Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Super Stardust HD

You know something? I love dual thumbstick shooters. Man, they are sooo addicting. Perhaps my love for them started when I first played MADTv, but I think it runs deeper. I just can't remember how or why. Perhaps they are also the root of my soft spot for cooperative multiplayer based games. To me, there are few experiences more gratifying than duking it out against the computer with a buddy by your side.

For some odd reason, I completely ignored Super Stardust HD, refusing to do any research on it, despite its overall popularity. I thought it would be a top down shooter similar to the likes of Meteos or Ikaruga, both of which are games I share a love-hate relationship with. Then I found out it was a Dual Thumbstick shooter. And with Trophies and Co-op to boot. No other words needed to be said. Now the game sits on my Ps3's HDD, and I play it on nearly a daily basis. What a fun game.

The base version of SSHD is a fairly no-frills game. You've got arcade, cooperative, and planet mode. I can't think of any significant differences between Arcade and Planet mode off the top of my head. Basically, you have a handful of planets. Each one is harder than the one before it. You pick a planet, and off you go. SSHD does things a little differently from, say, Geometry Wars, by making the playing field a 3 dimensional spherical grid, rather than a plain ol' square 2d grid. I like this idea better than Geometry Wars because it gives you more breathing room. The concept is simple; the planet is being constantly assaulted by a hailstorm of asteroids, commits, and other space debris, and you get points by clearing them out. If you collide with one of them, you die (unless you have a shield powerup). This sounds simple, but as the rocks begin to break into smaller pieces as you hit them, things get hectic very quickly. The asteroids will keep coming, all while you break down the ones already floating around into smaller, yet-just-as-deadly pieces. To throw some variety into the formula, a handful of enemies will also sometimes appear to give you trouble, as well as a boss at the end of each planet.

To give you another thing to keep in mind, there are three weapons, and three types of asteroids. Each weapon destroys a corresponding rock type faster than the other two. There's the Gold Crusher, which is essentially a flamethrower, which melts even the largest of gold rocks down to size within seconds, and is good for crowd control but is relatively weak. There's the Rock Crusher, your standard issue spread gun that's become so synonomous with arcade shooters, and is most effective against regular asteroids. And finally there's the Ice Crusher, a thin, long range weapon that is fairly powerful but not so great when there's debris all around you. It specializes in ice chunks.

Frequently hidden within asteroid chunks are glowing green bits that secrete tokens. Most commonly, they just contain extra points. But sometimes they upgrade your weapons when you touch them. Yep, each weapon can be upgraded, up to 200%. At 100% your Rock crusher fires 4 shots simultaneously with a good rate of fire and in a wide arc, invaluable for busting through crowds. Your Ice crusher fires also fires four shots (but in a much smaller spread arc) and has an exceedingly high rate of fire, good for chipping away at bosses. Not really sure what happens with the Gold Crusher at 100%..maybe longer range? I was too busy blasting stuff to really analyze it. When you collect yet another weapon token, even when that weapon is maxed out, it temporarily boosts to 200% power. I find this to be most useful with the Rock Crusher, which at 200% power shoots 5 shots simultaneously, at a rate of fire to rival that of the Ice Crusher. It's awesome.

Besides blowing up asteroids and collecting point tokens, there are a couple other ways to boost your score beyond that of your peers. First, by staying alive. The longer you go without dying, the higher a point multiplier at the bottom right corner of the screen will continue to slowly count up. It resets to zero once you die. Next thing is boosting. If you're in a serious pinch, your little ship can blast itself out of harm's way via a momentous burst of thrust, steamrolling anything that gets in the way. This takes a while to recharge, but is a good thing to have. If you can collect a bunch of tokens while boosting, you get consecutively more points for each one you collect. Another way are special asteroids. These guys are marked by a red hexagon with a counter inside. Destroy the asteroid that lands there, and another marker will spring up, marking the location of the next special asteroid. Keep destroying them until the counter reaches zero, and the next one to spawn will be a gigantic green one, which will spawn a crowd of several tokens, perfect for boosting to collect extra points.

I haven't tried the co-op yet, but it seems that with this version, both players share one screen. There is an expansion available with split screen, but while this grants more freedom, I've read that the framerate can take slight dips when things get especially hectic, and really, a smaller screen makes it harder to spot those smaller pieces that can kill you just as easily as the hulking large ones. By staying close together in the single screen coop, the two of you develop a link that strengthens your weapons. A good way to promote teamwork.

Graphically, the game performs well. I havent noticed any framerate issues (not that I've been looking), and there have been no hitches or glitches. The game's realistic 3d representation of a 2d game remind me of LittleBigPlanet, where objects on the screen looked so real they could have been sticking out of the television screen. The soundtrack was overall forgettable, but I have found myself humming it after particularly long sessions, only to quickly replaced by something from Gundam 00.

Super Stardust HD is a fun game that I'd recommend to anyone. It's concept is simple, and implemented very well. If you're looking for a game of epic proportions, this isn't it, but it does provide an incredibly addicting way to pass the time, if you're bored. On a scale of 1-10, I'd give it a 8.5.

Another Take (July 6th, 2009):

So, the other day I downloaded both the Team and Solo expansion packs for this game, almost entirely on a limb. There are things I liked and disliked about both of them. I'll start with the Solo pack, which adds Endless, Survival, Bomber, and Time attack. Among these, Endless is my favorite. In Endless, you basically just have to survive as long as you can. The waves will never end. The game will throw everything it's got at you, and on a constant basis. If you thought the Planet and Arcade modes were crazy, you haven't seen anything yet. Debris of various types drop in by the hundreds, and enemies appear in far greater numbers (there are also more varieties). On the bright side, there's so much stuff flying around, leading to an excess amount of green rocks, you'll have all of your guns fully upgraded (and a decent stash of bombs and ship lives) probably within the first few minutes of playing. Which is good, because you'll be needing all the firepower you can get to blast your way through this neverending, unforgiving blizzard of space junk. Occasionally a nuke will appear, which you can detonate to wipe the entire playing field, leaving only a veritable hoard of power ups. This rest lasts only a few seconds, however, as the rocks and enemies begin to pour in once more.

Bomber, while a mildly innovative concept, just didn't really stick with me. In this mode, you start out with 10 bombs, and try to last as long as you can using bombs and ONLY bombs to survive. Survival felt more like a novelty than anything else. Instead of shooting your way through stuff, you are challenged to simply manuever through them, as your weapons are, for the most part, useless against the indestructible space probes that land on a mildly freqent basis.
Haven't tried Time attack yet, but I guess it's not hard to guess what it is: blast your way through a level in record time.

The Team Pack is pretty nice, I think. It introduces split-screen co-op. While there's obvious benefits to now being able to go wherever you want, the game does run at a slightly less smooth (but still noticeable in comparison to single player) frame rate. Also, the resource sharing rules remain unchanged; both of you share ONE boost, and your lives and bombs are pooled together. Fortunately, a downed partner is able to come back when you reach a check point. The Team pack also features a Ship Editor, where you can change the appearance of your ship. The customizations are purely cosmetic, though, and given how small your ship is, and further aside the fact that you won't be paying any attention to how cool it looks while blasting through space junk, it's a pretty pointless feature.

The packs also come with remixed musical scores. You can choose to hear the game in either an Orchestral or Retro remix. I haven't heard much of the Retro yet, but I really like the Orchestral themes.

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