There are many things that make games addictive, and arcade-style games seem to be some of the best examples. In 1979 Atari took the world by storm releasing a coin-op game by the name of Asteroids. The concept was very simple, because after having made a demonstration with one large indestructible asteroid people still fired at the rock. So, the developers figured that making a game where you could blow up smaller asteroids, along with an alien or two, would be a good idea – and indeed it was! The game sold extremely well, and its mechanics are to a large extent used in the recently released game by the name of Starscape. Eight years ago Epic MegaGames released a surprisingly good game called Tyrian. This game featured a special way of upgrading your ship, because you could choose between a great number of ships, weapons, shields, generators, bombs and more. You could upgrade all of these in progressively expensive levels, usually resulting in very powerful items. Tyrian is by many considered as the best overhead-shooter on any platform to date, and even though Starscape uses some of the same mechanics I do wish they borrowed more, but more on that later.
The story goes, as quoted by the developers:
“The Aegis was built as a deep space science research station to study and implement new theories in faster than light travel. Based on manipulating space-time using an artificial black hole, the station was forced to travel outside our solar system so as to safeguard Earth. Travelling under conventional drive the journey took 5 years, during which the crew slept in cryogenic storage. On arrival in interstellar space the drive could at last be activated. As the drive began to activate it sent out ripples in space-time, within another dimension alien intelligence became aware of the experiment.
As the drive became unstable the Aegis and all it’s support vessels were pulled inside the drive and through a rip in space-time. Expecting destruction the crew were instead scattered to different locations, marooned within a dimension they would come to know as the grid. The station itself however was headed for a very specific location, an alien fleet lying in wait for their arrival. Lightly armed the station was soon overwhelmed and boarded, strangely the remaining skeleton crew were ignored.
The invaders were nightmarish amalgamations of metal and flesh, dead alien eyes staring as their mechanically enhanced legs stomped across the deck. With jerkily robotic movements and wheezing pneumatically assisted limbs they begin dismantling the station. Moving methodically they came at last to the drive room and quickly extracted the prototype dimension drive and main computer core.
Unable to stand idly by chief engineer Rendon attacked, using an industrial welding torch she scythed off the leg of the nearest attacker. Devoid of emotion and seemingly without discussion, two nearby aliens stopped their dismantling efforts, disarmed the chief and dragged her away struggling and screaming.
No sooner had they attacked than they had left, apparently taking only items they deemed important, the station was abandoned. Emerging from hiding the remaining handful of crew began to pick up the pieces and repair the station. Eventually they discovered the stable wormholes that the aliens had used to come and go, entering one they began to look for the missing crew. After jumping from one node to another the Aegis finally stumbled upon one of its original probe ships. Thankfully the one-man ship was still functional and contained one of the few military test pilots assigned to the mission.
You are that pilot, your adventure now begins....”
The game itself is split into five zones where the aliens as usual get progressively harder. Your ship and the Aegis, which is like your mothership, need to collect the five pieces of the drive, save lost space-marines, and hopefully get out of the grid and back to safety. At the beginning of the game you’ll be presented with a fairly good tutorial that shows you how the Aegis works, and basically letting you know what to do. Much of the game is spent inside the Aegis, because here you research technology, build new blasters, rockets, engines, batteries etc. Researching and building requires a fixed amount of minerals, but you’ll also need to specify how many scientists you want working on the given project. As you save space-marines you can put more researchers into the projects, which reduces the time it takes to finish what you’re doing, as long as you have enough minerals. You’ll also need to arm the Aegis itself, because in most levels it’ll be near you fighting off any alien that gets close. However, the Aegis can very well be crushed, so fitting it with turrets and a cannon is smart.
Like in Tyrian most of the weapons, engine etc can be upgraded, although not to such an extent. You’ll have a fairly nice selection of items to purchase, but it could naturally be bigger. When building a new ship you have to build a new hull, then move into the docking bay, where you can have one default ship and three new ones that you can customize. The ship needs an engine to provide thrust, generators to provide power, batteries, which are used to provide power when the engine and the weapons are used at the same time, a gravity beam, which is used to harvest minerals, and last but not least the weapons you decide to use.
At first glance it’s very easy to notice the fact that Starscape is entirely 2D. A good game certainly doesn’t have to be in 3D, although many benefit from it. It’s hard to say whether Starscape would look better with polygonal spaceships and such, because there tends to be a great deal of action going on at the same time, and the engine used in Starscape renders it all in a colorful and fluid way. It actually surprised me how much action there could be on the screen at certain points, something we’re likely not to see for a while in 3D games. Those who have played Tyrian will most certainly remember the great artwork, and how every level had a unique look and feel to it. Starscape has an advantage in the fact that it isn’t dos based, so it can look a lot more detailed and less pixelated than earlier games. Moonpod is a fairly small company, so I didn’t expect such a huge amount of unique artwork, and neither did I get it. There is a decent number of both tiny and outrageously huge spaceships to battle, but many of them change very little when moving from zone to zone.
One of the things that puzzled me about this game is its way of getting you to play, even if it’s not really that exciting. It took me nearly twelve hours to finish the game and end up at the top of the web-based high-score list, and much of that was spent simply harvesting minerals. Spending about an hour blowing up asteroids and beaming in tiny chunks of colored rocks doesn’t sound like the most thrilling way to spend your day, but the idea of upgrading the blasters, the rockets, the engine, or whatever to a new level just keeps you, or at least kept me going. To finish one zone you have to find the lost space-marines, finding, and blowing up an alien mining vessel with the coordinates to the mothership, moving to the new coordinates, and hopefully annihilating the normally quite huge opponent.
Starscape’s storyline progresses in a mildly interesting way, because you’ll at time see dialogues with the various crewmembers. I must say that a lot more could’ve been done to make the storyline interesting, but since this is an arcade-style game that you play merely to blow stuff up you don’t really miss a grand saga unfolding in-between the missions.
Another impressive feat, considering the size of Moonpod, is the quality of the sound effects and the music. The audio stays true to the arcade heritage, although the music tends to get bland and slightly annoying after an hour or two. Turning down the music and putting on DJ Shadow was my solution, but yours may very differ.
Two years after Tyrian was released, in 1997 that is, Virgin released a game called SubSpace. That game, which is another asteroids clone, was the first to have massive multiplayer online support in its genre. You could choose between eight ships and battle against up to 250 other human controlled spaceships. Obviously, multiplayer support of that magnitude isn’t easy to implement, but it would at least be nice to see something similar in Starscape – perhaps in a sequel...
It’s refreshing to see how much can be done to the recipe that Spacewar and Asteroids pioneered. Starscape both a good looking and sounding game, so even though quite a few things could be done to make it spectacular it’s still quite a find considering the price being merely $24.95 (downloadable version). One feature I would’ve especially liked to see is a mode where you could see your score when playing, and by using the Internet have the game download the highscore list and have it display how much is left until you climb to the next spot, and possibly how much the person beneath you need to get to past your score.
Fans of arcade-style games should seriously consider this game, but people who haven’t grown up with that kind of games will most likely not appreciate the 2D graphics and extremely repetitive gameplay.