Monday, January 27, 2020

Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha (Switch) Review

Multi-game retro collections and "shmup" games are two things I enjoy.   It therefore follows that I would be excited to review Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha, a retro collection of six shoot-em-up (shmup) games on the Switch.  The games contained are a healthy sampling of the genre, with some unique samples that I had not experienced before.  The game selection menu doesn't have any frills, but you can thankfully return to it at any point, a necessary feature sadly lacking in other game collections.

The first three games are Strikers 1945 I, II and III.  All three are very similar in gameplay and plane selection.  When I started the first one, it looked very familiar to me, but was missing a certain secret plane that I remember.  When I got to the third Strikers, I figured out why.  In college, there was a Strikers 1945 III arcade machine in the small arcade in the student union building.  I remember playing it several times back in the day, and one day seeing the secret plane that transforms into a robot for its bomb attack.  Of course I thought that was cool and would remember it. It's a transforming robot!

Anyway, memories aside, the three games are similar vertical scrolling shooters that task you with shooting down many enemies, dodging lots of bullets, and fighting a boss at the end that predictably has several forms.  In fact, most games in this collection fit that bill.  Each plane has a different shot pattern and bomb attack.  One cool thing is that each fighter has a special charge attack.  There is an energy meter at the bottom of the screen that charges to a few levels as you play.  Holding down the shot (not auto shot!) button charges it up if you have enough energy, and lets it fly.  Some will start as soon as you charge it enough, and sustains as long as you hold the button while having energy.  It's a useful attack, as most will cover for a craft's weakness.  For example, if the normal shot is very central-focused, the charge shot might be a spread, or vice-versa.

While these games are fun, they definitely show their arcade roots.  While a lot of shmups I play feel more focused on having dodge-able spread patterns, Strikers would rather you explode and pump another quarter into the machine.  The hit box and enemy attacks do not feel forgiving, and edge into the cheap territory, even on the default difficulty.  I would have loved an auto-bomb feature, but I didn't see one.  I found it much better playing the game while docked and on a TV, instead of handheld mode.  Also, the first few stages being in a random order is nice for replayability.

Next up is Sol Divide, the only side-scrolling shooter in the collection.  Besides that, it also looks the most different because of the digitized 3-D character models.  Both player and enemies will look familiar to anyone who played a lot of games in the mid-90s.  Because of this, all on-screen characters are much larger than in the other games, and there are fewer enemies as a result.

To further differentiate Sol Divide, there are only three playable characters, and no randomization of the stages. The only difference is after the first stage, you can choose the second.  You will end up doing the other choice right afterwards, so it doesn't really make a difference.  The player also gets a melee attack, and can cast various spells that are obtained while playing.

The magic aspect is really neat, as it provides a unique take on the bomb mechanic.  Some spells hit the whole screen, while some hit a much narrower area. There is even one that can make you invincible for a short time.  Melee attacks are just about the opposite.  They are clunky, weak and unreliable.  You might think that when an enemy rushed into your face would be there time to use a melee attack, and you should be right.  However, it doesn't knock them away or do anywhere close to enough damage.  That's assuming you can even pull it off.  Most times that I try, the enemy gets to swing first, and stuns me out of my attack.

Sadly, you can get stunned out of your spells, too.  It's possible to stun the enemy, but it is not common enough.  Your character model is big, making it very easy to get hit, and nigh impossible to dodge a lot of things.  To add insult to injury, you don't have any invincibility after taking a hit, so your health can sink like a rock for no real reason.  Sol Divide started off as an early favorite in the collection, but definitely wasn't by the end.  The aforementioned issues coupled with the "start the last stage over when continuing on it" nonsense saw to that.  It's still fun, just not the whole way through.

Dragon Blaze retains the fantasy aspect present in Sol Divide, but returns to the vertical shmup format of Strikers.  In fact, it's a lot like Strikers.  Instead of choosing a plane, you choose a dragon and rider.  Of course I chose the skull dragon first once I saw it.  You get a magic meter, which allows you to do a charge attack, and a bomb.  The most unique aspect in this game is the ability to separate from your dragon ally.  This will leave it in place to shoot while you move around.  It took me awhile to get used to that functionality, and to find it actually useful.  It's good for bosses and strong monsters, but only in spurts.  Supposedly there is a way to use it to one-shot a boss, but I couldn't get it to work on the only boss I saw the opening for.  It's a fun game, and the random path through the first four stages gives some decent replay.

Last, but certainly not least, is Zero Gunner 2.  I wasn't sure what to think at first, as the nice sprite graphics were replaced with early 90s 3-D.  Regardless of how it looks, it may be the most unique title offered in the collection.  It's still a vertical shmup for the most part (some parts scroll horizontal, but it's all top-down view), but you can change the direction you are shooting.  At first, I didn't like it.  It was a pain to stop shooting, change direction, and try to shoot another enemy.  After a try or two, I figured out that turning the ship doesn't mean you have to stop firing.  Now, you won't be a whirling dervish of death, but it made the game much easier, and much more fun.

Sadly, there are no bombs.  Even the method of powering up is different.  There are power-up icons to collect, but really you get stronger by grabbing the little "E" icons that fly out of everything you blow up.  Once I learned they gravitate toward you when you aren't shooting, it made it easier to collect the ones that pop up near the edge of the screen.  Too bad the other games don't have that ability.  Like every other game in the collection, you perform best when not dying.  The loss of damage when you are destroyed makes the games more challenging than I think it should, but it's very much in line with that old-school mentality.

I think Zero Gunner 2 is the easiest game of the bunch.  The stages are not, because you really have to fight your shmup instincts and stay in the middle to deal with all the enemies.  If you do the natural thing and stay near the bottom/back, way too many enemies will blindside you from that direction.  It's kind of annoying.  On the flip side, bosses tend to be much easier (save the near final boss), as you can usually get behind them and avoid most of their attacks.

Overall, Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha is a good collection of shmups.  It was enjoyable, even if not as fair as more contemporary offerings in the genre.  It's still worth getting and playing for vertical shooter fans.

The Good:
Six shoot-em-up classics on one cartridge/download.

The Bad:
Given more recent offerings in the genre, the games can feel dated.

The SaHD:
You know things will be hard when the default "normal" is 5 out of 7 on the scale.

(Review copy of Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha was received from the publisher.)