“Relaxed” and “chilled out” aren’t words you would normally associate with 8-bit shoot ‘em ups, but that’s exactly what Thalamus Ltd achieved in 1987 when they released Hunter’s Moon on the Commodore 64.
Hunter’s Moon, programmed by Martin Walker, defied a number of expectations—the game not only stubbornly refused to sit comfortably within the existing shoot ‘em up paradigm, it challenged Thalamus Ltd’s own back catalog of shoot ‘em ups, delivering a more cerebral experience that wove increasingly complex layers of puzzle-solving around its frantic shooting.
To ease the player through the transition from standard shoot ‘em up to unusual puzzle ‘em up, Hunter’s Moon made use of some interesting aesthetic trickery, starting with the game’s intro screen.
In stark contrast to most shoot ‘em ups, which blasted the player with frantic techno/metal music, flashing logos, and calls to action (“PRESS FIRE TO START!”), Hunter’s Moon opted for a more soothing, hypnotic approach.
Matt Gray’s music is built upon swirling, droning layers, its rhythmic components kept minimal and adante, deviating from his trademark upbeat style, perfectly complementing the whirling dervish of stars and orbs in the background. The use of color almost defies the capabilities of the C64′s hardware (which only had 16 colors), using a subtle contrast of grays and saturated colors to create an almost pastel-like palette. All this serves not so much to lull the player into a false sense of security but to suggest a more meditative, contemplative mindset for the game rather than the button-mashing norm.
Even hitting the fire button to commence playing doesn’t immediately launch the player into the action. Instead there exists a transitional moment as the player’s ship hangs in hyperspace between star systems, gently flipping and twirling to a soothing wash of pink noise. It’s another moment designed to slow the player down and promote a more chilled out state of gaming.
Hunter’s Moon is a fairly simple game by modern standards. There are 128 levels divided into 16 clusters of varying sizes. All levels in a cluster must be completed before the player can move onto the next.
Progress is made by securing a number of “starcells” in each level. While the player may be lucky enough to encounter a gimme, most starcells are secured within a web-like structure that’s routinely patrolled by a spore-like enemy. Some of these structures can be destroyed by the player, allowing access to its interior, but such destruction can often be temporary as the patrolling enemy will attempt to repair any damage it encounters.
Some structures are indestructible, requiring the player to explore its exterior to find alternative means of entry (hidden entrances, trip switches, etc.). Some enemies will be more likely to open fire on the player than others, while others may have unpredictable patrol routes. Thus any given level’s difficulty is determined by the complexity of the structures and the behavior of the enemies guarding them. Early levels are a walk in the park (blast in, grab the starcells, blast out), but later levels require significant study (and not a little trial and error) to determine optimal entry points and enemy states.
Pause for Thought
Even at its most frantic (and later levels will certainly get the adrenaline flowing), Hunter’s Moon never lost sight of its ability to bring the player back to a more relaxed state of mind. Hitting the pause button put the game in “off duty” mode, essentially functioning as a screensaver as the player’s ship temporarily entered an alternate state of existence and span around to the accompaniment of those familiar swirling patterns and soothing sounds from the intro screen. Fast-paced action was always but a single key press away, but so too was a chance to put everything on hold and chill out.
Hunter’s Moon met with a positive critical reception upon its original release but never seemed to find the larger audience it deserved. Martin Walker’s next game for Thalamus Ltd, Citadel, continued with the tradition of delivering a “thinking man’s shooter” and remains one of my favorite C64 games of all time—but that’s deserving of a whole article to itself another time.
If you’d like to give Hunter’s Moon a whirl but don’t have the patience for setting up a C64 emulator, check out Ovine by Design’s excellent retro remake for Windows that remains very faithful to the original. Take a look at the other retro makes they’ve made too.
Share your memories of Hunter’s Moon, the game of Thalamus Ltd, or any other “brainy” shooter in the comments below.