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Monday, December 08, 2008

Game Review: Super Stardust Portable

You're playing a PSP Game of the Year candidate.



The Good:
Stunning amount of depth in an otherwise static arcade shooter genre * Multiple ways to build up high scores, increasing replayability * Amount of content offered is just right * Glitzy visual effects and matching tunes

The Bad:
Slowdowns in some areas * Unbalanced difficulty level

Super Stardust HD blasted its way onto the PlayStation Network in June 2007 to positive reception. Best described as a cross between Asteroids and Geometry Wars, PS3 owners suddenly had an incredibly intense and addictive arcade shooter to pump up the adrenaline whenever needed. Just a little more than a year later after the success that was Super Stardust HD, the PSN welcomed its 2nd Super Stardust game – and this time, it’s for the PSP owners.

Super Stardust Portable is basically the same game as the PS3 hit so what you’re getting is essentially Super Stardust HD in the palms of your hands. Save for the swop between HD’s local co-op mode and Portable’s all-new Impact mode (more on that later), there’s almost nothing new here. That being said, I’d recommend that you give Portable a skip if you have played HD on the PS3 before, but for others who haven’t got the chance to experience Super Stardust in full 1080p glory, Portable is a great catch at only US$9.99 on the PSN.

As with the case with any arcade shooter, there is neither a convoluted story nor elaborate controls here. What remains is a simple concept of blasting an increasing number of asteroids, alien ships and parasitic organisms homing in from all directions by the second while piloting a lone spaceship. Due to the shallow objectives and often limited game mechanics, games in this genre often suffer from a lack of depth, quickly relegating themselves to a button-mashing fest of sorts within the first hour – if they are even able to keep players engaged till the hour mark.

Portable proves otherwise. Its ostensible pick-me-up-and-play simplicity is a certain draw factor, but once you start toying around with your spaceship, you will realize the impressive amount of depth this game possesses. For a start, Portable isn’t just about shooting your way through mindlessly – it’s about knowing when and where to use the right weapon. There are 3 weapons offered here, namely the wide radius fire green plasma gun “Rock Crusher”, focused rapid fire blue plasma gun “Ice Splitter” and auto-targeting flamethrower “Gold Melter”. Some weapons deal with specific enemies more effectively than the others, so knowing what weapon to use against what type of enemy is crucial. For instance, the Ice Splitter is best suited for floating icebergs, while the Gold Melter is more appropriate for the nefarious saw discs. What this translates into is that there is a surprising amount of strategy here, requiring you to constantly evaluate the situation and switch weapons on the fly – and this makes for a very intensifying gameplay.

Power-ups for each specific weapon can be gathered by blasting asteroids apart and digging into their glowing green cores, and again, Portable is going to astonish you with its depth here. Power-ups dished out by the Asteroids’ cores are random and they change every few seconds. For instance, you may see a power-up for the Rock Crusher one second, yet a power-up for the Gold Melter the next. What this means is that not only do you have to focus on dodging the obstacles, but also keep a look-out for the suitable power-up. In fact, the game constantly forces you to make decisions on which weapons to upgrade. If you have already maxed out a particular weapon to 100%, but yet collect another power-up for that maxed-out weapon, the power-up will provide a temporary boost for that weapon – meaning that weapon will become crazily powerful during that period of about 10 seconds.

Power-ups aren’t limited to those for the weapons, though. Some power-ups give you additional points, while others provide you with extra bombs and shields. That’s where the other capabilities of your spaceship come in. Not only do you have the 3 default weapons, but also the boost function and bomb attack. Your ship will become invincible when you boost, destroying any obstacles in your way, while the bomb will obliterate anything within its immediate vicinity, both of which help you to get out of tricky situations alive. All in all, there’s quite an amount of abilities for your little spaceship and it all boils down to knowing how to take advantage of each capability at the right time and at the right place. Personally, I dig the shield power-up. Say, you already have a shield on, but yet, you collect another shield-power-up. Upon collecting that additional shield power-up, your ship activates a bomb that has a slightly greater blast radius than the default bomb. Now, that’s a nice touch.

The frantic blasting and constant tactical decision making make for a really intense, fun and addictive gameplay, but I am at amazed at how Portable is able to draw me back into the game again and again even after I have completed all the levels. Part of this could be attributed to my desire to clock a higher score. But part of it could also be attributed to how the game rewards skills – and that means if you want to get a higher score, you’re going to have to invest some time into practising. I also like the way how there are several ways to bump up your scores: Getting a high score isn’t just about pulverizing as many obstacles as possible – it’s also about how rapidly you destroy them, building up score multipliers, and how fast you can clear a level. All these inject a great deal of replayability into the game.

As far as content goes, there are 5 worlds to blast through, with each world being further separated into 5 phases, bringing the total amount of levels to 25 here. At the end of each world, there would be a boss battle. Arcade mode allows you to go through all the worlds in a row, while Planet mode allows you to choose any unlocked world to play through. As mentioned, local co-op mode has been removed from Portable, but in its place is the all-new Impact mode. Impact mode disallows you to use any weapon, but instead, rely only on boosting and bombs to crush obstacles. It’s Super Stardust in a new flavor and it’s rather challenging and enjoyable, but there’s still no denying that there’s not a whole lot of content in this game. Considering that this is a US$9.99 downloadable title, this is a fact not questionable. In fact, for US$9.99, the amount of content offered here is just right.

Presentation-wise, this game is a showpiece. While it’s not comparable to experiencing Super Stardust in full 1080p glory on your big screen using the PS3, Portable still has quite an amount of stunning stuffs going for it. The visuals effects are generally very glitzy and with all the mayhem going on in your periphery, you can’t help but wish that there’s a feature that allows you to take a screenshot at that very moment. We just love explosions (that’s human nature!) and Portable certainly has lots of variety of them to keep us satisfied. My only gripe is that the game slowdowns when the action gets too thick – but that happens on a very seldom basis. Every world also has its own piece of tune as an accompaniment, and it’s all appropriate and great fare.

The only complain I have with this game is that it has a rather unbalanced difficulty level. The first world is extremely challenging, but you will find yourself steamrolling past the second and third world before the fourth world stops you dead with the requirement of god-like observation skills and precision dodging. The fifth and final world ramps up in difficulty, but is let down by an easy boss with some of the most predictable attack patterns. Regardless, all the worlds are still REALLY fun.

Final comments
Super Stardust Portable is a game that the PSP has been screaming for – a must-get title. You would get a console just to have a chance to play some games that are exclusive to that particular platform. Get the DS for Mario Kart DS, or get the Xbox 360 for Halo 3 and Gears of War, or get the PS3 for Metal Gear, and well, now I can say this: Get the PSP for God of War: Chains of Olympus and yeah, get the PSP for Super Stardust Portable too. Super Stardust Portable is simply THAT good.


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