Let's not start of on the wrong foot here. This scrolling beat-'em-up cum scrolling shoot-'em-up is a great little title. Dated might not quite be the right word, but it certainly is old-fashioned. I don't mean that it's set in 1940's England and filled with quaint and idyllic ways, as it is absolutely a futuristic game.
Rather, everything about it reminds of a time long since passed, which on the immature video game timeline, means about five or ten years ago. Part of the reason must be its turbulent development history. Originally due to be published over three years ago by Acclaim before their sensational collapse, The Red Star languished, before being picked up by the XS Games label for its current budget release.
Don't let that put you off. Though delays and changes of publisher are usually a sign to steer well clear, The Red Star is a perfect budget release, and that is not to belittle it in any way. If you paid full price you'd be forgiven for feeling that it lacked the graphical prowess and size to warrant a £40 price tag. At its low cost, however, it's an affordable nugget featuring occasionally excellent gameplay in two niche genres, that both see very few releases.
Based on a fairly unknown but critically acclaimed comic of the same name, the plot puts you in the shoes of one of three legendry warriors, who inhabit a pseudo-futuristic alternate vision of Communist Russia. What this brings to the game is the infallible style of the comic's artist Christian Gossett, which does add a polish to the otherwise average graphics.
'Tentatively having a first go with the fire button will quickly remind more discerning gamers of the classic Konami Contra games...'
So just how does The Red Star mix the aging scrolling beat-'em-up genre with the increasingly fashionable bullet hell shmup? The answer to that becomes apparent at the outset as you are thrown straight into the gameplay. Anyone over twenty will instantly be reminded of Streets of Rage when they move through the first few screens of the game, hacking and slashing with a basic set of close combat controls. Tentatively having a first go with the fire button will quickly remind more discerning gamers of the classic Konami Contra games, or the Metal Slug series, as they share the same energetic, quick-fire action that the earliest Metroid games introduced.
For anyone who hasn't spent their entire life playing too many video games, this means that one half of The Red Star combines an isometric perspective with roaming around fairly basic levels, brawling with closer enemies and unleashing a furious stream of lasers into more distant foes. This form of beat-'em-up is fairly unfashionable of now, but it is reassuring to see an old favourite still hanging on in.
The other half of the game initially becomes apparent when you encounter the bosses that pepper each level. To call them mini-bosses is somewhat of an understatement, as they are certainly sizeable challenges. They also appear with such regularity that they are more like their own sections of the level rather than bosses.
Each usually takes the form of some giant mechanical contraption, which folds out and opens around the screen, creating a claustrophobic metallic beast that pens you in before unleashing hundreds of bullets, which you must dance your way through, while returning fire at the weak points and weapons of your foe. It is at this point that you realise you are playing a bullet hell shmup, of the mould set by Radient Silvergun on the Saturn and perfected by Ikaruga on the GameCube.
Again, the bullet hell shmup is a fairly ancient form of the video game, but it is one that is growing in strength and becoming increasingly popular, particularly with the older gamer who remembers the genre first time round, and who longs for quick hits of intense gaming when adult life denies you whole evenings to while away on adventure games. Think of downing concentrated Ribena when you don't have time to make squash, and you're somewhere near the masochistic appeal of the schmup.
Generally, The Red Star mixes the two genres well, with the shmup sections outshining the combat elements, and though the portions that demand simultaneous bullet dodging and melee combat are tough, it never reaches the infuriating difficulty levels that push you into the heart-pounding world of zone gaming. There is nothing wrong with this of course, as it keeps the title accessible, but there are a few problems with the blend of genres.
The first is the isometric perspective, which is fine for the combat sections but a rather dubious choice for the bullet dodging. Imagine looking down on your character, partly from above and partly from the side. When the flat plane of bullets engulfs your semi-3D protagonist, it is hard to tell if they are at head height or nearer to knee level. Though it seems to be the former, it is a difficult one to call, and thus often hard to judge which part of your character should be dodging the sea of projectiles. It seems that the developers have created a fairly generous contact system to take account for this, which lets you get away with some fairly close shaves, but it's this that leads us to the second problem.
Shooters are about accuracy, pixel perfect precision and Zen-like control over you avatar. With the generous collision model and on-foot gameplay, you never quite feel you have this, which takes some of the edge and intensity away from The Red Star.
However, this is a modestly brilliant game throughout, and is thoroughly playable and very addictive. It has some inspired boss and bullet pattern design, and gives an immediate, rewarding sensation that truly belongs to the world of retro games. As an affordable dip into a strange land of niche gaming, it is worth every penny.