There wasn’t much of an explanation given as I was straddled to the seat of a vividly pixelated sprite that, after a few random taps of the arrow keys, I deemed my initial aircraft. The character I was offered control of stated that the Alien Bastards who had the audacity to shoot up his planet would have to pay. And rightfully so; 6873 years into the future on the planet of Thearsa CP-IX where we were originally from as per the game’s manual, 30 years of abuse by the invading forces of the G’ell had finally resulted in us stumbling over a portion of their technology.
Paired together with one of Thearsa’s top scientists, this technology had amounted to the first fleet of DSP Mk. I ships that now I, as Commander, was to lead to victory. And yet I was doing miserable on my first few minutes at the job; As Pilot and I took down our first pointy edged alien against a backdrop of purple-blue tinged stars and darker space rock, the Synthesizer kicked in in welcome of giant, evocative lettering announcing the Act and stage from which the current level was derived.
Sadly time to admire the scenery was kept at a bare minimum, as more of the pointy edged foe arrived in threatening pattern. We flung out a pyramid of shots that seemed to have on them the impact of shotgun pellets, quickly taking down the first round of alien ships as even more emerged from the edge of the screen. We weren’t fast enough, a few of the smarter ones had already shaped themselves into a giant pink dart that was hurled our way in the blink of an eye — my leading pilot’s HUD at the bottom of the screen lit up into similarly coloured flames as he screamed for me to avenge him.
I managed to do just that with his successor who was apparently there to kill aliens, chew bubblegum and had run out of the latter in his slicker looking ship — spraying blade shaped projectiles in rapid automatic fire at the remaining G’ell; a larger group made their debut, only this time we were quicker than them. The bluish-grey arcs of extra-terrestrial patterns finally subsided under our barrage of fire to make way for three fan-like contraptions that opened from under the upper edge of my screen in spew of blob-shaped laser artillery — all we had to do was stay between them.
Easy. A larger, meaner looking contraption had now entered the fray — lifting its mouth to shoot out fiery geometry unlike anything we’d encountered so far. The lid closed in salutation of our bullets that, despite their intermittent accuracy, didn’t seem very effective in inflicting damage. But inflict it did — making way for yet more of the specimens that had greeted us at the start of the game, now arriving from all directions in formation of greater, foreboding dragon-like rippling waves.
This soon turned overwhelming as reflexes failed to keep up in dodging pink darts, causing pilot two to abandon the fray just as well. The HUD indicated I had another couple more by my side to rally before this turned into a lost cause — together we took down recurring yet strenuous patterns of enemies encountered thus far amid glorious flashes of neon and equally flashy weapons, before two new waves of obnoxiously shell-shaped elements came together to litter the screen with a multitude of fiery orbs that left little to no room for movement. Before we knew it, I was through my last pilot and on the menu screen — a certain Cat Admiral telling me I needed to crew up and get back Meowt there.
It is this minimal Menu screen, ushering one to Continue or Restart their shoot ’em up adventure lest they choose to Quit, that serves as the primary hub to Starr Mazer: DSP Forward Squadron — DSP’s first publicly playable demo that was bundled with the April edition of IndieBox. While Restarting naturally takes one back to the start of the demo in complete reset of their accumulated stats, Continuing leads one to the game’s Pilot Pack selection screen; titled the Free, Hyena and Wolf packs respectively, the latter two of the packs come at a price.
In fending off the swarms of enemies that chose to make an appearance during my play-through, defeating each had released an assortment of dark slate grey coloured elements; called Carbomite, these served to boost my reserves of SK:Ore — DSP’s crafty definition of currency. With each Pack containing up to 14 different pilots of varying stats and skills, the Hyena’s and Wolf’s cost of 20K+ and 30K+ SK:Ore credits respectively are justified by their stated comprising of much superior pilots as opposed to the Free pack.
Regardless of choice, each Pack opens up the Pilot purchase and selection screen — a trading card game derived, aptly stylized portal wherein each purchasable pilot is represented by Imperial Blue card-sized panels. Each panel unravels data pertaining to a pilot that ranges from battle-crucial information such as equipped Primary Weapons, Second Weapons and an evaluation of their Resolve (the ability to withstand an attack), Speed and Avarice (the degree to which a Carbomite crystal in one’s vicinity is likely to be attracted) — to light hearted bits of their dislikes and hobbies.
Once the player’s pick of the most skilled yet affordable pilots are selected under available SK:Ore, the game transports them back to the start of the level in an attempt to have them reach its end. With the fairly intuitive controls of moving a ship up, down, back and forth across the screen, players must then make use of their available Primary and Secondary Weapons that come rooted in reference to various Space themed adventures of popular culture, in avoidance of progressively difficult, other worldly weirdos as they push towards a singular level boss within the demo.
Collecting Carbomite through this course also helps replenish one’s Super Meter — that functions by increasing the capabilities and strength of each of the four offered Primary Weapons while acting as a power reserve for the five Secondary Weapons that depletes on their use. Death of a pilot signals for the next available character to take their place, until defeat forces players back to the Main Menu to purchase newer pilots and repeat the process till scripted demo victory.
‘Similar to Rogue Legacy, you’ll be able to keep retrying a level until you defeat the final boss even in the full game’, explains developers Imagos Softworks’ Community Manager Kazuo Mayeda. ‘Once you wipe out your squad you will be starting over from the beginning. We are considering letting players skip past major boss encounters they’ve already defeated, but nothing definitive yet.’
While this might seem to make for a strenuous and gruelling shoot ’em up grind given the lack of something similar to a checkpoint system, at least within the demo it does not. Rather, the constant retries provide one with foresight and a layer of strategy that is crucial to success within the seemingly linear setting; Sure, the various types of G’ell initially appear highly randomised in their spawning during the initial play-through’s making for a degree of unpredictability. Several go’s at it later however, one begins to detect a pattern to their generation, positions and behaviour within the stage.
Knowledge of these patterns assists one at the Pilot selection screen as arguably, certain Primary and Secondary weapons prove to be more effective — especially on a full Super Meter — than others within specific portions of the stage. Furthermore as one strives to ensure that the pilots with the right kinds of preferred weapons are equipped before heading out on a retry, they might also find that it makes more sense to organize the characters within their squad in a certain order.
For instance it’s far better to begin the level with a low Resolve graded pilot so that in the event of their demise, the best pilots are still on one’s deck towards the end of the level — whose difficulty they are likely to sustain. Or perhaps having a pilot with the rapid firing Mass Lattice Shotgun type weapon in line after the one with the much slower projected Gungir XSSR heavy missiles — so that the former dominates in the more mature, enemy dense regions of the level where the latter is bound to fail.
Strangely though, the demo offered no direct means to rearrange pilots within the squad — forcing me instead to purchase them in the order I needed them to appear in. Going back on a choice meant selling the pilot (without any loss in SK:Ore, that is) and purchasing him/her again in the preferred order.
Mayeda later divulged that while it wasn’t ready in time for the IndieBox deadline, the feature of custom pilot reordering is actively being considered and might even make it to an updated version of the demo in the near future. On the other hand though, the final build of DSP will feature procedural generation of enemies and waves — leaving one to wonder of the role pilot rearrangement will play in that scenario anyway.
Progression through the demo level then becomes a test of acuity — forcing players to tend to certain classes of the G’ell before others to avoid their merging and forming of bigger entities, dodging the vicious that might appear from any corner of the screen, ensuring the bigger particles of Carbomite are being used for replenishment and that even a hint of enemy fire is avoided — all at the same time. It’s wondrously intense and standing still within one section of the screen while mindlessly spamming the fire buttons will almost certainly result in defeat.
Although whether its a matter of personal preference or not remains to be evaluated, I noticed that keyboard controls seemed significantly disconnecting from the experience in their inability to have me exercise the reflexes and quick thinking the retro-fest demands. Switching to a DS4 delivered the optimal amount of fun however, causing me to conclude that perhaps the final game will best be enjoyed on a controller.
Accompanying one through the entire process, the HUD seems minimal enough with its statement of available pilots, pilot stats and Super Meter status throughout the course of the level. It for some reason however makes no mention of a pilot’s runtime health, making it hard to fathom how many hits a grade ‘A’ Resolve pilot can take in contrast with a grade ‘F’ one — especially when there seemed to be instances when the latter could withstand more enemy fire than the former.
‘Right now the system works by using your Resolve as a chance to survive being hit,’ explains Mayeda in response to this puzzle. ‘If you have an A rank the pilot has a higher chance (say, upwards of %50) to survive any given hit. We did this so sometimes you’ll die in one hit and sometimes you’ll die in 10 hits. You’re never sure and that adds to the action we feel.’ This unpredictability is further complicated by the fact that despite the Wolf and Hyena packs being devised to contain higher skilled pilots, I found no particular advantage to either of them.
The grades of pilots contained within each didn’t seem to vary much from those within the Free pack, allowing me to stick to the use of and finish the game with the same. To my advantage, the demo even made it a point to have rare yet powerful ‘Gold’ card pilots spawn within the Free group. On being questioned of the packs’ relevance then, Mayeda proceeded to describe how things will evolve to be much different in the final game.
‘The main perk of the higher end packs is that their stats on average are better — From common to silver to gold, the three battle-crucial pilot stats move from F-D ranks to A-B ranks. They also tend to start with fully powered up weapons. The Gold pilots are unique pilots that are not generated — In the future we might be adding additional things, stats or weapons to further differentiate the gold characters. Once you pay for these special characters fly them and damage their ship (they don’t die, just retreat) they will be added to a special pool where they might randomly take place of one of your cheaper pilots.’
Regardless, the core of this vertical slice of the DSP experience lies in its exorbitantly cool emphasis on a deeply satisfying, nostalgically stylized atmosphere — facilitated in large part by its standard of aesthetic sensibilities, voice acting and music; The assortment of creative, purple-blue ridden pixel art that dons the pilot selection interface, weapon effects, animations and explosions transpiring during live combat is immensely attractive even from a non retro-enthusiastic standpoint.
That said, in the midst of the demo not featuring a full-screen mode and only a single backdrop, I often found myself erring in combat due to Carbomite, certain projectiles and enemies themselves using the same shade of blue — making it hard for me to differ one from the other during busy sequences. Thankfully, a full-screen mode is planned for the updated demo while characteristic colours of the game’s universe continue to be revised in rectification of the same.
The Synthesizer driven handful of Alex Mauer composed background music that makes its appearance through the course of the demo meanwhile, performs a stellar job at keeping the intensity brimming throughout. I found myself performing considerably better to the cue of every 1980’s pop culture resonant beat that populated my favourite in-game tracks — coaxing me to prematurely, in the absence of too much thought, deem the Starr Mazer: DSP demo as one of, if not the most visceral musical experience I’d derived from a game in a very long time.
‘DSP has been about exploring possibilities in music’, elaborates Mauer. ‘It’s less an expression of emotions, and more about trying to achieve newness within a genre that has a lot of copying between artists. I’m being very considerate to do songs that have melodic progressions, but also a ton of variety within the style. It is a combination of Synthwave/Outruncore and the established melodic emotionally evocative style of Starr Mazer.’
Complementing this feet tapping frenzy is the plethora of light-hearted, deliberately clichéd quips by the DSP Mk. I squadron’s various playable pilots — each of which have been articulately voiced by the team’s own group of friends and associates in the Seattle, Washington area. From the typical cocky ushering during battle, enthusiastic exclamations on their purchase and smug mumblings on being sold — it’s this combination of banter and inspired Outruncore that tricks one into dropping count of the number of retries, forgetting their umpteenth failure and returning for one more go at the demo level even after success.
Now, while the updated full-screen build of DSP F-Squadron currently battles bugs ahead of an unscheduled E-mail delivery to owners of the demo, the full game continues to steam on in development for a planned Summer release. Comprised of nine levels divided into three distinct acts, DSP will follow the Mark I squadron from the ruins of Thearsa all the way into the heart of a G’ell Leviathan mother-ship — making use of more backgrounds, new ship parts, voice actors, characters tons of new weapons, big enemies, little enemies, multi stage bosses, mid bosses, super weapons, ultimate weapons, and lots more as articulated by Mayeda.
The events that transpire during its course will eventually set the precedent for the events of Starr Mazer, the Kickstarter funded PNC/SHMUP sequel due for a release next year. As always, be sure to stay tuned to the journey here from, progress thus far and every nuance associated with the Starr Mazer universe at its Higher Eclectic Space.