Starscape caused a dramatic change in my gaming
life. I'd grown up on games in the 8 bit era, and moved along each
year with new developments, but I'd started to get a little jaded
with games and begun to wonder if I'd grown out of them all together.
Of course I was completely wrong - all those 3D first person shooters
had numbed my brain! It took Starscape to remind me why games are
fun, and since then I haven't looked back. It prompted me to find
websites like shmups.com, buy a dreamcast and a pile of shooters,
and lately I've been eyeing up supergun hardware...
So, you'll have to forgive me if I rave a little
about this game, as it will always have a special place in my heart.
I'll try my best to offer a balanced opinion rather than a fanboy's
Starscape is an ingenious hybrid game - a shootemup with resource collecting and strategy elements.
The story (yes, it has one - and pretty good it is too), borrows heavily from classic scifi movies, but ads its own flavour- The research station 'Aegis' and its support ships are pulled into an alien dimension whilst testing out new faster than light technology. The crew are scattered across this dimension, called 'the grid'. You are the first crew member to be found by the Aegis - piloting a tiny ship with only a mining laser, and you soon discover that the Aegis was boarded by an unknown enemy who took most of the crew and stole the dimension drive.
It's a difficult game to quantify - Sinistar is closest to the gameplay core, and Tyrian to the the more complex ship construction parts. The easiest comparison to start with is Asteroids. The game has the same top down view, and you even start off shooting asteroids. They are quite different games though - in Starscape you need to mine asteroids to obtain gems which you can convert into new equipment. The bulk of the gameplay is a shmupfest that occurs within 'nodes' of the grid dimension. Nodes are about 4X3 screens and enemies range from fighters armed with a variety of weapons, to capitol ships that launch swarms of drones, or have strange abilites such a shield jammers or gravity pulses that suck you in and try to crush you.
To enter and exit each node, you need to dock with the Aegis which will then warp out. When you are between nodes you can execute a wide selection of tasks - put resources you have collected into research and development of equipment, rebuild your fighter or upgrade the Aegis defences, and choose a new node to enter from the warp map. The great thing is that this all happens outside of the shooter part of the game and doesn't water it down.
The entire game is broken down into 5 zones, each bigger than the last and containing new equipment, enemies and a boss ship. Bosses are extremely inventive, although the difficulty is a little mismatched and peaks with the third boss (perhaps because in later stages you will start to aquire some of the all powerful weaponry. Even so, they all take skill, and there's a real sense of achievment on beating them.
To break things up even more, a race of robots called the Xenarch also inhabits the grid, and has an outpost in each zone. The outposts can be found by picking up data cores left by enemy mining barges - and once there, they will usually trade technology information with you if you complete a simple task for them. You'll want to make finding the Xenarch outposts a priority because the technology they can offer is substantially more powerful than you can make on your own.
Once you've defeated a boss you will reclaim a section of the dimension drive from the wreckage (complete with a neat little animation showing the drive part being added.) Afterwards it's time to move on to the next zone. If you hang around too long the increasing migration of 'space worms' will make life too difficult anyway. Defeat all zone bosses and reclaim the 5 dimension drive parts to complete the game - easier said than done of course.
Aside from the unique gameplay experience on offer, the game's other forte is its graphics, and in particular the weapon and explosion effects. The game is 2D sprite based, but each sprite has a lovely lighing effect on it and objects like asteroids look so real you think you can pick them off the screen with your hand. Effects are on par with recent 3D shooters like Ikaruga - really I can't think of a shootemup that exists today that has better effects or such a wide variety - from around Zone 3 the weaponry on display is awesome.
Most of the sound effects are of a good standard with a couple of really great audio effects for some of the weapons - everything sounds unique. I'd have liked a little more music, but what there is doesn't get annoying, and in fact the title track is one of those that will stick in your head.
As well as the campaign mode, there's also 'Survival Mode' which removes all the strategy and ship building aspects, and pits the player against ever increasing waves of enemies. Starscape is not a horizontal/vertical bullet pattern-fest though, and if you aren't hooked by campaign mode I doubt Survival Mode will change your mind. Although it does make Starscape a good way to spend 20 minutes unwinding after a hard day at work with some mindless violence against aliens!
Some other points of note:
Starscape has an active high score table which is updated each month. You can even add your score from the demo version of survival mode.
The game was made by three people working out of a bedroom in the UK.
Taken as a whole Starscape provides something different, and yet still evokes feelings of nostalgia and joy - it's the sort of thing people would have made in the pre-3D era if they had the technology available to them. It's a slow starter, but I have yet to reccommend it to anyone who hasn't eventually fallen in love with the game. There's just something really special here that you can't quite put your finger on - like a really good book, you want other people to read it so you can talk about it.
I really wanted to give this game a ten, because it had such a profound effect on my gaming life, but I know it might not appeal to hardcore shmuppers who perhaps would prefer not to deal with the R&D and ship construction aspects of the game. Personally I like both, but I think 8 might be a fair score for people who are more interested in a purer form of shooter, so I've split the difference and given Starscape 9/10.
King of the hybrid shmups - 9/10