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Posted on Oct 7th 2015 at 08:00:00 AM by (MetalFRO)
Posted under Review, Game Boy, Game Boy Guru, Solar Striker, shmup


Image shamelessly linked from GameFAQs.
I love classic video game box art like this. It symbolizes
the imagination many artists put into the artwork. Imagination
that unfortunately, rarely ever captured the true look and
feel of the game. Still, it gave us hope of the contents within.

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.  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) 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.




Someone needed to remind companies during the 80's
and early 90's that changing the logo design between the
box and the title screen caused confusion. Which logo
was the "official" one, and which was a design mistake?

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 was the stalwart 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.  However, from the N64 forward, we saw a much different Nintendo.  So to some fans in 1990, a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up from Nintendo might have seemed like it came out of left field.  Be that as it may, they made a solid game.


"Space...the final frontier."  Also, graphically kind of boring.

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.


I'm sure you'll become quite acquainted with this screen
as I did in my play through of the game. It gets annoying.
Thankfully, you can press Start to jump right back to the
title screen, and Start again to get back to the action.

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.


I can only assume since we started in space, and this is
Stage 2, we're in the sky above the alien planet, raining
down destruction and chaos everywhere.  Neat.

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.


Stage 3 goes over some roadways, which look suspiciously
like our own on Earth.  Wait a minute, am I blowing away
aliens on Earth? Why didn't anyone tell me?

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.  However, things get very hairy starting with Stage 4, 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, but has 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.


Stage 4 adds the first mini-boss, this big fella here. You
have to destroy the shielded units around him to get to
the actual core of the unit itself, not unlike another famous
series of shmups where you have to "Shoot the core!"

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.


This is the Stage 4 boss, just before it starts shooting a
metric ton of bullets at me. This was long before the term
"bullet hell" was coined, but that's not far off the mark here.

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; you have to 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.


Oh look, a stage that looks like highly advanced
technology and stuff - that's not a trope at all, is it?

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.


The final stage looks vaguely like you're inside some giant
alien being, not unlike Life Force/Salamander or Abadox. The
final boss appears to be the creature's heart that you have
to destroy. Why it shoots bullets at you is anyone's guess.


Yeah, we kind of figured that part out with the preceding
cut scene, but thanks for telling us anyway.


"Finally, I can dock my ship and go meet up
with that cute engineer from Section 3!"


This is my SolarStriker cart. It appears that perhaps my
cart fought in the conflict with the aliens alongside the
space ship you pilot in game...



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Comments
 
Nice article FRO!  As you know, I'm a big shmup fan and collect them for all of my systems. Solar Striker is a good game and a must for any Gameboy collector.  I haven't played my copy in a while and can't remember whether you completely start the stage over when you die, or if there are checkpoints that put you back into the action. I think that this is a factor that many shmup fans consider when purchasing a title. Thanks!
 
It's been a bit since I played it, but if memory serves, it's an instant respawn, so that helps Smiley
 
Great write-up, as always! Thorough and reflective. Your reviews make me pine for the older issues of Nintendo Power and Game Players, when I could really get a feel for the game from good writing and a journalistic idealism.

Er, anyway, I also do so enjoy old shmups, and SS is squarely in my 'above average' category. Thanks for putting this one on folks' radar.
 
Great article as always! 
I love the shot of your cartridge that has clearly been in a scuffle or two on it's own. 
Glad to see that I am not the only one with some cartridges that are not in "collectible" condition (though I try for as good condition as possible when possible).
 
Had me a chuckle at the condition of the cart.  Looks like someone took a bite and decided it didn't taste good.

I don't really like shmups all that much.  I even had to look above at slackur's comment to check the spelling.  With that said, I have always found the genre extremely attractive, especially the NES-era ones.  I'm just really bad at them.  Solar Striker seems right up my alley though, with more subdued gameplay (until you reach stage four, as you said).  I also have to heartily agree with you on the music.  I found it quite exceptional, and had a little thought:  Ever notice how catchy the early GB tunes were (Nail N Scale not withstanding)?  Pretty awesome, and if I were in your shoes, plumbing the genesis of the GB library, this would likely be the largest pull of such a task.

Another one to keep an eye out for, I think.  Thanks for the recommendation (and the article).
 
Thanks for all the kind words, gang!  I'm glad you're enjoying my articles, and knowing that they're being read and enjoyed is certainly fuel for the fire to keep me going.  I appreciate it!

And yes, I thought that cart photo might elicit a few smiles.  I snagged that about a year and a half ago, or thereabouts, and when I bought it, there were at least 4 or 5 other SolarStriker carts available.  That happened to be the one the guy grabbed, and I was a bit short-sighted for not asking for the one in the best condition, especially considering they were all priced the same.  That said, it did make a nice end-cap for the article, so I guess all's well that ends well Smiley

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