About a year ago, author Tim Paletino released the book Art of Atari. Within its pages, the body of work that is Atari’s illustrations and promotional art are analyzed in detail. It’s a great book that covers a particular part of gaming that can often get taken for granted. Atari had some wonderful art that did a lot to brush over the fact that the technology at the time wasn’t as aesthetically impressive by way of comparison.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the Sega Master System. The box art for that system’s games was notorious for usually having odd or unrelated imagery that generally told little about the games themselves. Ironically though, the system had pretty good graphics for the time that were often colorful, and vibrant.
Lo and behold, Activision took the best of both worlds when they released Cyborg Hunter in 1988. It had some pretty sweet box art with a dark background in lieu of the Master System’s usual white-with-gray-grid pattern and the foreground had a battle scene involving laser blasts and winged chrome cyborg that took up most of the cover. It really stood out among most other Master System games and the graphics and imagery of the game itself were pretty good.
As far as the story is concerned…
“It is the year 2242. You are Paladin, the galaxy’s toughest bounty hunter. Cyborgs are about to take complete control of the universe under the direction of Vipron, their evil leader. You are sent to the cyborg fortress to get rid of all the chief cyborgs in each of the seven areas. You are not alone in this mission. You also have Adina, your contact back at headquarters. Follow her instructions carefully and you may survive.”
At the start, Paladin is at the entrance of the cyborg HQ and has come completely unarmed. Before you call him an idiot for not even bringing a sharp stick, you’ll note the hall is empty and it would seem he basically walked in, so the cyborgs have zero security and are just as unprepared as Paladin. If I had to guesstimate, the entirety of the base is about the size of a large shopping mall and considering the cyborgs “are about to take complete control of the universe,” they may want to step up their game. The music is fun and the control is good, in spite of Paladin running like he’s desperately searching for a bathroom. Bombs, stronger punching abilities, and a variety of laser guns are made available later on through various sectors you fight through.
One small nitpick that slows the game down is watching Paladin while he travels on the elevators, and there are A LOT of elevators throughout the game. Elevator Action didn’t have this much elevator action. When Paladin enters, you move him to the right where the control panel is, then select your floor and watch the pulleys go! It’s not a big issue, but with how much moving around you do and how necessary elevators are in the play mechanics, it can get pretty repetitive. Granted, games like Metroid and Zelda II do the same, but with the former, watching Samus transition areas via elevator builds suspense as it’s always the entering of a new region and with the latter, Link just hops on and the player has full control the entire time. Speaking of Metroid, there’s a bit of a Metroid: Fusion feel here – at least a foundationally. As mentioned in the story synopsis, you have a commander named Adina that will contact you and give hints from time to time. Adina plays the Adam Malkovich to your Samus Aran as you venture to various sectors of the base to clean house.
With a generous amount of power-ups and some repetitive villains with predictable patterns, it wasn’t too difficult and can be beaten in under an hour. The ending had a quirky little scene showing a Trevor and Catherine, two other bounty hunters. It’s natural to assume that they’re playable characters, now that the game has been beat, right? Nope. Maybe it’s like the situation with the animals in Super Metroid and there were characters I was supposed to rescue and simply missed? Nope. American audiences just had to cope with the confusion until the internet to learn that Cyborg Hunter was originally developed as a game based on Choonsenshi Borgman, or Sonic Soldier Borgman, which is a fun and obscure Japanese animated TV series from 1988 that only lasted one season (with a few OVAs here and there). The Japanese version of the game stayed close to the original story line of the show, but the Cyborg Hunter revamp went with the above plot when distributed to all other markets. Ironically, the heroes in the anime story line are cyborgs themselves, fighting off inter-dimensional villains while the Cyborg Hunter game states the villains are all cyborgs (though only maybe half seem to be, judging by appearance) and almost no backstory is given to the heroes.
A few other interesting little quirks: The Japanese version of the game called the “Ray Gun” by a different name while giving a little nod to the anime (and SMS franchise) Zillion at the same time.
Adina has quite a different look from her Japanese counterpart as well (though both are pretty much 80’s fashion victims).
And of course, there’s the aforementioned superfluous renaming of characters that aren’t even in the dang game.
Although I felt like the only kid who grew up with the Master System in the 80’s rather than an NES, I really loved the awesome library it had to offer. Over time I’ve noticed that it’s become a wellspring of hidden gaming lore and trivia due to being overshadowed by the massive popularity of the NES. To name a few examples:
Like Zillion, with it’s compact history and offerings, I’d recommend Borgman/Cyborg Hunter and its anime as well. They’re all fun little bits of obscurity that you can burn through in a few days and get a better feel for just how much goes into any game once you scratch the surface.
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