The new ships could have been a lot more exciting, such as granting extra defense or more speed. Although you have the freedom to move about the screen freely this mobility is restricted by the track design. You’ll spend long segments moving along a straight narrow path.
And the game is unfair. Because of the viewpoint it’s very hard to determine how close or far enemies are, with the same applying to projectiles. When enemies attack from behind there’s no warning and you’ll frequently have little room to maneuver. The pit stops to refill life almost seem like death traps as there are usually a score of enemies ready to pelt you repeatedly, defeating the purpose of having them in the first place. Extra lives are awarded every 30,000 points, a number that isn’t hard to reach frequently but it doesn’t make up for the lack of continues. It’s incredibly easy to die in a hail of fire repeatedly and pit stops don’t make up for it. There are only 8 levels but it really sucks having to start from the beginning so often.
Hyper Zone resembles F-Zero so closely that it’s easy to mistake the two. Beyond the use of Mode 7 the track itself looks identical; same with the track side detail. Whereas F-Zero is wide and open the floor is mirrored on the surface in Hyper Zone and the effect is striking. Each level has a theme with suitable enemies to match and the scaling is pretty much flawless. Despite the flat ground the art direction does an adequate job of convincing you that you’re really flying over grass, water, or a city. The music is techno influenced and very similar to F-Zero’s although not as well orchestrated. The sound effects are virtually identical between the two.
While Hyper Zone doesn’t maintain the peaks set in the early parts of the game due to its simplicity it is still enjoyable. Less tech demo and more interesting gameplay would have done wonders to back up the (for the time) stellar production values but some games just aren’t destined to have it all.