Feb 25, 2012

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Super Stardust Delta Review

Finnish developer Housemarque introduced Super Stardust HD in 2007 to help welcome the PlayStation Network and show gamers what was creatively possible with the service. The highly-addictive twin-stick shooter has been a mainstay in PS3 catalogs since, so it feels appropriate that a new iteration is here to welcome the PlayStation Vita. Does the frenetic Stardust experience bloom on Sony’s new portable?

There’s no story to speak of in Stardust, but that’s OK: this is an arcade shooter through and through. Using the left analog stick, you guide your spaceship in orbit around spherical plants while using the right stick to bust up asteroids and other deadly devices with your ship’s guns. The guns come in two flavors: fire melter and ice splitter. Swapping between them is as easy as tapping the R trigger, and each is crucial to playing effectively and boosting your high score. Space rocks come in fire and ice forms, and using the appropriate weapon lets you chew through with ease. In typical arcade fashion, Super Stardust is all about busting up rocks as fast as you can while being careful not to come into contact with them or the army of space enemies that are out to destroy you. Super-fast reflexes are important, but lucky power-ups and good strategy are also key.

Combined, the basic elements of Super Stardust Delta elevate the game to pure, addictive, frantic fun that ropes you in and never lets go. You’ll cling with desperation to every one of your limited lives while carefully rationing your supply of all-powerful bombs for moments when they’re needed most. Knowing when to charge in guns-blazing or bail out from trouble boils down to split-second decisions in the heat of the moment, and like the best arcade classics, every round you play feels exciting and fresh. This holds true whether you sit down for an extended Arcade session that tours each planet for as long as you can survive, or go level-by-level through the five planets on offer. Stardust HD veterans will recognize a few of Delta’s tricks, including the five-planet formula and a few notable encounters, but the package holds up and infuses enough new content to keep longtime players guessing.

Some of this new content makes use of the Vita’s unique features, including the front touch screen, rear touch panel, and tilt function. If you choose to play the “Delta” version of the game, you can set off a new black hole power-up with the rear touch panel, launch missiles with the touch screen, shake the Vita to release a bomb, and tilt the console to view the field from different angles. I enjoyed all of these functions except the tilt camera – to me, this serves little to no gameplay purpose and actually serves to distract from the experience. After all, Super Stardust has never needed camera control, and the incidental movements you might naturally make leave the screen off-center. Thankfully, Stardust vets can boot up Pure mode and feel right at home where the fancy new features are stripped in favor of gameplay that’s identical to its PS3 counterpart. A small collection of mini-games help round out the Vita exclusives, but they’re fairly shallow and of mixed quality. Play them for the Trophies, and get right back to leaderboard chasing in the main game.

Speaking of leaderboards, the ever-present focus on high scores and your global rank are a big part of what makes Super Stardust Delta such addictive fun. It’s the kind of game that is simultaneously satisfying and taunting, rewarding you with a higher score while dancing on the fringe of your abilities. No matter how good you are, you always feel like you could do a bit better next time. When you select a game mode and difficulty level, Stardust also reminds you where you stand in relation to your PSN friends. It’s the perfect motivator for coming back to play over and over again, whether you have ten minutes or an hour to burn. What’s odd given the score-centric nature of the game is the way global leaderboards combine the scores of Casual and Normal difficulty into one leaderboard, and harder difficulties into a different one. I hope Housemarque separates the scores with an update later; it just makes more sense from a competitive standpoint.

Excellent visuals and compelling sound round out this arcade package. Stardust might not boast the most technically detailed or vivacious graphics of the Vita launch titles, but its bright colors and deep contrasts positively burst off the OLED screen. Delta’s art direction is a step above its PS3 and PSP predecessors, with more color variety and a deep space aesthetic that’s clean and visually pleasing. Sound effects are also lively, and each planet boasts a different electro rhythm that suits the game perfectly. However, it should be noted that each song seems to be a retooled version of the corresponding track from the five planets of Super Stardust HD. Perhaps Housemarque wanted the music to help capture the pure vision of Stardust HD, but if that’s the case, why is the “Delta” experience with new Vita features front-and-center in the game’s presentation?

Once in a while, a game comes along that hits all the right notes. Fast-paced gameplay with gorgeous graphics, great sound,  and addictive arcade sensibilities help make Super Stardust Delta one such experience. Finnish developer Housemarque has brought their space-rock-busting arcade hit to its third Sony platform, and Delta makes big waves as one of the system’s best launch titles. New abilities, power-ups, and mini-games make non-intrusive use of the PlayStation Vita’s unique features and keep this twin-stick shooter fresh and exciting. Some might argue that the game doesn’t stray far from the Super Stardust HD formula (in fact, it’s damn near identical), but what isn’t broken shouldn’t be fixed. Series veterans won’t find a plethora of new content here, but the thrill of chasing high scores and fending off frantic waves of asteroids and aliens more than justifies the paltry $9.99 price point. If you own a PlayStation Vita, Super Stardust Delta should be at the top of your list.

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Super Stardust Delta
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Genre: Arcade
Release Date: 02/22/12
Developer: Housemarque
Publisher: Sony
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
MSRP: $9.99


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About Kyle Prahl

You can friend him on PSN (geist226) and follow him on Twitter: @PaybackPrahl