(Caution Minor Spoilers)
Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan is a homage-rich retro platformer which combines various elements of old-school games into one 8-bit lovechild. It is developed and published by CollectorVision Games. Originally released on 12 Sep 19, it is currently available on Steam and Nintendo Switch. There are currently plans for a PS4 and Xbox One release sometime this year.
In the world of Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan, you’ll find yourself in the shoes of an intrepid adventurer whose exploits will remind you of more than one 80s movie but most accurately, Indiana Jones. Sydney Hunter plays like a pot of 80s classics with numerous ingredients. I was reminded of several games such as Pitfall, Megaman, Mario, Castlevania, and more. The best part about Sydney Hunter is the self-aware attitude, it knows exactly what it is trying to be and achieves it gracefully with no cover ups.
Much of the platforming is derivative of many of the classic titles listed above. The primary objective is of course to make it to the end of each stage. Littered around each stage however, are keys and other progression related items that will be necessary for you to advance to the end game. The game does away with older precepts such as lives and continues and utilizes a save system instead. Each stage also has checkpoints that restore health and grant you a spawn point in the event that you’re defeated. Upon death, you will lose all you acquired except for major items such as relics.
As is par for the genre, Sydney Hunter has numerous environmental hazards for you to avoid and navigate through on your journey. Things like adhesive surfaces, fire pits, spikes, underwater areas, and more are there to hinder and kill you if you’re careless. When combined with other hazards such as flame-throwing statues, crumbling platforms, sand pits, and arrow traps there are many ways for you to meet your untimely end. Reading each room carefully is a must to make it through the game without dying all the time. Hidden elements are also about in the form of breakable walls, so you’ll need stay aware on each screen.
A variety of enemies await you on each stage as well, many of which veterans will remember. Skeletons, bats, spirits, scorpions, scarabs, and the like are what you will have to kill on each stage to progress. Some enemies are craftily blended in, such as a literal snake in the grass so you’ll need to stay keen as you explore. Others, notably the flying characters, will chase and harass you to your wits (or the stage’s) end. And then there are some like the bees nest which should just burn for all eternity.
Each stage however, will have a boss or guardian to defeat before you can advance further. Guardians are immobile and will assault you with various projectiles. The bosses themselves are the gods linked to the lore of the game. They hold the pieces of the Haab calendar which Sydney is attempting to restore. If you don’t feel like your 8-bit combat skills are up to par, you can always grind for items such as potions to increase your odds.
You have three weapons at your disposal to deal with the game’s various enemies. The whip is your go-to starter weapon and is the fastest and most versatile of the three. While you can only whip on a horizontal plane, it deploys fast and has the shortest recovery. The spear is your primary underwater weapon, but has longer range, multi-hit, and punch-through capabilities which is great when enemies need more than one hit to kill. The boomerang can kill multiple weak enemies and be set up for an alternative return path when combined with jumps and jump recovery. This allows for more versatile angle shots for the quick thinking individual. The downside with the boomerang however, is that there is a startup delay which can get you into trouble if you aren’t careful.
Sydney also has an inventory, in which you can store items like potions and bombs. The inventory is limited to 10 items, so you’ll need to choose carefully. Relics and magic can also be collected to either unlock progression, or to enhance your survival. Examples of relics can be anything from an object that allows underwater breathing to the ability to shoot fireballs from your whip Belmont-style. Magic is directly tied to survival and can do things like allow you to be resurrected after death or to allow a familiar to attack smaller enemies.
Though the game has a largely linear progression, there is some backtracking involved. Each stage is unlocked by using crystal skulls. These skulls are found throughout the stages themselves and most of them can be found on your first attempt. Some however, are blocked behind barriers that only specific abilities or upgrades can get you to. Unlike some other games, I didn’t find the backtracking to be tedious or excessive. It felt like the design really allowed for you to collect most of what you need on the first go around. The only way you would have to repeat most of the stages is if you rushed through them without searching or just wanted to collect everything.
The game is played on one difficulty and I would say it’s right on target for modern platformers. Some stages and bosses are easier than others, but the challenge will vary depending on your strengths and weaknesses. Certain stages, such as the Hidden Warrior Training Temple, are meant to test your mettle and do a fair job at it. There are two different endings as well for the dedicated platform gamer. There are many more homages than the ones I referenced but some of the spoil the surprise so it’s best to discover them for yourself.
At the start of the game, Sydney Hunter becomes trapped within a Mayan temple while exploring the surrounding area. The antagonist soon makes an appearance within the temple and breaks the Haab calendar into seven pieces. Each piece is protected by a themed god. To escape, Sydney will have to track down those pieces from within the temple itself, defeat the gods, and restore the calendar with the help of the natives.
The writing itself is fairly loose and doesn’t take itself seriously at all. If anything, it lands more often on the comedic side than not, especially with the boss banter. With pop culture references that are seemingly out of place, the overall plot is very lighthearted and doesn’t really beg for attention. That being said, it is apt for a game of this setting and length. The true focus here is the gameplay.
Despite the throwback looks, Sydney Hunter controls in a fairly smooth, more modern platform manner. Jump controls and responsiveness can make or break the user experience and in this regard Sydney Hunter comes through cleanly. Button depression determines how high you jump and there is a degree of mid-jump control as well. Weapon action is very smooth and presented no difficulty throughout the game whatsoever.
Like any platformer, the controls themselves are part of the difficulty and this is true here as well. Mastery of short jumping, and jumping into objects such as ceilings are crucial to survive dangers such as pits, spikes, and the more mobile enemies. You can choose your descent point from ladders as well and you will need to do so many times depending on what enemies your facing.
I personally feel that controllers offer a better way to tackle games like Sydney Hunter so I played using a native PS4 controller via the Steam interface. All motions were smooth and presented no issues. I also tested KBM and discovered no problems during my time with that either.
Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan is an 8-bit homage and the graphics are representative of that era. And though I say that, the game actually looks more clean and certainly has more depth than the NES generation. Animations, attacks, and movements are also much smoother and have a modern coup de grace to them. Elements from the time such as parallax are placed in the backgrounds with a keen nostalgic effect. As a love letter approach, there is really nothing but admiration in the artistic approach used by the designers here. I’m just glad they didn’t miss object flicker from too many sprites on the scan line.
They didn’t stray too far from the sound board here. Many sounds were easy to recognize and place, with some of them knocking on the door of my childhood. The animated fire sound in particular had me feeling like a kid again. Others such as the boss power up sound had me wanting to hum Megaman sounds almost immediately. Thankfully, these sounds were balanced as many effects from that era were high pitched and could wreak havoc on your ears. Overall, the sound was rich, indicative of the times, and tastefully employed.
The music was straight out of chiptune heaven. So much so that it really felt like the original Famicom set was used to make it. Composed by Ben Allen, the OST has 26 tracks of retro-developed goodness. At each point in the game, I did find myself stopping to enjoy the music which is always a good sign. Each track fits the assigned stage well in terms of composition and you’ll find yourself tapping or humming to more than one of them.
Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan is a great experience for anyone looking to relive the good ole platformer days without all of the added frustrations that came with those games. With beautifully represented sounds, music, and graphics Sydney Hunter will feel like a time machine without the cruelty of needing a Konami code to win. The smooth control scheme and gameplay experience are definitely at the forefront and represent many games spanning across two decades. With a time investment of about 10 to 20 hours for the average gamer, Sydney Hunter is worth the investment for anyone looking to take a trip down memory lane, or for platform lovers.