Instead of weaving an interesting tale of space intrigue and drama, Star Soldier for the Nintendo Entertainment System focuses on gameplay that requires memorization and quick reflexes.
Developed by Hudson Soft and published by Taxan in 1989 for the NES, Star Soldier is a vertically scrolling shoot ‘em up set in space. While the plot is never touched upon in the game, there is a single paragraph in the manual that sets the stage. Starbrain, an evil computer is roaming space with waves of enemy ships and robot creatures and are destroying anything in their path. The Galactic Empire decides to send in their best star soldier along with the best ship in their Galactic Fleet, Caesar to take care of Starbrain. And that’s the plot. It’s basically identical to any other space shoot ‘em up, but I didn’t purchase Star Soldier for the story, no, I purchased it for the gameplay.
Piloting Caesar I flew through space (vertically mind you) shooting down Starbrain’s waves of minions, of which there were plenty. And instead of simply palette-swapping enemies (same enemy design, different stats and color) Hudson Soft created a large array of enemies that had their own patterns that I needed to memorize to be successful.
Every enemy type moved and attacked me differently which means I had to deal with nearly every enemy type in a different way. And with the exception of a few, the enemies weren’t kind enough to attack me one at a time, they attacked me in waves. Each wave was wholly composed of one enemy type, but a lot of that enemy type. With each stage lasting at least a few minutes, I had to deal with many waves that required unique strategies. The key to success was learning how to cope with each enemy type, and if that didn’t pan out I could try and hide from them.
One of the things that I found polarizing about Star Soldierwas the stage design. While the game takes place in space, I wasn’t just flying through twinkling stars. Each stage had something more to it; some had stage-long space stations in the process of being built while other stages had me flying around floating landmasses. I had the ability to fly under most of the construction and most of the floating landmasses, but not every single one. This was confusing and added another level of memorization to the game. Why would I want to fly beneath these structures though?
Well, when I flew underneath them I could avoid enemies and enemy fire, but I’d lose my ability to fire too. This mechanic was helpful when I confronted a wave of dive bombing enemies that moved very fast as they would fly over the structure while I was under it. Coming out from underneath these structures was difficult to time however and I lost many lives running into stray bullets or just crashing into enemies. I ended up avoiding flying underneath structures as much as I could because it messed with the rhythm I had built up and usually led to easily avoidable deaths.
Star Soldier required a lot of memorization and for the first hour, it was more about learning how the enemies act and how I should react than actual stage progression. I didn’t get very far until I had that understanding, then I was able to get a little farther in the game each time I played. I had to build that base knowledge of how Star Soldier operated, and then learn each stage and apply the tactics I developed. Sometimes I’d have a good rhythm going and get far without losing lives, but once I began doing bad, it was hard to get back in that rhythm. I wasn’t able to complete the game though; of the sixteen stages I only made it to the seventh, but I was extremely satisfied making it that far. One thing that helped me get that far was earning extra lives.
I was awarded extra lives at fifty-thousand points, two hundred thousand points, and beyond that I’m not sure. Killing enemies aided in accumulating points, but what really helped was finding hidden enemies. On the half-built space stations and floating landmasses were hidden enemies that would appear after I shot the space they occupied a few times. Instead of giving me a standard amount of points, I got a larger reward for each one destroyed. I initially got five hundred points, but this moved up to one thousand, four thousand, ten thousand, forty-thousand, and so on for each one found. This added yet another element of memorization to the game.
After I understood the enemies, the stage design, and had plenty of lives I could finally defeat Starbrain and this brings me to the last thing I want to talk about: the boss fights. At the end of each stage I fought Starbrain, and at the end of each fourth stage I fought Big Starbrain. Defeating Starbrains and Big Starbrains wasn’t that difficult of a task. Their attacks were easily avoidable as were their movements. Big Starbrain was a little more difficult as I had much more to destroy, but I rarely lost a life in these battles. However, if I didn’t defeat them quickly enough, they would escape and I would have to attempt the stage over again. This didn’t concern me too much though as it only happened once.
Star Soldier was a challenging, but fun shoot ‘em up that employed some interesting mechanics. I appreciated that there was a large amount of unique enemies instead of palette-swapped versions. Dealing with each type was challenging, but rewarding once I took out an entire wave. The ability to interact with the stages was interesting, but as is the case with the story, I was ambivalent towards it. Having the same two bosses repeated throughout the game wasn’t a sticking point for me, I was glad that I knew what to expect at the end of a level and would have to restart or learn another boss’ patterns. The manual contains helpful information and tips for the game and I found a complete copy for the NES cheap, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to enjoy the game. And I did enjoy Star Soldier; after half a dozen hours of play I’d gotten enough out of it, but I would recommend it for anyone looking for a classic shoot ‘em up.
High Score: 408, 200