Super Stardust HD – Fresh, Spanky and All About The Space Junk

August 7th, 2009

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Really digging these summative titles rather than the generic ‘Super Stardust HD Impressions’ style of titling.

Can’t complain at $AUD3.50, can you?

A month or so ago Super Stardust HD, probably alongside other notable PSN highlights, was heavily reduced on the Playstation Store as part of a two year anniversary deal. Originally the game was $12.95 (if memory serves correctly), so paying just a fraction of that sure is incentive enough to demand a purchase. Hopefully Sony will continue this trend as other downloadable titles hit the two year mark.

Anyways, Super Stardust HD is an arena shooter in the same vein as Geometry Wars, except that the arena is mapped to the ozone layer of various planets and is hence spherical rather than a rectangular grid. The spherical format ensures that the player never has full view of the play area since the opposite side of the planet is always out of view, additionally the sphere has a visible edge along the perceived perimeter (if you look at it flat) which acts to obscure objects tapering in the distance.

Chunks of celestial matter (asteroids or comets – take your pick) land on the grid-patterned surface, floating around as obstacles. Shooting the matter will cause it to disperse, making way for both graphical and gameplay splendour as the rocks break apart, veering towards your general direction. Every now and then, once you’ve disintegrated enough space rock, a swarm of enemies will touch down and on their demise you complete the level. Repeat a few times over multiple acts to reach a final boss (which there are two predominate bosses, both themselves iterated on) before warping to the next planet.

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That’s right, Super Stardust HD features a level based system rather than a single high score shoot out. Combine this level structure with a rather tame difficulty (relative to the shmup genre) which doesn’t even offer a selectable hard mode (rather you must complete the game on normal and carry through), and Super Stardust HD in no way stifles the genre’s weak point: short length.

The shoot ’em up genre was born in the arcades, and as such the genre was designed with the arcade mentality of suckering as much money from the player while still keeping them at arm’s length from the end game. The most obvious device for achieving this was difficulty. By making a short game ultra difficult, developers could exaggerate the lastability of their titles while spending less in development. It’s because of dogged loyalty to these masochistic philosophies that the genre hasn’t survived very well in today’s mainstream.

Geometry Wars was a breakthrough in design as it cleverly disguised it’s length in a very organic fashion. There were no levels hence no real perception of repetition, rather than have the environmental scenes change with progression, the contents of the environment (ie. the enemies, their attack, spawn and swarm patterns) changed. This placed the endgame somewhere comfortably near infinity – a place where no player (or computer!) could ever reach.

Just by selecting the ‘Planet Mode’ mode, Super Stardust HD reveals its wares straight out – you can see it, 5 levels! Foolish indeed. Whether you gawk or admire this decision will depend on your faith to genre, I suppose. It’s a divergence, which can be rather refreshing.

‘Fresh’ and all like words spring to mind when describing Super Stardust‘s vibe. Surprisingly for a title of it’s age it retains a wonderful sense of said freshness, where the presentation and gameplay operate in unison. This is achieved through multiple design concoctions. The graphic design operates on two tiers. The first is based on general design sensibilities. The grid pattern and assortment of three primary-coloured, uniquely animated weapons all follow a very deductive approach to design. They’re simple, and as such are designed to be as visually useful to the player as they are attractive. This is very much in line with genre sensibilities.

The second element to the design mixture is the new-gen, the breaking and shimmering of glorious space junk. The space rock (in all three flavours) possess the most gorgeous sheen. With the amount of superfluous gloss added to neo-retro titles on the downloadable front, Super Stardust is commendable for being glossy, yet tastefully measured. More impressive though is the breaking apart of space rock. The transition from huge chunk to debris is almost unnaturally smooth and seamless. It’s simply wonderful to watch.

The deductive elements of the map, lasers and so forth meld beautifully from the spectacular mess of asteroid pieces floating around the ozone. Tidy + mess; it’s a particularly complementary design which wonderfully encapsulate the feeling of the game. That feeling being strung by the tightness of the core mechanics and variable unpredictability created by the debris.

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Due to the tangible progression of separated levels, Super Stardust HD‘s core gameplay has a level of required sophistication that separates it from Geometry Wars, making it feel a little more fully fledged. (That is, no sophistication, no meaningful justification for levels). As for those mechanics…

As I briefly mentioned before, your ship has access to three elemental types of lasers, each one respective of the different classes of space rock that come hurtling your way. The zappy, green pulsation of ‘Rock crusher’ is obviously good at hmm…crushing rocks, the flamethrower ‘gold meter’ melts away gold asteroids (why don’t they just collect the gold?), the nippy blue ice splitter is effective against ice. The three lasers represent the disparity between stages which fluctuate between the different types of rock. Level progression is therefore something like; rock level, gold level, ice level, mixed level #1, mixed level #2.

Bonuses such as laser upgrades, shields, ships and points mix things up a little too. Upon creating space debris or hitting certain objects these little trinkets spawn, operating as another variable to watch out for. Boosting, also is a neat trick and allows you to escape confrontation or simply smash right through it, about as gratifying as it is possibly lethal though, be cautious. It’s usefulness in the later stages make it a continually relevant draw card.

The culmination of laser and rock types, bonus trinkets and boost attacks (combined with the level-by-level progression) give Super Stardust the set up of something more than a one tick pony. Unfortunately what the game does exert itself in won’t last for long, which is why I found the $3.50 price point so delightful. ^_^

Leader boards and DLC packs are nice and all, but new modes approaching old content with an unsubstantial difference is not a selling point. Also, leader boards are an artificial lengthner which most people never fall for anyways. (Super Stardust, like Geometry Wars, can be troublesome with the mess of on-screen busyness, so applying myself here doesn’t feel particularly rewarding, considering) No, I’m not fussed about split screen multiplayer, survival or time attack modes, nor the new soundtrack, particularly when they demand such a premium. I mean, the difference between an ‘endless’ mode and playing the game from normal through to hard and beyond is negligible, surely.

I think that ore or less covers everything I’ve wanted to say about this title. With Bionic Commando Rearmed, Trash Panic and Wipeout Fury all at various levels of completion, I obviously have plenty more to discuss on PSN soon. Sorry ’bout the lack of updates too. I’m working on. 😀

Additional Readings

Q&A: Housemarque’s Kuittinen on Maya Pipelines, No Producers, and Super Stardust HD – Gamasutra

Govt Awarded Finnish Game Companies €10 Million – EDGE Online

Super Stardust (Amiga, DOS) Screenshot Gallery – MobyGames