Hypnospace Outlaw is the first game I’ve ever played on Nintendo Switch. Let that sink in for a moment. Not Zelda, not Mario, not Pokemon; Hypnospace Outlaw, the indie, one-player point-and-click that ports over from the PC to the new Nintendo platform as part of the company’s indie licensing and development program. And yet it’s the exact kind of game I wanted and expected to play on this console, a relatively relaxed experience that doesn’t rely on the latest in technology or cutting-edge graphics to deliver an adrenaline-pumping thrill ride. It’s just the opposite, and that’s by design. This title aims to recreate the year 1999 as it was on the World Wide Web, albeit with this slightly tweaked reality: That Web can also be accessed and browsed while you sleep, courtesy of mind-reading headbands.
Now I could try to explain just exactly what Hypnospace Outlaw is all about, something that will be easier for Web 1.0 users to grok more so than younger folk who grew up post-90s, but I think I’ll let the Switch announcement trailer do some of the heavy lifting (and heady explaining…or not):
Hypnospace Outlaw is a ’90s internet simulator in which you scour Hypnospace’s wide variety of weird and wonderful websites to hunt down wrongdoers, while avoiding viruses and adware, and downloading a plethora of apps that may or may not be useful.
The first thing that should be immediately clear is that Hypnospace Outlaw is set up to play like a computer user’s desktop experience. That takes a little getting used to, especially since my brain got confused as to whether I was playing a video game or traveling back in time to use a web browser akin to Netscape Navigator and the like. The next thing that becomes obvious is that this title — developed by Tendershoot, Michael Lasch, and ThatWhichIs Media, published by No More Robots (who supplied us with a review code) and now, in this version, licensed by Nintendo — was originally a PC release. The navigation of the in-game browser and its various widgets were tailor-made for the point-and-click, drag-and-drop, scrolly-wheel functions of a mouse and keyboard. But the Devs have done a solid job of making much of the console port pain go away when it comes to the Switch controller (with the exception of a somewhat slow and imprecise joystick):
— Jay Tholen 💿👅💿 (@jaytholen) August 18, 2020
But beyond the technical aspects, which disappear to the back of your mind once you get comfortable with the controls, the real joy of this game is in reliving a heightened version of 1999’s websites, the many and varied characters who populate and interact with them, and the razor-sharp writing that suffuses the whole thing. You play a volunteer “Enforcer”, essentially a moderator who will respond to client and company complaints by seeking out offenders and dropping the ban hammer on things like offensive content, malware, and methods of financial transaction that try to get around the system’s built-in currency. Ah yes, you didn’t think this was a free and open Internet, did you? Nope, in fact, you’re in the semi-freelance employ of MerchantSoft, a tech company that runs Hypnospace for users to browse the web while they sleep. Here’s a bit more on your job as an Enforcer:
As part of your job as a Hypnospace Enforcer, you’ll be watching out for copyright infringement, internet bullying and more, with reports and rewards coming direct from the Hypnospace Patrol Department to your inbox. In your spare time, you can customize your HypnOS desktop however you see fit, with a variety of downloads, wallpapers, screen savers and helper bots to keep you company.
So slip on your Hypnospace Headband™, and keep these key directives in mind:
– Crawl through Cyberspace: Scour the darkest corners of the Web for scumbag users who violate Hypnospace law!
– Dangers and delights: Download groovy GIFS and MIDI files, but watch out for adware, toolbars and hackers!
– Treasure hunting: Do your job to earn Hypnocoins, or ignore your inbox and go hunting for hidden pages, downloads and secrets!
– Relive your childhood: Equip obnoxious screensavers and skins for your desktop, and wiggle your mouse pointer around to make pages load faster!
The beauty of Hypnospace Outlaw is in its too-real weirdness. All of the websites are fictional, but they also function exactly like any number of defunct former sites on GeoCities, Angelfire, and the like. They are embarrassingly bad, poorly designed, barely functional, and easily hacked thanks to ne’er-do-wells and ever-present ad-ware, and that’s all intentional on the part of the game’s developers. These shoddy websites form a sort of breadcrumb trail, or pieces of a puzzle if you will, that help the Enforcer to weed out wrongdoers from the many clients using Hypnospace. Some are just well-meaning teachers sharing their kids’ artwork, some are teens using the internet to bully each other, and others are grifters and snake oil salesmen looking to make an easy buck over the web. It’s your job to bring them all to Internet justice!
While it might be a bit soul-crushing to scour this virtual and alternate reality Net like a narc just to get paid in cryptocurrency, it’s also a super-fun way to revisit past Internet dangers without risking your IRL PC. You can download all sorts of music, wallpapers, stickers, and soundscapes; you can get a free AI assistant (and then pay to uninstall it… in some cases multiple times); search each webpage for Pokemon-like critters to add to your collection; and you can even adopt digital pets that may or may not assist you in your Enforcement cases. It’s all very weird. It’s all very 90s. And because those two things are inextricably linked, it’s all very meta.
Hypnospace Outlaw is a quirky blast from the past made fun and functional for the present, and I’d highly recommend checking it out if you’re into retro tech, 90s culture, point-and-click adventures, or chill gaming. I know I’ll be logging back in ASAP.
Hypnospace Outlaw is now available on Steam, available for pre-order on Switch (with a free demo available now) and Xbox One, all for 25% off wherever you purchase it, and will be available on those latter systems August 27th!
Dave Trumbore is Collider’s Senior Editor overseeing Games, Animation, and all those weird Saturday-morning cartoons no one else remembers. Test his trivia IQ on Twitter @DrClawMD