Hard Nova Retrospective

My destiny of being an ultimate game designer continues to be delayed by a destiny of being an ultimate procrastinator.  On the radar for Tuesday: Hard Nova, a 19-year-old quasi sequel for one of my all time favorites, Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic.

Hard Nova Batch File Fix

I wasn’t playing Hard Nova to make it better, I was here to learn from it, but I did make one major improvement to the game that I’ll note here in case other players are interested.  The hardnova.bat file was messed up as pertains to a hard drive installation.  In order to get music and sound in Hard Nova, you need to comment out these lines by adding the colon in front of them:

:IF EXIST AM.CFG   REN AM.CFG  A.CFG
:IF EXIST AS.CFG   REN AS.CFG  A.CFG
:IF EXIST AMS.CFG  REN AMS.CFG A.CFG

Perhaps rename a.cfg to ams.cfg (using the configuration program should do that for you) and at that point you should be able to get music and sound for Hard Nova under DOSBox just fine.  Dig those awesome 1990s tunes, dude.

Why was this mistake in the bat file?  It could be the developers actually didn’t have a hard drive available to test the game off of at the time – they were relatively scarce back in 1990.  Just as likely, it could be because this is an Abandonware version of Hard Nova and a third party made the mistake.

Critiques of a 1990 game…

Personal Interface

Personal Interface

As in Sentinel Worlds, the personal combat interface is undoubtedly the most involving, and it plays out relatively the same.  Your crew members follow a step behind the leader, and it’s very much a game of isolating the lines of fire so that not too many enemies are attacking you while you and your crew is attacking them.

An interesting tweak to the system is that all characters are equipped with “automated medical lining” which grants them a constant regeneration rate.   So also are the foes.  (To extent, this takes the place of training up a member of the team to be a medic in Sentinel Worlds.) This is a very good mechanic, there’s constant healing going on, the goal becomes to overpower your foes (as opposed to simply whittling away their hitpoints).  It’s also nice because you can swap positions with allies if hitpoints are getting low and regenerate while they take the heat for awhile.

Planetary Interface

Planetary Interface

Planetary exploration is severely hampered by your shuttle having a very limited fuel supply.   You can fight other shuttles (and often will do so during lucrative smuggler drops) but there’s very little in the way of influence you have over it: just turn on your laser and hope for the best.

While the terrain is 3D this time around, there just isn’t the same sense of exploration that Sentinel Worlds had.  No more following a winding river through the wilderness while taking notice of wildlife, because both are missing here.

Space Interface

Space Interface

The space interface is a bit more robust than the planetary interface in that there’s many more character skills and weapons in play.  Though the space implementation resembles Sentinel Worlds, right down to hacking your ship computer for better performance,  they added a number of features.  Unfortunately, these features added just muddled a clean game.  Some complaints include:

  • Space combat plays out too fast, the interface feels awkward considering all you need to do.
  • This is partly because targeting is so difficult – it pretty much auto-targets whatever is closest.
  • Your laser cannon doesn’t turn off after defeating the last foe, meaning that there’s a good chance you’ll accidentally pick a fight with any formerly friendly ship that wanders in range.
  • You can’t target individual systems to disable enemy ships anymore, there’s actually just one count that represents the enemy’s overall health – they explode when it reaches zero. (This might have been a favorable streamlining on paper, but it does detract from the feeling of space combat meatiness.)
  • There’s now 3 kinds of missiles and 3 kinds of jammers, but identifying a missile before hits is quite unlikely, and so it comes off as 3 types of missiles/jammers too many.
  • The “universal hatch” doesn’t seem very universal considering very few ships can actually be boarded. (This could have been a good call: constantly boarding other ships might prove boring.)
  • You can change the elevation of your ship in space, but it seemingly adds nothing to the game.

Role Playing System

Hard Nova offered what turned out to be a min/maxer’s wet dream in the Aptitude skill. Skill points are the heart of all advancement.  Every level, you gain skill points, and the number of skills points could be 1 or it could be 7 depending on if your Aptitude level is at 1 or 20.  So all you have to do max out your Aptitude realtively early and you’ll have pretty much a do-everything character in the works.

In ground combat, experience is rewarded on a per-hit basis, the amount of damage you do being your experience points.  This can lead to some rather boring power leveling as your main character sits there soaking the damage while waiting for the crew to land hits.

Because lower level foes give as much experience as higher level foes, you can level up in the robomaze (a respawning map where player character death is disabled) to level up just as effectively as anywhere else in the game.

Between fully exploiting the Aptitute stat and the robomaze, I was able to build my character up into a several-maxed out skill level 15 game-ender in a matter of an hour or two before even embarking on my first major mission.

Well, almost.  There is a bit of a hurdle in that a lot of the power in the game comes from exploring to find better armor, special weapons, and automated medical lining.  However, as far as character skills were concerned, it was relatively easy to trivialize ground combat, the deepest part of the game.

Overall

I think I really prefer Sentinel Worlds over Hard Nova.  The interfaces felt more fully featured and refined while the character system felt more diverse in scope.  Although Hard Nova looks a lot better, it feels as though the game had a much smaller development team or budget working on it.

Actually, in comparing the credits at MobyGames, it seems the staff was actually a little larger in Hard Nova.  Perhaps my discontent with the game was caused by too many cooks.  Or, considering the game only came out about a year later, maybe they simply rushed it to market without as much play testing.

… are hardly fair in 2009

To a great extent, I look at Hard Nova and think to myself, “wow, I could do better than this with BYOND.”    However, this is hardly fair considering the number of advantages game developers have now that we didn’t 19 years ago: IDEs (like BYOND).  Photoshop filters.  Cheap 3D rendering.   The Internet.

Hard Nova was programmed largely out of “8086 assembly code” (according to the Artist Biographies in the manual).  I think if I were asked to program a game in assembly, I’d balk rather quickly, “no way, man, that stuff would kill me!”

Plus, we’re talking 1990 game design standards.  The craft has come far since then.  I suspect that games like EverQuest really worked to make players aware of just how important it is for an RPG to be balanced.

… but it provides interesting food for thought

I’m sitting down right now and wondering to myself the viability of putting together a nice 3-layer space/planet/ground game.  It’s an idea I often return to simply because it seems like it could be awesome if done well.  Perhaps the appeal is overall way in which it all flows together, creating a real sense of space adventure.

However, does it really add that much in terms of game play?  We’re basically talking about 3 entirely separate games in the space, planetary, and personal layers.  The work you could be investing in refining a single game is now spread across three games, leading to flaws just like the ones I found in Hard Nova.  Further, by requiring players to go through each layer, if they end up hating one layer they’ll the whole game.  On the upshot, it could potentially instill a level of variety in the activities.

Hard Nova was a very interesting study.  Despite the fact it was developed in 1990, the game isn’t completely awful, and it did take up quite a few hours of this Tuesday.  That being the case, maybe the road ahead to develop a game in BYOND that can entertain myself is not nearly as long as I’m making it.

2 Responses

  1. […] went over Hard Nova not long ago.  A couple more were Sundog: Frozen Legacy and Star Command.  Sundog: Frozen Legacy […]

  2. […] May 4th-5th, I gave Hard Nova another spin. […]

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