The best and only rail shooter on the Super Nintendo
Edit: After posting this, I was reminded that Star Fox exists on the Super Nintendo as well. I'm not going to change anything about this article to reflect that, as Star Fox is an interactive slide show on the SNES. Carry on. -J
I may have sought to garner a reputation as a big Namco game guy, but here's my dirty secret: Space Harrier is my favorite video game of all time. It's the sort of breathless fandom that has led to me seeking out every single console port of Space Harrier ever made. It's so bad that I'll play anything even loosely adjacent to Sega's much vaunted Super Scaler rail shooter. There's stuff like Attack Animal Gakuen for the Famicom, the entire Panzer Dragoon series, and even some token Namco offerings like Burning Force and Thunder Ceptor.
I bring this all up because a) HyperZone is absolutely exploring a space that was carved out by Yu Suzuki's surrealist space shooter masterpiece, and b) HyperZone bears an almost litigious similarity to Thunder Ceptor. A third person rail shooter which uses mirrored scaling bitmap graphics to simulate motion, HyperZone was available just weeks after the launch of the Super Nintendo in North America. For my money it is the best shooter available for the SNES in 1991, bar perhaps U.N. Squadron, and certainly was the best performing of the genre (recall the incredible slowdown of Gradius III and Super R-Type). It was also the second Super Famicom outing for HAL Laboratory, purveyors of some of the best games on the platform. Yet it has gone largely unsung.
The player is tasked with controlling a ship that hurtles ever forward through a bizarre kaleidoscopic future world with three guiding principles. Firstly, shoot the baddies. Second, anything that cannot be exploded should be dodged. Third, and this was the innovation, the player is required to remain within the boundaries created by the scrolling textures which comprise the sky and terrain of each course. Pilot your fleet of steadily upgraded craft outside of this space, and your health will begin to drain. But hark! Pass over the striped portions of the floor and you can regain lost health, in a mechanic directly cribbed from F-Zero. At the end of each course, the player must defeat a Great Value version of a Space Harrier boss. Score enough points and you gain another life. Lose three lives and you're back to the title screen. Finish the game, and start the whole thing over with the final and most powerful ship.
It all sounds very ho hum when you lay it out this way. Frankly, the game is also not helped by its repetitive gameplay loop and some cheap difficulty by way of stage hazards which are sometimes to difficult to judge in terms of near they are to your ship. So why am rating this so highly? Call it reviewer's tilt, I suppose. In contemporary Giant Bomb terms, call it "styyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyle". There really isn't much like HyperZone available on the Super Nintendo for a start. There's the Cabal-like Wild Guns, the shooter-RPG hybrid Yam Yam, and that's about it. This, despite the SNES having a demonstrable lead on its competition in terms of sprite scaling abilities. Consider, for instance, just how desperate the first few Super Scaler ports to the Mega Drive were. I love Space Harrier to pieces but Space Harrier II is a bit of a dog, and Super Thunder Blade is just north of a war crime. The MD had no native sprite scaling ability, leading to exceedingly choppy experiences like the aforementioned. And then in comes HAL on the competing platform not quite three years later and they produce a near perfectly smooth, fast paced shooter that should have made the good folks at Sega ashamed of themselves.
There's also just the sheer 90's energy of HyperZone to consider, and it's a powerful energy indeed. The garish, clashing colors blazing past can be an eyesore, but are if nothing else period appropriate. The soundtrack is also a banger, with some driving synth rock tunes that almost make me eat my words about the MD's sound superiority of the SNES. Almost. Shooting a flaming dragon while flying at hundreds of miles an hour in a lava world set to this music is a pretty great video game thing. The entire soundtrack is well worth checking out. Full credits to Jun Ishikawa, much more renowned for their work on practically every Kirby game.
If nothing else, it doesn't take long to see all that HyperZone has to offer. The game is perhaps an hour long end to end, and I managed to grock the entire thing with only one return to the title screen. In 1991 for its list price, HyperZone would have been a hard bargain. Today, however, you can find the game loose for well below the $10 USD mark and that's well worth your time if you enjoy unique, brief arcade-esque experiences.