Star Ghost's arrival on the Wii U eShop might appear to be fairly sudden - the game was announced mere weeks ago - but its inception and gestation have actually taken quite some time. Based on the 2015 iOS release Star Drift, this unique take on the old-school arcade shooter concept is notable for the fact that its developer - Rhys Lewis - has enjoyed stints at Rare and Retro Studios, two companies that hold a special place in the heart of many a Nintendo fan.
Such expectation almost sets the game for a fall; how can such a humble project, crafted by just one man, possibly compare to the likes of Metroid Prime, Banjo-Kazooie and the Donkey Kong Country series - the latter of which, as we know, was worked on by both of Lewis' former employers? Despite the level of anticipation, Star Ghost manages to entertain and challenge, and is testament to the capacity of one-developer studios to craft unique and engaging experiences.
As Lewis has himself admitted, Star Ghost is basically the barrel-riding section in Donkey Kong Country Returns writ large. Your ship doesn't fly in a straight line, and if left to its own devices will plunge to the bottom of the screen where it bounces off an otherwise invisible force field. Like the infamous mobile hit Flappy Bird, holding the A button will cause the ship to rise upwards, and this mechanic changes the complexion of the game dramatically. By removing traditional shoot 'em up control, Star Ghost offers a challenge which is unique in the genre. Knowing exactly when to tap and release that button can be the difference between missing an incoming projectile, avoiding a collision with scenery or grabbing that much-needed power-up. There's a skill level involved here which goes way beyond traditional shooters, which allow you to move your craft around the screen at will.
Controlling your craft's upward thrust is just one aspect of the interface. Pushing up and down on the left-hand analogue stick allows you to angle the direction of your guns, but there's a limit on how far you can push them - you certainly can't spin through a full 360 degrees. This narrow arc of fire means you have to link your shots with the current angle of your ship; to begin with, you may find yourself struggling to marry up the two processes. We found that when learning the ropes, it's perhaps best to ignore the analogue stick entirely and instead use the up and down motion of your craft to aim your fire; once you've become accustomed to this, you can introduce the stick for improved accuracy. Trying to use both from the off is akin to patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. To reduce complexity, firing is automatic, but even this makes it feel subtly different to other shooters. In a genre where buttons are often mashed indiscriminately, it's slightly unnerving to find that you very little control over your weapons in Star Ghost. The firing may be automatic but also pauses, however, when you engage your ship's traction field.
While your main weapon remains constant, pick-ups can be used to enhance its potential. Spread pick-ups add more projectiles to a single volley of fire, fanning out from your ship in a wave of laser death. Fire rate pick-ups do as the name suggests, while your traction field - which can be used to pull in pick-ups and other items - can be expanded to fill more of the screen. A repulsor shield has the opposite effect and forces unwanted objects away, while missiles greatly augment your offensive potential. A shield replenishing pick-up allows you to regenerate your health should you take a knock, and soon becomes an essential item. Not everything you come across should be collected, however - viruses shut down your weapons systems and cause the screen to distort unpleasantly; their effect is short-lived, but often enough to leave you wide open to attack, thus ending your run. Power-ups don't last forever, either - they're time-limited, which means you'll constantly be hunting around the screen for new boosts in order to keep your ship in perfect fighting condition. Blue tokens are by far and away the most plentiful pick-up you'll see during your adventure - these are used as currency to purchase weapon power-ups at the conclusion of each stage.
Each level is a short and sweet dash to the finish line, and despite them being procedurally-generated there's not a massive amount of variety on show. You shoot enemies, occasionally navigate through narrow passageways and blast apart the odd asteroid. Sentinel battles break up this pattern; these are boss fights with powerful enemy ships which have a seemingly overwhelming number of weapons at their disposal - defeating them is no easy task, and if you don't manage to take them down within a set time limit they warp away, costing you valuable points.
And points are really everything in Star Ghost; while the game does have a definite structure - with each stage following a pre-determined theme despite being randomly-generated - the ultimate objective is to rack up as many points as possible. Chain together hits and you'll build up your score multiplier, paving the way for mammoth totals. This multiplier can be enhanced further with the Turbo Multiplier pick-up, but taking a hit from an enemy or colliding with an environmental feature knocks your multiplier down to nothing, so keeping that score high becomes a real challenge - especially in the later levels, when the difficulty ramps up considerably. Because the game loops when you complete it, the opportunity to claim a massive high score is limited only by your skill, but because stages are created at random there's enough incentive to keep playing even when you've seen all of the 12 star systems. Sadly for a game which is so focused on high scores, there's no online leaderboard in Star Ghost at present, limiting players to boasting on Miiverse. Lewis has stated that this is something he could potentially add in the future, assuming there is demand.
While the learning curve might be considered harsh, Star Ghost harks back to the good old days of the coin-op era where repeat play yields better results as you slowly but surely hone your skills and concoct new tactics to survive. Initially it feels quite brutal, a fact which no doubt has something to do with the unorthodox control scheme. However, like the best game experiences, Star Ghost slowly but surely opens up as your own skills and confidence grow; masterfully controlling the momentum of your ship while simultaneously directing your guns at a wave of enemies is incredibly satisfying - even more so when you're able to combine this with deftly collecting pick-ups to maintain your ship's slowly-decaying weapons.
Star Ghost's impeccable presentation is made all the more remarkable when you take into account the small size of the team behind it. The visuals owe a lot to the seminal Geometry Wars series, with lots of neon lines and flashy explosions. Levels are somewhat basic, with environmental features being little more than straight lines, and enemy types repeat throughout. Still, there's enough visual flair here for the typical player, and this extends to the excellent use of speech. Keeping track of your shield and weapon power is hard when you're focused on avoiding incoming fire, so the friendly female computer constantly keeps you informed, stating when weapons are at full capacity or have dropped down a level. While we're on the subject of visuals, it's worth noting that Off-TV is enabled by default, mirroring what's happening on the main screen - the game doesn't attempt to make clever use of the Wii U GamePad's display outside of this.
On the audio side of things, Star Ghost's connection with Rare and Retro is increased by the involvement of David Wise, a near-legendary name in video game music circles. Wise was Rare's in-house composer for many years and worked with Retro on creating the fantastic soundtrack to Tropical Freeze. The spaced-out and retro-sounding music used here is the perfect accompaniment to the on-screen action; despite the low number of songs they never outstay their welcome, with the main theme being a particular highlight. Sound effects - such as the gentle hum of your ship's engines when you engage thrust and the abundant number of punchy explosions - enhance the aural experience even more.
Star Ghost is an assured eShop debut for Squarehead Studios, and shows that quality breeds quality; the combination of a former Rare and Retro staffer with one of the most iconic video game musicians of all time has resulted in a game which initially seems quite simplistic, but has a surprising level of depth, replayability and charm. While it's true that the core gameplay doesn't possess all that much variety, the stern challenge calls for a level of concentration that is rarely asked for with modern games; merely surviving is tricky enough, but when you add in the allure of improving your score, it's easy to become hopelessly engrossed. Having said that, if the notion of tirelessly striving to improve your own personal best doesn't appeal then you might find your interest in Star Ghost is fleeting - especially as bragging rights are hard to enforce with this title, as an online leaderboard isn't included at launch.
Still, this is a minor point in the grand scheme of things, and fans of old-school shooters will lap up the nostalgia - both from the gameplay and the presentation - while those players who weren't around during the 'golden era' should surely appreciate the unique control mechanics which reward perseverance and skill.