Twin-stick shooters simply weren’t possible on the PlayStation Portable. (Ed. Note: They were possible, just not very good.) Sony’s initial drive into Handheld City only featured a single, sad analog nub, and lo, fans of the genre were forced to troll for their adrenaline fix on major consoles, and, more recently, settle for substandard control schemes on the iPad and iPod Touch. (They’re not called single-stick shooters, after all.)
As we’re all well aware, the PlayStation Vita comes equipped with that key second stick, and lo, the horizons of Robotron-flavored possibility open up like Charlton Heston parting a special-effects Red Sea. Exhibit A is the downloadable Super Stardust Delta, the Vita’s version of Housemarque’s neon-colored Pop Rock cocktail of Asteroids, Space Invaders and Geometry Wars. Even though the gameplay’s as familiar as the grooves in your thumb, this is a game that shows how gorgeous Vita graphics can look on its sizable screen, as well as how unobtrusive the handheld’s new control scheme can be. Oh, and the decision to let the player decide whether they’d like to test-drive the new touch controls or just stick with the sticks? Rock solid.
Speaking of rocks, you’ll be spending your time here trying to defend a series of big round ones (also known as planets) by using various types of weaponry to knock Alaska-sized asteroids that float around the planets’ orbits into so much powder. As the game speeds up, you’ll be ducking and dodging in orbit, flipping between your fire and ice attacks as you desperately battle increasingly numerous waves of clever and defense-laden enemies.
Pure mode lives up to its name—you work the sticks to move and shoot, then press a button to detonate an EMP bomb. In Delta mode, you’re given three different (and, of course, limited) special attacks that use the Vita’s features to unleash neon hell on your enemies. You can shake the system and explode the environment with a well-timed EMP bomb, tap the front screen to unleash a swirl of devastating missiles or tap the back to open up a black hole that sucks everything in like a space-age Hoover on steroids. It takes some careful Vita grip management to avoid accidental black hole deployment , but once you’ve found a comfort zone, it’s not an issue.
Acing the main game’s five planet levels opens up mini-games (one for each planet), but they’re seriously mini—some of them only take moments to complete, and unless you’re a leaderboard addict, most aren’t interesting enough to merit multiple run-throughs. Not so for the planet levels themselves, where drop-kicking your friends (and perfect strangers) down the PlayStation Network leaderboards quickly becomes an addictive incentive. I now understand what Sony was trying to say with those “Nowhere is Safe” Vita commercials.
Visuals rule in Super Stardust Delta, but they aren’t the only ingredient Housemarque managed to nail. Enemies and asteroids make satisfying sounds when they pop, like you’ve just ignited a stream of firecrackers on the sidewalk. It ought to be disruptive and distracting; instead, it just adds to the game’s trance-like vibe.
Super Stardust Delta isn’t the deepest Vita offering you’ll play–then again, we’re talking about a $10 download, so the value is obviously relative. In more ways than one: Sony saddled SSD with the dreaded day-one downloadable content that, unless you opt to buy it with the full game for $14.99, will set you back $8—only $2 less than the price of the full game sans DLC. Ouch.
The DLC addresses the depth shortcoming by adding four new game modes: Endless (beat all five planets with only one life) Bomber Mode (all bombs, no guns) Impact (boost is your only weapon) and Twin-Gun (steer with the tilt controls, shoot with both sticks). But don’t let your feelings about day-one DLC dissuade you from investing in the main game. It’s well worth the price of admission, with visuals and gameplay that will suck you back in like an anti-grav tractor beam.
+ Gorgeous neon explosions pop on the Vita screen
+ Delta mode’s touch controls are unobtrusive
+ Inexpensive price point
+ Gunning the leaderboard is easy, addictive
– Mini-games are shallower than a kiddie pool
– Day-one DLC seems designed to gouge
Platform: PlayStation Vita via PSN
Release Date: 2/14/2012
Genre: Twin-stick Shooter
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Source: Review code provided by publisher