Super Stardust Ultra
If you include the original Amiga release from 1993, the Stardust franchise has a long history on a multitude of gaming platforms. It should come as no surprise that the modern iteration, Super Stardust, has found its way to the PS4. After appearances on PS3, PSP, and Vita, the new installment looks prettier but plays virtually identically to its predecessors. A few new modes add a small bit of variety for franchise faithful, but the core design conceit is beginning to feel outdated compared to more robust and sophisticated arcade shooters in recent years.
Super Stardust Ultra’s main appeal is the Arcade mode, which places your multidirectional shooting spaceship on a vast spherical planetoid. You shoot asteroids and aliens while desperately gobbling up power-ups as they float past. Enemies are vulnerable to one of three weapons, and switching between the rock crusher, gold melter, and ice splitter is essential for racking up those high scores. High-speed boosts and devastating bombs add to the arsenal, but it’s ultimately your ability to rapidly manipulate the twin control sticks that will maneuver you out of danger and onto the leaderboards. Large objects break apart as you shoot, so there’s a bit of strategy in how you focus your fire. Enemy placement converges on your current location, leading to a need for frantic movement and dodging.
Battles are intense, and the constant colorful explosions and effects lead to the same eye fatigue they always have. The visual splendor is impressive, but sometimes particularly vibrant explosions block one’s view of the action, which is a big problem in a game that requires this level of precision. The addition of optional stereoscopic 3D is another visual wow factor, but again, I’m not convinced that it helps with the already overwhelming visual confusion. While different enemy and asteroid colors change the ideal weapon to use, there’s too little variety in the way those enemies attack and move to maintain interest across multiple levels. The challenge comes simply from having more things onscreen, and rarely from more challenging patterns of attack. Planet-ending bosses are repeated across levels, with the only major change being that you have a second twin of the boss to confront in later battles.
The other eight modes are a mix of old and new, but few have the appeal of the core experience. Endless modes, survival, and time attack simply juggle the objective in a new way, while more novel modes like Bomber (no weapons, only bombs) and the new Blockade (a Snake-style trail of rocks spawns behind you) feel more like mini-games than full-fledged innovative ways to experience the game. These new variations failed to hold my attention for a fraction of the time I spent in the core Arcade levels.
For a select group of players, the most significant addition will be the new interactive-streaming option. This variation on Endless mode allows viewers of your live stream to vote on how the fight unfolds, throwing more enemies in, or a much needed boost of power-ups into the level. Even as a Twitch amateur, it was easy to hop in and let friends contribute to the fun.
Local multiplayer adds some value. Classic co-op limits your movement options so both players can remain in view, so I found the better option by far to be the split-screen cooperative mode. In addition, a four-player versus match includes an impressive array of customization options, but the tiny planets and ships in four-player split screen are hard to track on anything but the largest monitors or TVs.
Super Stardust is absolutely a capable and fun twin-stick shooter, and this iteration ably presents the experience for the new generation of console. The biggest dilemma confronting the title is its competition. Games like Resogun (developed by Super Stardust’s original studio, Housemarque) and the more recent Geometry Wars titles both offer more refined and varied gameplay loops. To stand up to the other current genre leaders, Super Stardust Ultra could have benefited from a more comprehensive refit.
Super Stardust Ultra is still a fun twin stick shooter, but not enough has changed to keep it compelling after so many years.