This game is a mystery to me, it really is. I'd never noticed it, never seen a screenshot, never met another person who'd even heard of it. Then one day in 2001, it simply... appeared in my house. I didn't buy it, nor did I borrow it from someone, and my brothers were as nonplussed as I was as to where in the hell it came from. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, and after I'd convinced myself that I hadn't programmed it myself during my frequent blackouts (turns out we had a carbon monoxide leak and it was definitely not related to those all people going missing), I slapped it into the Playstation and thus exposed myself to The Hunter's eldritch charms.
The first thing to do in The Hunter is to create your character. Okay, that's a lie. The first thing to do is mess around with the options. Ooh look, you can change the background wallpaper! While they are all naturally artistic masterpieces, none of the images avaliable at the start match up to this stylish offering:
Warning terrifying Lawnmower Man flashbacks please send help. The Moss Orb of Kal'aak-Zor there should give you some idea of what budget level The Hunter occupies; it's the level usually reserved for the fourth straight-to-DVD sequel to Epic Movie and the "auto"biographies of last year's X Factor contestants.
Okay, once your green sphere is in place, it's time to choose a character. Here are your options, and choose wisely because you'll be looking at them for a long time, often dancing across the inside of your eyelids as you try to sleep.
So who do we have? From left to right there's Fei from Xenogears, Lady Terry Bogard, Russian-looking girl/boy, Doom Marine, Gogol from Cyber City Oedo 808 (showing my age a bit there), Hellsing's Alucard, Hwoarang from Tekken and a girl who looks a bit like Meryl from Metal Gear Solid but that's pushing it a bit. Each character has eight different colour palettes, too. I went with the Meryl-a-like, mostly because she was the one my cursor had stopped on, and I named her Flange.
As the name suggests, the focus of The Hunter is hunting. Hunting relics, to be precise; in a world mostly destroyed by a generic nuclear apocalypse, you play as a mercenary who heads into the ruins to find rare items that he then sells. It's like Bargain Hunt, except much less depressing. Aiding you in your quest to get rich by rummaging through garbage is your Broker, who gives you missions and buys items from you. Any ladies who might be reading: you may want to make sure you're sitting down, because this guy is sure to make you swoon.
He looks like Jason Statham's brain-damaged brother, he's wearing a shirt made of lava and his dialogue is poorly translated.
Okay, there's no need to be like that. The Broker is assisted by a spindly anime nurse who looks like she's about to burst into tears.
Maybe she's upset that her iPad appears to be broken, or maybe she's more concerned about her oddly skeletal fingers. Whatever her deal is, she heals you when you die and as you can see from the screenshot there, she also sells you level-ups. Yep, The Hunter eschews the standard RPG formula of having you work hard and gain experience points in favour of you simply handing over your cold, hard cash. I'd like to say it's all part of the cyberpunk theme of the game, and when you buy a new level what you're really buying is bionic implants and such. Sadly, the truth is simply that the developers didn't really know what they were doing.
Gameplay-wise, The Hunter is a boardgame. You get plunked down in a randomly-generated dungeon, filled with boxes, flags, an exit and three other Hunters. There are two types of mission, although they play out identically: for each time you level up, a new story mission appears and you have to clear it before you can do anything. The game does have a plot, but it's just generic corporate-espionage-oops-we-lost-our-combat-data-find-our-disks dullness. Given the set of utter interest-vacuums that make up the cast, it's nigh impossible to give even the smallest of fucks about anything that's going on plot-wise. Once you've done the story mission for your level, you can access the meat of the gameplay, which consists of trips into the ruins to find a target item and bring it to the surface.
You've got the basic strategy RPG options to control your character: you can move, attack, or wait a turn to restore some health. If you decide to move, you'll have your first encounter with something that will soon become the bane of your very existence: dice rolls. Like a boardgame, everything in The Hunter is determined by rolling a six-sided die. While you do have a movement stat, it's generally pretty small and is simply added to your dice roll to calculate your movement. For example, Flange here has a Mv of +2, so if you roll a four you get to move six spaces. So, you move around, collecting boxes that hold various items that might give you a stat increase when held but are generally just there to be sold. Every now and then you might get into a fight. Exciting!
Fighting is, of course, decided by the ancient gladatorial method of rolling dice. As you can see, you have stats for attack and defence, and they work in the same way as the movement stat, getting added to your dice rolls to increase their totals. When you attack, both you an your opponent roll two dice and the numbers are added together, with the appropriate stats being added to that. The damage caused is the difference between the two numbers, so say, for example, Flange rolls a three and a four and "Artist" over there rolls a two and a one. Flange gets seven, plus three for her attack stat for a total of ten. Artist gets three, plus his three defence for six, for a total of six. Flange deals him four damage, which Artist will no doubt recover by waiting on his next turn, and the same thing will happen on the turn after that, and the turn after that, and the turn after that, trapped in some endless stalemate where he gets hit hard enough to be winded but his opponent kindly lets him get his breath back and then hits him again, forever and ever, until the final heat death of the universe. Oh, and there're cards, too!
You might have noticed them in the Hunter's status window; little coloured cards that give stat increases. You start with five, and you're given a new one at the start of each turn or (two if you wait). They have a variety of functions, both in an out of battle, and they're usually the key to success. Blue cards give you extra movement points, red ones increase your attack damage, green ones lay traps for the other Hunters to step on and lose all their cards or have a leg blown off or something equally grisly. Finally, yellow cards increase you defence in combat or raise your ability to avoid traps on the map. The deck is limited, and if you fanny around on one map for too long and run out of cards, a powerful boss monster appears and hunts you down. Quite how the cards kept him at bay I don't know, but I'm sure whatever the reason is it's worthy of a 40-episode arc of Yu-Gi-Oh.
If you manage to get to the end of a mission, you're ranked according to various factors including how often you punched your fellow Hunters and how much trash you scraped up to carry home with you. Rinse and repeat until you've got enough cash to level up, and that's The Hunter.
The main limiting factor of The Hunter is randomness. Almost everything in the game is random: the dungeon layout, the placement and strength of enemies, the location of boxes and the items inside them, the cards your receive, how far you can move and how much damage you do in combat. Now, I'm all for a bit of randomness in videogames. Randomised dungeons can give a game more longevity, and lord knows I spent enough time in Disgaea's Item World, but too much and it's just overwhelming and in some cases game-breaking. Quite often, the dungeon will generate in a way that sees you stranded at one side of the map while your opponents spawn with one foot in the exit, surrounded by item boxes, laughing at you as you roll one after one after one in a vain attempt to catch up to them. If they get the target item to the exit before you in a story mission, that's it, here's the Game Over screen. Load your game, do it again and hope the god of randomness take pity on you. Sometimes the stages give you literally no chance, and that's a terrible situation to be in in a videogame.
Maybe it's not a videogame, but rather a tool of enlightenment, an educational aid designed to demonstrate Man's status as a being cast adrift in an uncaring universe ruled only by swirling, unceasing chaos. If I completed the game (something I never managed), I'd expect the walls to peel back like in Hellraiser and there to be some formless Lovecraftian entity lurking there. He stares into the depths of my soul and says "NOW YOU UNDERSTAND", and I suffer a complete mental collapse as my mind tries to process the immensity of what it has just learned.
So as you can probably tell, The Hunter isn't very good. The gameplay is basic and frequently kicks you square in the testicles, the graphics range from servicable sprites to migraine-inducingly bad bakgrounds and the music... well, the music is odd. Here's one of the tracks:
It's sort of pleasant, although every song sounds like a demo track included with a mid-nineties music creation program. I think it's the samples: I mean, just listen to those guitar samples and tell me it's not from a program called something like E-Zee-MusicMaker DX or something. And yet... it stays with you. I hadn't played this game in about a decade, but as soon as this track started, I could remember it note for goddamn note, and however little I wanted to I found myself first humming it and then putting it on my MP3 player in a distinctly unironic fashion. That's pretty much how I feel about The Hunter as a whole. I really should hate it, or at least not like it, but I keep wanting to go back to it like it's an abusive husband. It's definitely got a case of "Just One More Go" syndrome, and if you're the kind of saddo like me who enjoys games about collecting hundreds of ultimately useless gewgaws, then The Hunter will probably be right up your street.
To summarize my position on the matter, I played The Hunter at about the same time as I first played Chrono Cross. I remember vast swathes of The Hunter perfectly, down to the Broker's dialogue. I remember very little about Chrono Cross, despite having played it much more recently than The Hunter. Whether that's proof of the mind-warping powers of this game or a shocking indictment of Chrono Cross, I'll let you decide.
Don't you forget about