Star Soldier: Vanishing Earth
This game’s existence will surprise many people, on many levels. One, it’s an N64 shooter available in North America. When I informed a handful of fellow gamers that I was engaged in shoot-em-up action for the big N’s ill-supported console, they exclaimed, “A shooter for the N64?” almost in unison, unable to hide their incredulity. Secondly, once that shock had subsided, another filled the air. Because what many don’t realize is that the game is the final installment of a series that spans four systems and over ten years.
Hudson began its Soldiering on Nintendo’s 8-bit system so many gaming generations ago. The NES original was special in that it cleverly allowed shooter pilots to weave in and out of the background layers, but sadly it’s really not known for much more than being at the apex of the Soldier family tree. Only upon moving the series to NEC’s Turbografx-16 did the name Star Soldier catch fire.
Inspired by the classic Compile shooter Blazing Lazers for the same system, Hudson created a game with a similarly anime-influenced, well-drawn and coloured graphic style, but made their Super Star Soldier considerably more difficult. In fact, aside from the added intensity served up by Lazers’ inimitable score, Super Star Soldier, Final Soldier and the cream of the soldier crop, Soldier Blade, all did well to compete with the best vertical shooting had to offer.
Hudson later released for the PC Engine CD system, a parody of their own franchise, dubbed Star Parodier. Since that time, however, the series seemed to disappear into 16-bit obscurity. Thankfully, Hudson has made a return to Nintendo, where it all began, and has given N64 shooting enthusiasts (there must be some) something to purchase, and—we’re stretching it a bit here—something to cheer about.
Though the 2D gameplay has been spruced up with pseudo-3D visuals, it is still all Star Soldier. But, instead of three weapon choices for the one red ship, you’ve got three different ships, and each one can only use one weapon. This actually seems a step backward, and the ‘feature’ is wholly unnecessary and unwelcome, but if you choose the ship that employs your favourite weapon, you should be fine. Just realize that you cannot change your weapon throughout the proceedings (sort of like Taito’s Rayforce vertical shooter series—more on that later). I chose the blue craft my first time, selected my speed en route (very useful) and set about saving the universe. The blue craft, appropriately enough, fires blue laser beams. Generic power ups obtained through killing the right enemies, predictably amplify the range and destructive force of the weapon.
Where Soldier Blade perfected the Star Soldier ‘bomb system’ by allowing you to detonate stockpiled power ups, SS:VE makes things easier—perhaps too easy—by providing you with a Raiden-like bombing system. Collect bomb icons, and if you use ‘bomb button one’, you will unleash an all-encompassing starburst, which is beneficial in sticky spots (there aren’t many). Depress ‘bomb button two’ to fire a super beam of sorts, which is naturally, the ideal boss killer.
This is the extent of SS:VE’s depth. It feels authentic, but is that enough? Pilot your spaceship, firing its one weapon—underwhelming even when fully gassed—and take out scores of sleepy formations that descend not upon you, but simply onto the top portion of the screen where they set up ostensibly to be used as target practice for your same boring guns. The sound effects while this is all happening are suitably uninspiring, and the excellent level two track seems to have been toyed with and remixed to create the other six or so lackluster tunes.
That being said, some of SS:VE’s superficial quirks work surprisingly well in the game’s favour. There are some secrets and bonuses to be uncovered; finishing the game on the various difficulty levels will help in discovering them. The fact that the last boss from Soldier Blade is the first boss in this outing offers some welcome consistency for fans of the series. That the bosses have names and introductory lines is also a nice touch: I will not tolerate any who stand in my way! And while the enemies aren’t exactly voracious for your blood, their placement and bullet patterns do make for some nice finger exercises toward the end of the game.
Speaking of the end; we would be amiss not to discuss Hudson’s notorious tendency to save up all the difficulty for the final encounter. Mission Six: Stronghold is insane, featuring bosses with silly names like “Duoss Core” and the “Nevain Device”, though their attacks are no laughing matter. And true to form, SS:VE presents us with a nigh impossible, multiple form/personality final guardian; you can only win by virtue of lives amassed. While he is a harder bastard than say, Super Star Soldier’s Mother Brain, defeating him is a task far less hellish because of this game’s generally complaisant attitude—simply stockpile lives to throw at him until he is sufficiently worn down.
There are almost equal portions of good and bad served up by what is essentially Hudson’s final farewell tribute to days gone by. I was immediately taken—and forcefully at that—by the nostalgic kick that the game provides from the onset. The colourful space station backdrops, your small, almost innocuous-looking space craft. Then, as I played along, I realized that feeling this way was not necessarily a good thing; the fuzzy feelings were exacerbated by the ineluctable reality that you are playing something that is little more than the 16-bit precursors behind the fuzzies in the first place. Hudson has proven with SS:VE that progress can be slow, and the more poignant point, that being out of practice can be disastrous. The developers had honed the Art of Shooters to a craft. So much so, that a Hudson shooter was always engaging, any other flaws notwithstanding.
SS:VE is a notable exception. To compare the game with competition from its own day for a moment—the Sony Playstation release of Taito’s Raystorm—we realize that SS:VE’s polygon construction is quite oversimplified and blocky, its colours too bold and colouring book flat. I can’t help but feel that if they were wary or fearful of ‘going 3D’, they might have followed the path blazed by Taito’s Galactic Attack for the Saturn. That game is the epitome of old school shooting action, infused with next gen attitude. Hudson would have done well to learn its lesson from Taito, as many players prefer the hand-drawn slickness of Galactic Attack to the somewhat clumsy Raystorm.
For casual shooter fans and Hudson boosters alike, Star Soldier: Vanishing Earth inspires ambivalence and not confidence. Had it received the proper loving care in its rebirth, this baby would have been a welcome, natural offspring, rather than the inbred, degenerative, slightly peculiar progeny that it turned out to be. Not the franchise name, nor reputation, nor nicely redesigned robot mecha can hope to prevent the brilliant Star Soldier series from vanishing into the history’s void with Vanishing Earth. The subsequently released Star Soldier original redux on GameCube is a better bet, though it offers nothing new. The N64’s tribute and the GC’s update do little to keep the faith; better that you should hold on to those old Turbografx games if you’ve still got them.