Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
23 December 2008
Review: Super Stardust Portable (PSP)
Super Stardust HD is one of the finest PlayStation 3 games ever made. Yes, it looks like pure eyecandy, but the gripping, seat-of-your-pants gameplay stands the test of time. I recently commented that Space Invaders Extreme is to the original what Tempest 2000 was to Tempest, and I'm tempted to compare SSHD to Asteroids. Honestly, that's the wrong comparison. It is a new Robotron: 2084 for the HD generation.

When I heard the Super Stardust HD developer, Housemarque, was making a PSP version I laughed out loud. How do you condense a two-joystick game with countless objects on the screen at any given moment onto a handheld with only one analog nub (not even a stick!) and far reduced RAM and CPU capabilities? "Madness!" I thought, "It will look and play terribly."

I was wrong. (Regular readers no doubt are used to that by now.) In fact, it is now one of the finest PSP games I've ever played.

The second joystick -- used for shooting -- is handled with the four right buttons, used as a directional pad, but that's just the obvious bit. The brilliant part is that tapping a direction will generate a wide spread of random shots. The gold melter, which is one of the key weapons to master, will fire out a pleasing sinusoidal wave using this tapping approach, mimicking just the way I use it in the PS3 version. And holding down all four buttons (not difficult, in my experience) will fire the melter in a swift circular pattern -- again, just as I've used it many times in the other version.

Graphically, the game gives the appearance of handling enough objects that it really doesn't matter if falls short of the PS3's billions. Everything looks beautiful, and I'd say it's one of the better demonstrations of the PSP's abilities. One important difference here is that the spherical play surface in the original has been replaced with a spherical-looking background image and a toroidal playfield. (The use of a torus to give the illusion of a sphere is a trick I last saw in Tetrisphere on the Nintendo 64.)

The only quibble, and it's not difficult once you learn to cope, is that weapon selection is on the D-pad. That's awkward, and I'd make a couple of suggestions to improve it. First, there should be a way to map the D-pad directions to a particular weapon; for example, I should be able to make up select the rock crusher, right the gold melter, and down the ice splitter. This would eliminate some of the frustration. The final direction could be used as a cycler, or (better) a means of selecting the most upgraded weapon currently available.

The pacing has been tweaked a bit to make accomodate the adjustments in the controls. The result is a game which has kept me in awe for a solid week, and shows no intention of slowing down. I've sunk over 6 hours into this version already, and that was during a busy week when I've also been playing BioShock and doing holiday chores. (For comparison, I have well over 12 hours in the PS3 game.)

I've realized, in the meantime, that Robotron: 2084 was ultimately the correct comparison. After all, one of my favorite versions of that classic arcade game is on a handheld. The Atari Lynx version of Robotron: 2084 uses just a D-pad and two firing buttons, but still has a very clever solution to the independent firing problem that impresses me to this day: the two buttons are used to rotate a constant stream of shots while the D-pad handles movement.

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--Matt Matthews at 23:07
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