The Game: The Sentinel (1986)
Developer: Geoff Crammond
System: Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, BBC Micro, Commodore 64, PC (DOS)
The Premise: Create and possess robots to outsmart a monolithic entity in a game by the creator of Stunt Car Racer and Grand Prix.
Is It Any Good?: If this game had been made today by some fluffy-cheeked, Ray-Banned indie dev it would be getting hailed as the future of puzzle/strategy games. The game originally released on the venerable BBC Micro but was converted to all major 8 and 16 bit computers, including the version I grew up with on my trusty C64
The Sentinel revolves around a wholly original set of mechanics that remain utterly unique to this day. In simple terms, it’s a puzzle game based on spatial awareness and energy management. You take the role of a consciousness which uses Synthoids (Rotatable but stationary robots) to traverse a series of craggy, tile-based landscapes by constructing new robot bodies and transferring into them.
To fuel this process you need to absorb the energy of the objects around you, namely trees, boulders and your previous robot shells. You can also create boulders to stack robots on top of, so you can access higher ground. This is essential to defeat The Sentinel, a monstrous creature who sits high up, slowly rotating. To absorb it, you need to be able to see the base of the tile it’s standing on, which means climbing your way up the landscape step by step.
Meanwhile the Sentinel’s gaze breaks down every object it sees into trees, the basic one energy-unit object in the world. This includes you, so unless you have a hankering to be parkland you’ll want to make sure you’re one step ahead of it at all times.
This is where the energy management comes in. The trick is to act quickly, absorb your previous body and whatever objects you can see and move on; you can usually survive the Sentinel’s gaze but you’ll take an energy hit, leaving you less in reserve to advance further. Get to the top, absorb the Sentinel and transfer yourself onto its podium so you can warp to the next level and do it all over again.
Basically, The Sentinel plays like a kind of real-time board game, one where you never move your piece but move by building pieces one turn at a time. It’s a game that forces you to manage your time and resources by utilizing the titular monolith-creature-thing as a constantly ticking clock.
This makes the game a masterpiece of tension, the slow-burn nature of the gameplay quickly trains the player to scan their surroundings quickly for things to absorb and the best exit point, though the turbulent landscape is riddled with lethal ditches and dead-ends laying in wait to trap the unfocussed .
An official remake/reboot continues to elude the game which is a crying shame, as its timeless gameplay, simple premise and unique mechanics would make it ideal XBLA/PSN/Steam fodder. As a matter of fact, with every videogame under the sun seemingly getting turned into board games in recent years it’s amazing that nobody’s thought to convert this one, because its methodical pace and staggered flow seem naturally suited to the tabletop format.
The Sentinel is a masterpiece of minimalist design that marries an esoteric, almost hard sci-fi premise to mechanics that prove highly intuitive once digested. To this day it remains an utterly unique puzzle/strategy experience; you won’t have played anything like it before, and once you do you’ll never forget it.
Bonus Points: Though the game was highly regarded at the time it took twelve years for a sequel to be made: 1998’s Sentinel Returns on the PC and PS1. Sadly, it was a flop at retail though it did boast a soundtrack from none other than John Carpenter (One of the very few times the horror great – a passionate gamer – has actually worked in the medium). Pity it had to compete with muddy, overdesigned art direction and some godawful sound design:
Thankfully, several solid fan-made remakes have been available free on PC for years; the best is Zenith, which improves on the original with full 3D graphics, tooltips and mouselook. If you want to play the game (and you should), this is the version to try.
MOAR LIKE THIS PLZ: Sentinel Returns, Zenith, Populous, Chessmaster Live (Yes, I’m pushing it. Play the game and you’ll get it).