Developer: Astro Port
Everyone is getting behind the Indie scene at the moment, from mainstream gamers to major publishers who have finally noticed that there's money to be made and untapped potential to be... well... tapped. Capcom have gotten in on the ground floor with SATAZIUS: the first of a number of independent Japanese side-scrolling shooters that they plan to make available to a wider audience, using their staggering industry clout to give these titles their well-deserved day in the sun. An inexpensive asking price and a major patron make this an attractive proposition from the outset, and I'm delighted to report that the game itself is also worthy of our attention.
Developer Astro Port are famed for their authentic and thoughtfully-designed scrolling shooters, and authentic is certainly the operative word here. In fine SHMUP fashion, players are equipped with the devastating Trafalgar Assault Ship and racked against ravening space pirates whose motives are explained in a rambling and completely inexplicable caption in the game's product description. Story and exposition gives way to pure gameplay, and as you'd expect, you'll guide your vessel through dangerous two-dimensional levels, weave through tight caverns, annihilate innumerable hordes of oncoming foes and face off against some titanic bosses with miniscule weak points.
The Trafalgar can dish out an obscene amount of firepower (more on that later), but in fine SHMUP tradition, it's also incredibly fragile. One poorly timed dodge, one errant missile or a single collision will spell instant doom and checkpoint reset. Weaving through tight tunnels and environmental hazards plays a bigger role than besting oncoming projectiles (a bullet hell shooter this is not, rather, it has more in common with Gradius and its ilk) - it's hardcore, and thoroughly unashamed.
It's also an overly familiar setup. After all, we've danced this dance countless times over the last few decades, and SATAZIUS does little to shake up the formula with any new ideas of its own. But while some smaller titles thrive on innovation, SATAZIUS manages to impress in the execution. Put simply, it does everything right; from the responsive controls to the deceptively open level design that encourages exploration with multiple routes that offer different obstacles to circumvent. Varied enemies run the gamut between traditional fighter waves and enormous walkers, and the art style resembles a classic retro shooter from yesteryear. In fact, it feels like a classic, a forgotten childhood gem joyously discovered in the back of your cupboard. The experience doesn't necessarily hold up when compared to the best that the genre has to offer (or the newer downloadable games on both PSN, Steam and XBLA), but it's satisfying nonetheless.
SATAZIUS' one major unique selling point is an enormous arsenal of upgradeable weapons. Your ship can be outfitted with a bewildering array of different armaments before each mission and continue, which include everything from straightforward lasers to backwards-firing projectiles and manual lock-on missiles. A sluggishly charging super-attack also adds a neat risk versus reward aspect: do you trigger early and survive a dangerous engagement but face the boss without it? There's a potent cocktail of calamitous firearms to suit any situation or play style, and since new gear unlocks and upgrades as you play, the raw destructive force of your evolving starship gives you ample reason to keep plugging away at the harder levels.
The SHMUP genre is known/revered/hated for its punishing level of challenge, so SATAZIUS makes every effort to cater for fans of punishing self abuse with its trickier difficulty modes. However, Astro Port have pleasingly ensured that less dedicated players can get involved with easier settings that slow down oncoming enemies, decrease their numbers and limit the potency of their projectiles. Checkpoints - an unexpected and welcome addition to the classic formula - also mean that you won't have to start from scratch unless your nine continues completely run out.
Torrid cheapness is a frequent companion to hardcore shooters, and SATAZIUS certainly boasts a couple of unfair moments. Dallying in the wrong place at the wrong time can result in enormous bosses or ruinous lava flows obliterating you without warning, though at least you'll remember to avoid them next time around. It's a hardcore design decision that challenges players to remember increasingly complex patterns, and as such, has more to do with the territory and target audience than any unbridled sadism on Astro Port's part.
- Sweet mechanics and upgradeable weaponry
- Excellent level design
- Satisfying challenge
- Incredibly derivative
- Occasionally cheap
- Won't entice initiates to the genre
The Short Version: SATAZIUS proves that being good can be just as effective as being innovative. We've seen it all before, but fans of the genre shouldn't miss this solid and satisfying side scroller.