Star Soldier Review
There aren't any wacky or innovative gimmicks here. Your job in each of the 10 different levels is to shoot and dodge your way through wave after wave of ships and bullets until you reach, and eventually destroy, the boss of the level. The screen scrolls vertically (top to bottom), but enemy ships come from all directions. In fact, this is one of the few shmups I've ever played where you have to keep an eye out for ships swooping in from the side of the screen on kamikaze runs. There are three different ships to choose from. Each has a primary weapon, which can be upgraded three times by collecting power up boxes, and a rechargeable sub-weapon, which, in addition to doling out major damage, can also erase bullets. A handy, 3-hit shield also kicks in once you fully upgrade your primary gun.
Fans of the shmup genre will find that Star Soldier harkens back to the no nonsense days when shooters were set in outer space and unconcerned with complicated weapon setups or scoring formulas. All but one of the game's 10 levels is set in outer space (above a moon, in a space station, in an asteroid field, etc.). Generic enemies appear and fly-by according to preset patterns, and you get points for blowing them up. The twin weapon setup is just right for this game, because it keeps you jockeying between regular bullets and charge blasts, and is just "underpowered" enough to ensure that you need to keep your bullet and ship dodging skills sharp. A popular term for hectic shmups is "bullet hell." I'd describe Star Soldier as "enemy hell," since enemies are constantly swooping into view from the top, bottom, and sides of the screen at all times... not to mention the gigantic boss ships that have multiple attacks and combat forms.
Certainly, Star Soldier would be better if the hero ships had more weapon choices, or if the game included screen-filling super bombs. Even so, the three ship-two weapon setup and multi-form bosses provide enough variety to keep repeated plays spicy. There are also a number of play modes to dig into and jump between. Initial play modes include a normal arcade mode, a 2-minute score attack mode, and a 5-minute score attack mode. The score attack levels are different than those used in the main game, which is nice because you can experience two "bonus" levels in addition to the 10 "regular" ones. The game keeps track of high scores in these three modes and automatically records replay runs in the score attack modes. Not bad for a game that only eats roughly 300KB on a memory stick. After you beat the game a few times, you'll eventually unlock a boss rush mode, a sound test menu, and a stage select option (woo!). Last, but not least, this is also one of those rare PSP games that supports game sharing. If you know someone else with a PSP, you can send them any of the levels in the game and they'll be able to play it until they turn their system off. Sure, a legitimate 2 player wifi mode would've been preferred, but game sharing is nevertheless a welcome bonus.
Truth be told, the PSP version of Star Soldier is a "port" of the PS2 version that was released a couple years ago (also only in Japan). The PS2 game can be imported for approximately $30, whereas the PSP game will run you at least $50 right now. The PSP version is well worth the extra dough. Along with the fact that you can run it on your PSP without having to buy a boot disc or a mod chip, the PSP version of Star Soldier is simply superior in every way to its PS2 counterpart. There are 3 different ships to pick from (instead of just 1), the music has been reworked so it doesn't sound like a broken 16-bit synthesizer, and the graphics employ a super-widescreen aspect ratio that displays more of the playing field than the PS2 version does in its "rotate" mode.
The only drawback to the super-wide display is that you have to hold the system vertically while playing. The d-pad sits below, with the screen above, and the buttons up top. You'd assume that holding the system like that would be uncomfortable, but it isn't. I put in a marathon 3-hour session the day I received the game and the only pain I felt afterward was a very minor twinge in my left wrist. That's how I feel after holding the system normally for 3-hours too. Reaching the buttons and tapping them is no problem, and the design of the PSP makes it very difficult to obscure the screen with your right hand. It almost seems like Sony took vertical use into account when designing the system.
Any misgivings you might have over holding the unit sideways will drop away once you see what the super-wide display brings to the table. There's a ton of room to maneuver, even when the screen seems packed with bullets, and the gigantic bosses fit completely within the screen boundaries. In the PS2 game, sometimes as much as half the boss would be situated off screen so that the player's ship would still have enough room to move. Thanks to the super-wide aspect ratio, you can admire the enemy's gigantic contraptions while you're blowing them to bits. From a purely technical standpoint, the graphics don't even come close to what the PSP is capable of. Even though many of the ships and environments were put together from texture-mapped polygons, the game looks and feels primarily 2D. The only objects that actually look 3D are the bosses and explosions. On the upside, the game absolutely never slows down. The frame rate is a smooth 60FPS at all times.
By the same token, the audio won't win any end of the year awards, but it does get the job done. There are plenty of the requisite laser and explosion sound effects, and speech clips are used to count off the continue countdown and score attack timers. The soundtrack is heavily tinged with 80's guitar riffs and fast-paced action beats. Most importantly, the developers employed a higher-quality synthesizer and some real instrument samples for the PSP game, so the various guitars, drums, and so forth don't sound like computer-generated crap like they did in the PS2 game.
If you're a fan of the shmup genre, definitely take the risk on Star Soldier. It'll cost you roughly $50 to import it, which isn't much more than a domestic game costs. The Japanese disc plays just fine in North American PSP units, the game's menus are in English, and there's no story text whatsoever--so you don't have to worry about lockouts or language barriers. Besides, what else are you playing on the PSP right now?!
8/19/2005 Frank Provo