Version tested: PSP
Super Stardust is one of the most concentrated shoot-'em-ups ever made. There are no breaks in the action, no cut-scenes, never a moment to pause, to marvel at the firework display of particle effects exploding around you, or even to pay much attention to your current score. Your tiny ship, caught in a maelstrom of asteroids and alien attackers, weaves through a constantly shifting maze, firing one of three different bullet types in all directions, collecting pick-ups, deploying smart bombs and dashing through the ever-encroaching clusters of obstacles. The result is a breathtaking flurry of twitch-gaming, a scramble to steady your disorientation amongst the hubbub, and a constant prayer that the sum of your skill and luck will be enough to overcome the odds that are so overtly stacked against you.
Originally released on PlayStation Network for PS3, Super Stardust HD is the closest Sony's console has to a Geometry Wars. While the game lacks some of its rival's finesse, not to mention its narrow but deep design, perfectly pitched difficulty and always on-screen high-score challenge, it nevertheless holds its own, maintaining its position as the strongest shooter on PSN even 18 months later. But the move to PSP hardware, with its different control configuration, demanded tweaks: changes that will upset the muscle memory that fans have spent so long developing.
The handheld's analogue stick still controls the movement of the ship, but 360-degree fire has been reduced to eight directions. Each face button, pressed on its own, directs your stream of fire toward that side of a compass. Used in conjunction with another button you can fire across the diagonals, but whichever way you look at it this is a noticeable limitation of the original's analogue precision.
To help recreate the wobbly feel of 360-degree control, the developer's introduced a double-tap function that momentarily spreads the fire arc, while holding a button down will cause one of the three weapons to spin in a circle around your ship, and together these are neat concessions that reduce the sense of interactive devolution. There's certainly been a loss of aiming precision, but it would be a stretch for any player to blame death on the imprecision of the new control scheme, which is perfectly serviceable.
The game's overarching structure is straightforward. Five levels represented by planets are each broken down into five stages, offering play 25 areas, which must be cleared in a set order. To begin with, only the first planet is open for play: you must clear all of its challenges before the next one in sequence unlocks. There is no opportunity to save your progress - the game follows orthodox shoot-'em-up rules requiring players to restart from the beginning each time - so progress is hard won, which turns out to be a good thing in an otherwise-slight experience. Almost all of the game's longevity comes from trying to inch your way deeper into its levels and the high difficulty throughout demands a perfected technique. If you manage to complete all five worlds in one sitting then the game, in the Raiden tradition, will loop back to the start at an even higher difficulty level.
Despite the obvious similarities, Super Stardust is a more complex game than Geometry Wars, at least in terms of the interactive options it presents to players. The three different weapon types can be switched between using the d-pad, each one especially effective against different enemy and asteroid types (as indicated by your target's own colour scheme). In addition to a smart bomb, triggered by the right trigger, a quick dash is controlled by the left trigger, a useful evasive manoeuvre that renders your ship momentarily invulnerable. This dash must then recharge before you can use it again, ensuring that the timing of deployment must be carefully considered.
Much of the appeal of the twitch shooter is found in competitive play. Super Stardust Portable offers international high-score tables which can be accessed via connection over the PSP network, a process that worked relatively smoothly for us. In this regard handheld play is always going to suffer by comparison to the persistently online consoles where updates are instant. For some, uploading and comparing scores will be too much of a time-consuming chore. Again though, this is as a result of the hardware limitations itself, rather than any shortcoming on the part of the developer. Likewise, on a technical level the game runs beautifully on the handheld, its slick frame-rate holding under considerable on-screen strain. The game's bright, neon colour scheme is well-suited to the system's generous widescreen and the short, sharp gameplay is perfect for gaming on the move.
Almost all of the game's issues, then, are down to the physical hardware used to control it. For example, switching between weapon types requires you to move your finger off the analogue nub and onto the d-pad, a physical stretch that can be costly in the heat of battle. Keeping both of your index fingers on the trigger buttons at all times grows painful after a while. Your view on the action has also been compromised with the move to the handheld. Whereas in the original you had a good view of the play area, stretching off round the curve of the planet, now the view is slightly zoomed in, making paths around the globe stages harder to plan.
The handheld version also suffers from a lack of play modes. While Impact mode, in which your cannons are muted and you can only boost through enemies, is a welcome addition, the omission of the PS3's Survival, Endless and Bomber (to be released as add-on downloads at a later date) counts against the package. As such, the game is best recommended to newcomers, those for whom the (slight) downgrade from analogue to digital shooting will be unnoticeable. Super Stardust Portable is still an exemplary Western shooter, but for fans of the PlayStation 3 original, there is little here to inspire repeat purchase, the convenience of portability offset by the hardware's other limitations.
7 / 10