When it comes to video game dystopias, there is a wide selection available. You have the underwater city, sealed against the pressures of the outside world and rusting from within. Then, of course, the leafy variety, in which nature has begun the slow task of weeding out the remnants of humanity. The tech-obsessed may prefer the futuristic metropolis, available in stark, spotless white or dirty rain-grey. And for history buffs, there are alternative visions of the past—Europe repurposed by the Reich, say, or Victorian London overwhelmed with werewolves. If, however, you like your decay flavoured with the cult films of the seventies and eighties, then might I suggest Huntdown, a new side-scrolling shooter from developer Easy Trigger Games.
The skyline features the fire-belching stacks of Blade Runner. Your car, alas, does not hover; it’s sharp and wedge-shaped, like the DeLorean in Back to the Future. The subway trains are sprayed with graffiti and crammed with fashion-conscious gangs, like the ones in The Warriors. And the heroes—you choose from three—are of the steely, unstoppable type that reigned under Reagan. There is Anna Conda, a woman with an eyepatch and a piratical cackle to go with it; John Sawyer, a metal-jawed cyborg, of whom we are told in the trailer, “He’s been a man since he was a boy”; and Mow Man (whom I picked), a skull-faced robot in a yellow raincoat. Your task, handed down by a half-shadowed woman called Wolfmother, is simple: work through each crime-plagued quadrant, wasting any and all who stand in your way, targeting the key figures in each outfit, until you sniff out—and then snuff out—the leader.
For games that look to the eighties, or at least to the kernels of its pop culture, humour is usually a vital ingredient. It’s difficult to be sombre in the face of so much spandex. Hence the soldiers of Broforce, a platoon of action movie parodies inflated like party balloons, or consider Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, which, seeking a blast of satire, cast Michael Biehn as its star—remembered most fondly for blowing up Terminators and shotgunning aliens. The trouble with such approaches is that, once planted, it can be tough to prise tongue from cheek, and thus to conjure genuine darkness. (Go far enough the other way and you get Hotline Miami, a game that repurposed all the pastel and neon into a nervous brew of violence and paranoia, in which any shred of laughter died deep in the throat.) I was pleased, in Huntdown, to note the presence of real murk—of captured hoodlums executed by their rivals, bodies set ablaze, and showers of human shrapnel. There is humour here, spiked with frenzy, but the whole thing feels weighted and wiry—as though John Carpenter had made a cartoon.
The mood is bolted down with 16-bit style, and mechanics to match: sedate platforming sequences are used sparingly, in between gunfights that are deceptively methodical and exacting. The pixelated look suggests the blurry lick of high speed, but in fact the action in Huntdown is best taken at a careful pace. Holding the left stick down, you slide into cover, peeking out to pop off a few shots. You can duck behind boxes or backwards into doorways, slipping cutely into the scenery, while swapping fire until one of you—preferably your opponent—goes down, with a generous splash of spilt red. The side-on angle, in which bullets sail on a single plane, accentuates the your-turn-my-turn quaintness of the combat, in a way that’s lost in the panicked spread of 3D.
On top of the assemblage of weaponry—shotguns, sub machine guns, assault rifles, flamethrowers—each character has a unique ability, which recharges after use: Anna Conda lobs a hatchet, Sawyer a boomerang (ideal for doing double duty, should you miss the first time), and Mow Man a handful of kunai. To top it all off, you have a speedy directional dodge—useful for dashing through the blows of your enemies. If the differences between bounty hunters is light, and the range of tactics at your disposal is modest, it’s made up for in the varied improv of play. I find a stripped-back toolbox a pleasure; knowing the bounds of one’s abilities, and as a result bending them, is a foundational video game thrill. Carpenter would approve—he understood more than anyone the tension and power that sparks when sparing elements are scraped together, as anyone who has seen Escape from New York or Assault on Precinct 13 will attest.
It’s that latter film that’s been going round in my head, since playing Huntdown. Its closing lines are fired between a policeman and his prisoner: “You’re pretty fancy, Wilson.” “I have moments.” Huntdown isn’t fancy. It rarely swells beyond the sum of its parts; with parts as precision-tooled as this, it doesn’t need to. But now and then throughout, there are sights to be treasured. The cream leather dashboard of the car, for instance, fitted with a floppy disk drive, a TV screen (on which you are briefed), and, best of all, a cigarette lighter. The members of one gang, a motorcycle outfit called the Heatseekers, wear bristled helmets and brandish lances atop their bikes, in homage to George A. Romero’s Knightriders. One of the game’s madcap bosses, of which there is a steady stream, plunges into a lake of lava in a smelting plant, as Arnold Schwarzenegger did in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Only, rather than sinking into oblivion with a thumb raised, he emerges, half-melted and pink, swiping at you with newly elastic limbs. It has moments.