Last week, Star Ghost hit the Wii U eShop. I have now put in almost 10 hours to it and my favourable first impressions have turned sour. This is not a review but a look how the game has clever mechanics (or at least I think so) but the difficulty curve spoiled the game for me.
First, the good part.
The game itself is a horizontal-scrolling shmup with very basic controls: one button to thrust "upwards", as the ship otherwise starts to fall "down", and one thumbstick to aim the shots or trigger the powerup attraction field. Shooting is done automatically. Yes, this is an expanded version of an iPad game called Star Drift. To me, this is not an immediate black mark.
The cleverness, in my eyes, is how the various aspects work together and constantly require some type of balancing. The three basic powerups - larger attraction field, bullet spread and bullet firing rate - drain as they are used. Use the traction field, and while the traction field drains, the offensive powerups won't. And the other way around.
The most common "powerups" are credits that can either be used to buy a powerup between stages, trade in for points when the game ends or spend 50 of them for a continue. Again, pretty clever.
Defeating enemies will increase the score multiplier up to 5, and getting damaged will reset the multiplier. Another tradeoff are the asteroid belt stages. They're empty except for the fast asteroids that split in pieces when shot, and it's easy to raise the multiplier to the max level and then just keep raking in the points. However, the asteroids have far fewer powerups to restore the drained offensive power, so these stages are often a trade from powerups to points.
Then there are the virus "powerups", which will block the player from using their weapons for a time... unless they fly straight for a while, making the virus implode and destroy (most) enemies on the screen.
In the end, there aren't all that many moving parts, but they're tightly connected. There's little that feels unnecessary.
But then the problems. One, there are no difficulty options. Once the player gets the hang of the game, the start becomes a drag. Given how the game originally worked on a touchscreen, a slower tempo can be expected... but this is not the iPad release, so they should've addressed this.
Two, the leaderboards are local only and screenshots cannot be uploaded to Miiverse for some reason. Okay, I can live with this since I usually try to best myself, not so much the others. This is still a big omission nonetheless.
Three, this is an endless procedurally generated score attack game that doesn't, as far as I can tell, have an option to save the game to be continued at a later date. Of the 10 hours I put in, I doubt I'm much wrong saying three hours of that was my last run.
About two hours in of those three hours I had finished the first loop. Think of Donkey Kong where you start from the first map after defeating the titular character, only this time one loop takes much longer. I can only assume the game loops ad nauseam. Then, I managed to keep playing for another hour before I just gave up. I wasn't feeling the challenge increase or feeling any progress.
To me, this means the game traded rewarding points for skill for rewarding points for endurance. It's possible the damage taken got a bit higher and the number of enemies increased as well, but not enough to be meaningful. I do admit I bought a continue about seven times in total, so I wasn't going for a one-credit clear, but the continues (or extra lives by another name) do not reset your score. As much as I appreciate games like Outrun etc. that are suited for casual gamers like me, unlimited game session lengths aren't something I miss.
Had the game ended at the first loop - or at least recorded the score to a separate table - I might keep playing it. The score multiplier and its resets would've separated the good from the less good players by that time in the score tables.
I'm not a particularly good shmup player. My best claim to competence is managing to 1CC Perfect Cherry Blossom on normal difficulty years ago. But when my third-last run in SG was over the top placeholder score, the next run more than doubled the score and the last run (the one taking over three hours) very nearly doubled that, the difficulty has not been properly balanced. I should have to fight tooth and nail to improve my score every few runs that do not take hours each.
How would I have done it? Looking at YouTube videos, successful runs of Perfect Cherry Blossom and Imperishable Night seem to take about 30 minutes each. I would've preferred that kind of fixed length to this by a large margin, and then let the scoring rank the players on leaderboards - which are not online. Or even the option to start from whichever loop I had managed to reach to avoid the slow start and getting to the part of scoring high points quicker.
The flatlining difficulty curve killed my interest in Star Ghost. A pity.