Review: Star Soldier (3DS eShop / NES)

I got soul, but I'm not the best Star Soldier

We may as well stop playing games en masse right now, because we all suck. That may sound harsh, but this 3DS eShop release of Hudson Soft’s vertically scrolling NES shoot-em-‘up will either make or break you. Unfortunately, if you play Star Soldier on the smaller screen of an original 3DS, the tiny bullets and weedy indistinct sprites make its gameplay feel broken.

At the All-Japan Caravan Famicom Conventions in the mid-1980s Star Soldier converted Toshiyuki Takahashi from Hudson Soft’s PR man, into the legend that is Takahashi Meijin, a master of 8-bit shooters. Takahashi could bash a fire button at speeds of 16-shots-per-second, and in all likelihood we cannot. Game over, man. Give it up.

However, if we decide to continue playing shoot-‘em-up games, Hudson’s stellar Soldier series is a mighty fun training ground to hone your skills. Sadly, NES Star Soldier may be the Soldier series’ starting point, but it is no longer the best place for a gamer to start. Hudson Soft’s work on converting Tecmo’s Star Force arcade game to the Famicom was convincing preparation for coding top-down shooters, and when Star Soldier soared as a console only single-player title on the Famicom in 1986 it was cleaner, smoother and had more detailed visuals than the MSX version.

To our knowledge, Star Soldier was never released in Europe. It did not follow its fledgling flight on Famicom and American NES, or as part of the Game Boy Advance NES Classics series, and more recently the NES game did not arrive on the European Virtual Console. Taxan ensured it was published in the US in 1989, so consequently there is extra reason for European retro gamers to celebrate this 3DS offering. The trouble is the Wii’s Virtual Console has treated gamers to a triumvirate feast of tasty PC Engine Soldier games, a family tree combo of Super Star Soldier (1990), Final Soldier (1991) and Soldier Blade (1992). Therefore, it is hard to remain excited about the inferior original.

The greatest thing about Star Soldier, as you guide your starship Caesar through 16 stages of outer space, defending the Galactic Empire against a massive and malevolent computer called Star Brain, is the toe-tapping terrific-ness of its five-way shot power-up music. The slower main melody is pleasing enough, although it grates after repeated play attempts. It is the sense of empowerment after blasting P-Blocks to collect three power capsules, combined with a frantic tune, which encourages you to hold onto five-directional fire as if your pixel fighter’s life depended upon it.

In fact, you are allocated three lives and zero continues, so the front and rear assault addition to your fighter, combined with a shield that can withstand five enemy bullets, makes a fully powered up Caesar essential for progress. It is unfortunate that five-direction fire is least effective against Star Brain, a battle at the end of all 16 stages, orchestrated by a foreboding boss theme, as every Star Brain confrontation is set to a time limit. Therefore, there is a risk and reward dynamic of powering down Caesar to defeat Star Brain quickly, because if the boss escapes you are sent back to a frustrating checkpoint loop, which is only useful towards bumping up your high score.

There are three steps to a fully upgraded starship: the first speeds-up Caesar and enables rapid-fire, the second allows for rear fire and the third is a triumphant gift of five-way blasting carnage. It is apparent that rapid-fire in the 8-bit era was a reward, not an entitlement. Once Caesar is fully boosted with all three power-ups, collecting extra power capsules activates a screen clearing smart bomb. Unfortunately, the shield does not completely protect your fighter, even when Caesar is fully upgraded, because a collision with a kamikaze enemy will still remove one of your starship’s three precious lives.

For 3DS gamers who felt wowed at the flashy visual presentation of eShop shooter games like Nano Assault EX and Liberation Maiden, the puny sprites and repetitive backgrounds of Star Soldier will not impress, even when you reconcile that it is a 27 year old retro game. Worst of all, the smaller screen on the 3DS, along with finicky visual design in the original, ensures that disorientating graphics combine to make this one of the least playable versions of NES Star Soldier available.

Tiny pink bullets merge and disappear amongst a background of space scaffolding, or converge with enemies that are the exact same colour, leaving you furious at consistently unfair deaths. Star Soldier attempts to be inventive with a Trap Zone system, where you hide your fighter beneath scenery and fly below the terrain, but it is confusing, so you often re-emerge to another maddening enemy collision. The Trap Zone was designed as an interesting gameplay mechanic on NES, but the disadvantage of sheltering behind scenery on 3DS is a nuisance rather than a help. This problem is only rectified slightly on the larger screen of the 3DS XL. However, the diminutive sprites and the repetition of a scrolling metallic space station background, which is befittingly set above a star field, showcase that Star Soldier’s visuals have not aged well.

There is some colour variety later on, with dusty brown landscapes, green space fields peppered with blue lakes and golden structures, but the changing colour palette does not cause the gameplay action to become significantly clearer. The versatile array of enemy ships whiz around the screen at an impressive speed, plus the further you progress through the 16 stages, the busier and more frantic the wave patterns become. A small amount of sprite flicker increases as the attacks intensify and it becomes hectic as your foes encircle and snake around Caesar, but the bland level design gives an impression of regurgitation to the presentation.

It is unfair to compare its visuals to later shoot-‘em-ups on NES, but with Summer Carnival ’92 RECCA on 3DS eShop for the same price, it is worth being prudent when you purchase an NES shooting game. There are already better alternatives, especially if you want a shooter that takes advantage of autostereoscopic 3D. For example, 3D Classics: Xevious costs slightly more than Star Soldier, and the excellent 3D Classics: TwinBee is the same price, which is a nice complement to the Soldier series’ cute-'em-up offshoot, Star Parodier (1992). Star Soldier’s huge Big Star Brain boss that fills a large portion of the screen in stages 4, 8, 12 and 16, is still impressive considering this originated as a 1986 Famicom game.

If you possess the fast fingered expertise of a Famicom Meijin, you could potentially complete all 16 stages in just over 30 minutes. The controls are as simple and accessible as moving with the D-pad and firing with the ‘A’ or ‘B’ buttons. In the context of a 1986 vertical scrolling shoot-‘em-up, Star Soldier represents a limited progression from a fixed-screen wave shooter like Galaga, released on the Famicom a year earlier. For some gamers it is more realistic to approach Star Soldier chasing high scores, rather than aiming to complete the game. Unfortunately, while the Wii U eShop version of Galaga accommodates Miiverse to share scores, games like Star Soldier would benefit from a more competitive edge, so it is another argument for the implementation of online leaderboards in Virtual Console games.

The beating heart and soul of Star Soldier fits well with the pursuit of scores idea of the All-Japan Caravan Festival. It is easy to learn its scoring system of blasting Z-Block scenery and shooting eyelids shut for bonus points, and without any continues it is worth making note of distant score targets to earn extra lives. Taking into account you begin with a meagre three fighter ships, extra lives are sparsely attained at intervals of 50,000, then 200,000 and later on at 500,000 points.

There are disconcerting design decisions that become exaggerated on 3DS, to the point where an unavoidable cheap death may lead you to paraphrase the game and exclaim, “Star Soldier’s brain escaped!” It is interesting that the original Star Soldier did not have a Time Attack mode built into its menu selection. However, a 2003 Japanese demake of Star Soldier on GameCube, as well as Star Soldier R on WiiWare’s launch in 2008, both act as a fun homage to the original. As with most games in the series, including Star Soldier: Vanishing Earth on N64, they implement the 2-minute and 5-minute modes missing here, to recreate the All-Japan Caravan Festival experience.

Takahashi Meijin has acknowledged that Star Soldier can be a challenging game, but he rates it highly among the Famicom’s earlier releases. Any game that encouraged Takahashi to sing Runner, a tune with links to Star Soldier, should rightly remind us of the roots it planted for the esteemed Soldier series. However, you can appreciate the boom-bloom blossoming in later games, without having to experience the NES original on hardware that restricts your enjoyment of the series’ origins.

Conclusion

It does not take a Big Star Brain to recognise that Star Soldier is the least accomplished game in the Soldier series; vertically scrolling shoot-‘em-up fans should target subsequent titles, which shine more brightly in Hudson Soft’s retro cosmos. The main reason to soar the galaxy in Star Soldier is through nostalgia for the NES pioneer, or as an introductory education in a stellar group of games. Unfortunately, unwarranted deaths due to tiny intangible bullets, or through a poorly implemented Trap Zone scenery sheltering system, fuse together with enemy and background colour palettes to swallow up your three insufficient lives. The smaller screen of the original 3DS also emphasises and exaggerates the shortcomings of the NES original. It is worth a dance to the five-direction fire music to celebrate Star Soldier finally being released in Europe, but there are superior eShop shooters and retro 3D Classics available for shrewd shmup specialists to salvage.

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