One of the video game genres that I’ve been a big fan of over the last 20 years or so is shoot-em-ups. No, I’m not talking about “shooters”, those fast-paced, first-person games where you brandish a firearm of some sort and snipe guys at 300 feet, reveling in every headshot. No, I’m talking about the scrolling shooter, one of the staples of what we now know as classic, or “retro” gaming. You see, from the early-mid 1980’s, until around the mid-late 1990’s, the scrolling shooter genre evolved tremendously, from humble beginnings like 1942, Vulgus, Star Force, and the like, to highly sophisticated games with deep, complex scoring systems like Battle Garegga, Dodonpachi, Radiant Silvergun, and many more. While I appreciate the complexity and replayability of games like that, give me a simple “shmup” (a term, coined by Zzap!64 Magazine, describing a scrolling shoot-em-up game) with twitchy game play, a simple control scheme, and solid action any day. While there’s room in my heart for “danmaku” games (aka bullet curtain, or “bullet hell” shooters), I generally prefer classic shoot-em-ups to their more grown-up descendants.
Leave it to Nintendo to do things differently. While we know in today’s modern world that Nintendo prefers to go their own way and do their own thing, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, it was everyone else who was doing their own thing, while Nintendo were the stalwarts of the scene, at least in North America. We didn’t know any better until years later, when we found out about the Tengen stuff, companies only being allowed to publish so many games each year for the NES, having to buy cartridges and hardware from Nintendo, etc. During that time, Nintendo was leading the charge, and everyone else was either following, or trying to differentiate themselves somehow to stand out. From the N64 forward, however, we saw a much different Nintendo. So to some fans in 1990, a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up might have seemed like it came out of left field from Nintendo. Be that as it may, they made a solid game.
The setup for SolarStriker reads like any other bog standard shmup from that time period. You’re a lone spacecraft either tasked with a suicide mission to save civilization, or a loner bent on revenge and the destruction of an alien planet/race/culture/technology/etc. It doesn’t matter much, as there’s no story in-game, and the back of the box doesn’t exactly give you much of a reason for blasting alien baddies, anyway. What does matter is that you’ve got 3 lives, an upgrade-able weapons system, and tons of alien craft and weaponry in your way before you reach the end of the game’s 6 stages. Throughout your journey, you’ll collect power-ups, destroy flying ships, tanks and trucks, alien life forms, and large boss enemies to reach the final showdown.
Graphically, the game isn’t too shabby for the Game Boy. Your ship, while devoid of a “tilt” animation when you move left to right, is rendered nicely, and the backgrounds generally strike that balance between interesting and utilitarian, leaning more toward the latter in favor of the player’s ability to see what’s going on. Enemies move in various patterns, and while some enemies rotate or change as they attack, others just move on the screen and their sprites are static; only their movement fluctuates. Explosions are also decent, given the small screen size, but they don’t distract from the action. As a side note, this game was released early enough in the Game Boy’s life cycle that it has a special palette programmed into the Super Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and Game Boy Player which reverses the “black and white” contrast, so that space looks like space with black space and white stars, and similar changes. If you want the original experience, you’ll need to play it on an original DMG or Game Boy Pocket unit, otherwise, you’ll see the game much differently than R&D 1 had in mind.
The audio of the game is an area that I think was relatively strong, given the time of the game’s release.There are only a handful of music tracks in the game. The title screen has its own ominous theme, and then there are 3 tracks shared by the subsequent 6 stages, each track playing for 2 consecutive stages before the next theme is used. There’s a separate track for boss fights, and then of course, separate music for when you lose your last life, and for the game’s ending. All tracks are reasonably well composed, though I’ll wager that most people will say the Stage 1/2 music is the best tune in the game, in part because it’s super catchy, but also because that’s the music they’ll likely be hearing the most. Sound effects are also decent, though very minimal, using white noise bits for explosions, sufficient beeping and noises for your craft firing, etc. Most enemies don’t make noise when they fire projectiles, so you don’t get that extra warning – you’ll have to be mindful of their incoming fire by sight only.
Game play is pretty standard. You can move the ship up, down, left, and right on the screen, and have no real restrictions as to where you can go within the game’s field of vision. The actual stage width is greater than what you can see on screen, so as you move the space ship left and right, the screen scrolls slightly to display the rest of the area you have to fly in. It feels natural, and didn’t distract me when playing like in some games. The difficulty is pretty standard throughout the first 3 stages, increasing relatively gradually, though the bosses for the 1st 3 areas are quite easy. Things get very hairy starting with Stage 4, however, as the difficulty ramps up quite a bit. In particular, the Stage 4 boss rains down a lot of fire on your ship, making it quite tough to get in a few hits here and there. The Stage 5 boss is only slightly less forgiving, having a more predictable pattern. From Stage 4 through 6, there are mini-bosses, and there’s a small mini-boss rush at the end of Stage 6 before the final boss. Strangely, though the final boss throws a lot at you, it feels like a less complicated battle than the 2 preceding boss fights, so it comes off as a bit of a relief in comparison.
This is a shooter based on the template laid down by a number of arcade and early console titles that came before it, and in some ways, served as a template for all shoot-em-ups subsequently released for this platform. There’s not a 2nd loop for “New Game Plus” mode, and there’s not even a high score table. You just fly, maneuver, and shoot through 6 stages, and that’s all there is. It’s not a particularly long game, though the stages themselves are sufficiently long before the boss encounters. Yes, the game comes off as a pretty no-frills affair, but for a portable title, that’s pretty much all you need. It’s a solid game with tight game play.
If I had to level some complaints against SolarStriker, I would say the game’s major difficulty spike after Stage 3 would be one. The game just doesn’t feel that hard through the first 3 levels, once you memorize enemy wave patterns. Starting with Stage 4, however, things become much more manic. You start to encounter fast moving enemies that can only be destroyed at the highest level of ship fire, and even then, only if you’re at the bottom of the screen firing at them constantly until they’re nearly on top of you. The enemy bullet timing and patterns are kind of goofy as well. Sometimes it feels like they’re targeting you, while other times, it seems like they’re just shooting a bullet, hoping to hit something. In later levels, when half the enemies start shooting directional lasers that always shoot straight down, it becomes less twitch-reflex dodging, and more risk/reward, where you decide whether or not you want to risk potentially being taken out by a laser, versus the points you’ll earn for destroying that enemy or group. It’s a little unbalanced in that sense, and is a bit too obvious in the game’s setup. I also would have liked the other 2 stage tunes to be a bit more memorable, or better yet, have dedicated music for each of the 6 stages.
Despite these less than perfect design choices, SolarStriker remains a highly playable, and reasonably enjoyable game. It’s a solid shmup that benefits from some good graphic design choices to make the game easy to see and play on the original hardware, despite the Game Boy DMG’s tendency toward motion blur. The music and sound, despite the sparse nature of it, is fitting to the game, and you’ll likely find yourself whistling or humming the Stage 1/2 song at some point. Just don’t throw your Game Boy against the wall when you die on the Stage 4 boss the 12th time. I’ll give this 2 thumbs up for shooter and arcade game fans, and a casual recommendation to anyone else. It’s a very common game, and I picked up a copy for $4. If you can’t find it that cheap, it might be worth paying a little more for, but I wouldn’t go out of your way to acquire it, because it’s so common in the wild.