Huntdown is a fascinating contradiction. On one hand, it's a retro-inspired 2D run-and-gun game in the vein of Contra, bringing to mind nostalgia-tinged visions of Arnold Schwarzenegger stomping around Los Angeles with shades and a shotgun.
However, Huntdown brings this genre roaring into the future with stunning, hand crafted visuals and animations, alongside smart tweaks to gameplay which add a tactical layer to combat: no easy task for a five-person games studio .
Development started in 2016 with the team building a custom engine within Unity. Tommy Gustafsson, the co-founder of Swedish studio Easy Trigger, wore many different hats as director, working on the game's art, graphics, animation, story, music, sound design and voice direction. Huntdown was created as a love letter to the games and films Easy Trigger grew up with, trying to capture the dark essence of classics like Escape from New York, Blade Runner, Robocop, Starship Troopers, and many, many more.
"Huntdown [looks] and plays like a '90s game, but the content, the world we are building feels like a sci-fi vision of the early 1980s or late '70s," Gustafsson tells us. "These dark movies from the '80s, most of them were black or set at night, like The Running Man, Cobra and Blade Runner. Those movies are rarely seen in daylight, so we wanted to capture that grit."
To successfully pull off a retro look, Easy Trigger limited its colour palette to evoke the Atari 2600.
"We had 160 colours at first, then we had to add a few new [shades] for some darker tones. We kept it really limited to have the authentic 16-bit arcade game style," Easy Trigger co-founder and lead programmer on Huntdown, Andreas Rehnberg explains.
However, Easy Trigger wanted to iterate on the classic games that inspired them. Huntdown brings various quality-of-life updates to the 2D run-and-gun formula, such as implementing more generous checkpoints. Gameplay has also been tweaked for modern audiences: a cover system is complemented by slick movement mechanics, adding a layer of intensity and strategy to combat as you weave your way through neon-drenched obstacle courses.
"The gameplay has a more modern take because we really wanted it to play smooth and fast, and to be as generous as possible," Gustafsson says. "It makes it more tactical and you don't always have to jump to avoid bullets and projectiles."
Huntdown is playable on PC, console and most recently released on mobile. The title runs impressively smoothly across these different platforms, something we can attest to after playing the game on a Galaxy A12 (a famously low performance Android phone). The majority of Unity's API and project structure is identical between different platforms, massively simplifying the porting process for Easy Trigger.
"We did all the ports thanks to Unity," Gustafsson explains.
"It went really smoothly as well: as soon as we got a new test kit for a new platform, we almost pushed a button and it ran perfectly well," Rehnberg adds. "That was really cool."
"We have pushed a lot of sprites at the same time and we've never had any slowdowns, even on the slowest Android phones"
Huntdown was hand-animated, quite the feat when you observe this hyper-detailed game in motion, and the team credits Unity for the game's stability across platforms.
"The performance has been really great. We have pushed a lot of sprites at the same time and we've never had any slowdowns, even on the slowest Android phones -- we can support really old phones, actually. So I've never had any issues with how much graphics you can push in Unity," Rehnberg explains.
Easy Trigger created their own lighting system to add a crucial layer of dynamism to objects in the game, utilising Unity's Sprite Renderer colors and custom shaders
"We have some really small effects where the lighting on the character changes based on how the level looks. If you're under a lamp or under a neon sign, it reflects on the character," Rehnberg says.
However, Unity's biggest impact on the project needs to be heard rather than seen. Unity's built-in audio compression tool allowed Gustafsson to dynamically mix Huntdown's audio in response to player actions. For example, background noise and music is automatically lowered when you fire your weapon. This effect is applied to every sound in the game, which helps keep the gameplay readable amidst the chaos.
"You really hear it when you turn it off," Gustafsson laughs. "When you turn it on, it's an amazing result."
Additionally, Unity's sound effects allowed the team to add reverb to all level sound effects except for the music, like footsteps on metallic surfaces, which help sell the moody atmosphere of Huntdown's violent world. When asked if Easy Trigger will continue using Unity going forwards, Gustafsson doesn't hesitate.
"Absolutely. We don't even look at other options, it's so obvious," he says.
"It works so well for us -- there's never been any bottlenecks, so we're really happy with it," Rehnberg agrees. "It's been really smooth to upgrade to new versions, we've never had any issues."
Unity has a suite of native 2D Tools to aid developers creating compelling 2D games like Huntdown. For example, Sprite Atlas consolidates several different textures into a single combined texture to make draw calls less resource intensive, while 2D Sprite Shape automatically deforms and swaps sprites tilted along a shape's outline.
That's just scratching the surface: Unity's 2D Physics Engine, Bone-based animation and much more can help developers with 2D game development, and Easy Trigger sees itself utilising more of these tools going forwards. For example, the 2D Pixel Perfect Package makes all necessary calculations to ensure that pixel art remains stable in motion, something Easy Trigger did manually for Huntdown. As Rehnberg dryly notes, "we probably [would have] saved a bit of time".
Huntdown has been critically acclaimed across all platforms, which is an achievement that Rehnberg is particularly proud of considering the small size of their team.
"We're proud of the whole thing. Everybody worked so hard and we did almost everything ourselves," Gustafsson says.