Head Back to the ’90s Arcade in Horizon Vanguard

There’s a reason people loved the Sega of the ’90s.  Setting pure arcade action underneath bright blue skies while an upbeat soundtrack kept the tempo lively worked for games as diverse as Virtua Racer, Jambo Safari, Gunblade NY, Virtua Fighter, Virtual On, and plenty of other sequels, spin-offs, and variations on the themes.  Even if a game basically ate your quarters as you got knocked down after a single match or race it was hard not to jump back in because it was just so inviting.  The ’90s Sega style is one a good number of action games seem to have rediscovered recently, but few as successfully as in the Horizon Vanguard demo.

Horizon Vanguard puts you behind the VR handlebars of a heavily-armed hoverbike, steering with one hand while wielding a powerful hand-cannon with the other.  The hoverbike has a gun that shoots a constant stream of fire straight ahead, while the gun fires wherever you aim it with a relatively low rate of fire but a lot of punch in each bullet.  Little popcorn enemies pop up in waves, racing along the surface to give the bike’s gun something to do, while airborne enemies are fewer but more likely to send a bullet or two your way.  Hose down the enemy chains, target the airborne enemies with the gun, and try not to crash into anything while doing it.  There’s a fair amount of multitasking involved, especially once you get past the first level and have to start steering more aggressively.

While you can get by keeping half an eye on the terrain to avoid crashing into the scenery, boss fights are a bit more involved.  Bosses throw out bullet patterns that take a bit more work to weave through, and this is where the HUD on the bike’s dashboard comes into play.  Normally the screen is blank, but it comes to life during the bigger encounters to show a simplified overhead view, like a vertical shooter.  The 3D view of VR makes it much easier to plot a course through bullet waves than playing on a screen, and once you’ve completed a boss fight a time or two you can ignore the HUD (at least on the demo fights), but it’s a very clever touch that makes learning the patterns much easier than the cockpit view would allow.  While this is all very helpful for bullet patterns, though, the first major boss has henchmen who jump at you as well as missiles, both of which need to be shot down by the pistol, so staring at the dashboard screen isn’t a great plan for survival.

The demo is a short little thing, one and a half levels before it ends, but also harder than it looks thanks to no health pickups and a hidden second course.  The first level has three pieces of intel hidden inside certain targets, and if you collect them all it up opens up another course that, honestly, has killed me every time I’ve gotten to it.  Level 1 is a chase over a canal running through a city, level 2 follows a trucking convoy through the desert, and the hidden area runs through what appears to be an incredibly dangerous airport.  Each play-through will be four stages long if you can survive to the end, but with each of those stages having one default and one hidden exit, that makes fifteen levels total to find.

While the demo does a great job of showing off the overall shape of the game, it’s worth keeping in mind that this is tagged as a “location test” rather than being a completed slice of the final game.  There’s still work being done hammering the scoring system into place, balancing the difficulty and polishing up the fine details.  The whole point of a location test is to get feedback and incorporate it into the final version, which makes perfect sense seeing as Horizon Vanguard isn’t being released until an undefined point in 2018.  Even with all the work left to be done, though, the game feels confident in what it wants to be and does a great job on delivering it, both as its own thing and as a throwback to Sega’s arcade heyday.  While the art isn’t up to the standards of a AAA studio at the top of its game, the tone and style are instantly recognizable and the music is absolutely perfect.  Horizon Vanguard is turning into a fantastic arcade experience, one that would have been right at home in a large sit-down cabinet with a massive CRT screen bolted on surrounded by a the flashing lights and sounds of Sega, Namco, Capcom and Midway all fighting for your quarter supply.