There is no point starting anywhere else. The moment you jump into your first game of Super Stardust HD there are only two things you will think. The first is ‘Asteroids’ and the second is ‘Geometry Wars’. There is simply no denying that this most recent PSN shooter takes the Xbox LIVE classic’s twin stick controls and applies them to the proven boulder blasting formula from gaming’s earliest dawn.
Super Stardust HD isn’t just a lazy clone though, and in fact has a heritage that stretches back to its original release in 1993, long before Geometry Wars existed. Back then Stardust never shied away from comparisons to Asteroids, and almost 15 years later it returns, again as a next-generation version of the Atari arcade landmark.
When you first start to play Super Stardust HD, it feels overly busy and a little repetitive. Unlike scrolling shooters so beloved by the hardcore gamers, there are no enemy patterns and bullet curtains to commit to memory, and there is little variation in theme and presentation. Like the original Asteroids without the technical wow factor, its core gameplay is in essence one overwhelming wave that just keeps coming.
Persist a little though, and you’ll uncover a delicately balanced set of rules of play that do turn Super Stardust HD into a rather tasty shooter, that ranks as one of the better of the surprisingly large number that feature on PSN and Xbox LIVE. The asteroids themselves are far larger and more varied than in previous games, and do break up in a way that makes you feel they are crumbling into pieces dynamically.
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Blasting certain chunks of cosmic debris reveals the game’s power-ups, which really are the deciding factor in the quality of a decent shmup. In the case of Super Stardust HD, they are both simple and flexible, making them ideal as strategic tools that can just be used in time as the most frantic moments of the game unfold around you.
As each power-up appears, it slowly cycles through varying numbers of the available bonuses, starting with extra lives and ticking down to simple boons to score. Not all start as extra lives, and most appear immediately as points, but many will spend most of their time cycling through three colours, which represent earth, ice and fire, which make the three different weapon types. The power-ups increase the speed and quantity of your ship’s arsenal incrementally, and each type of firepower works differently against enemies.
What this all means is that you have to choose when to scoop up a power-up very carefully, to build up the right kinds of firepower at the right time. This requires the player to have nerves of steal and unflinching concentration, as you will often have to hover patiently around a power-up waiting for it to change to the correct colour while simultaneously dodging meteors and obliterating enemies. Fans of the Gradius shooters will immediately feel at home with the system on offer here.
A more traditional smart bomb also exists, along with a boosted charge that lets you launch away from danger with enough power to pile through enemies and asteroids unharmed. The play area itself consists of a large flat area mapped around a globe, meaning you never reach a barrier or boundary, instead being able to orbit the sphere in every direction.
Graphically, as PSN games go, Super Stardust HD is superb, and it nicely combines the neon glow of Geometry Wars with the detailed retro pixel work of the first Stardust. The difficulty level is spot on, providing a challenge without causing a headache, and on the whole this well considered roaming shooter is another highly playable addition to the PSN family. At only £4.99 it’s also a bit of a bargain.