Starr Mazer: DSP - Early Access Review

Pitfalls of Nostalgia

August 3, 2019

tl;dr Despite its beautiful presentation and high-quality production, Starr Mazer: DSP leaves one wishing for more. It misses the mark in terms of gameplay and game design. Newcomers to the genre will probably enjoy the title, while intermediate or advanced players will want to steer clear of the title in its current state. We can only hope some of the base systems get reworked before official launch.

I first learned about Starr Mazer: DSP while it was going through a copyright debacle on YouTube. Yet another game hit with DMCA abuses. During the drama, I got a chance to hear some game details that raised red flags. The authors want to create a shooter game which banks on nostalgia, bringing back memories of times past. They seemed to think Shmups somehow stopped being released, and stopped being played. Most readers will know this is far from being accurate. I kept hopeful this was going to be a high profile release. Unfortunately, my fears were justified.

If you are unaware, in the STG community, EuroShmups are often synonym with bad games. In my opinion, EuroShmups get their bad reputation due to a lack of research from game designers. A lot of these studios, Imagos Softworks included, have fond memories of playing classics when they were young. They bank solely on this nostalgia to make a new title, without doing appropriate research into the genre’s evolution and without looking into classic Japanese titles like CAVE games. If you have not 1-cced a Japanese shooter game, you should not be making a Shmup. Simple as that.

Yet game after game, Western developers produce titles that break many fundamental rules of the genre, without understanding why these rules exist in the first place. Just like a great musician must learn, integrate and someday break musical theory, so must a game designer with a genre’s rules. Nostalgia doesn’t cut it, your memories are lying to you.

Starr Mazer: DSP releases in a very crowded, yet extremely niche genre. It competes for your attention, but other games have come before and masterfully pulled off the exact same premise: make you relive experiences of yore. SM: DSP brings some innovation to the table, which I always appreciate and look forward to in EuroShmups. Yet the basics simply aren’t there. No fancy mechanic will save a broken core loop.

Lets talk about the good stuff first. The game is very pretty. I’m a sucker for high quality graphics and I have no issues with pixel art. The visual style of the game is on point and feels meticulously crafted. The color palette creates a beautiful post-apocalyptic vibe. I love the deep purples and the oranges. Even the menu screens add to the retro vibe. I guess this beautiful presentation set my expectations quite high.

The game has an interesting ship crew mechanic. For each round, with the money you earned, you buy multiple ships which you will take to battle. Loosing a life will change the current ship. Once you are out of ships, you are ded. I like this system. It brings gameplay variety in a novel way that doesn’t impede too much on the core Shmup loop.

Sometimes, if RNGesus is on your side, a run can be fun. But those are few and far between.

Inside levels, things get pretty bad. The backgrounds and foregrounds are nice, there is no question about that. Yet the levels are not hand-crafted as I would have expected. The game has no level design to speak of. It uses the Bullet Hell formula of “empty” screens that are filled purely with enemies. Not what I expected going into this, certainly not old-school, but it could have worked. Even though stages are split into thematic chunks, waves of baddies are randomized. Once I understood this, my interest started to wane. I was surprised and truthfully, it just doesn’t fit the retro vibe of the game. Old-school Horizontal Shooters usually fall in the Memorizer sub-genre. That is, brutal games with intricate level design you must learn along the way, dying and dying and dying… You get the point.

Here, Starr Mazer: DSP throws one’s expectation out the window. It provides no level design, just blank playing fields (very beautiful playing fields mind you) and throws randomized waves of enemies at you. To me, it feels lazy. The waves themselves are somewhat memorizable though, and then it hit me. An enemy model, one of which I had learned its bullet pattern, threw an undodgeable new pattern at me. And that was it! [Queue throw the controller at the screen, etc.]

There are other issues as well. The ship’s bounding box seems rather large, or plain buggy, for some of the patterns presented to you. If you want danmaku (yes we do!), then you have to make that hitbox smaller. Readability isn’t super great, but I wont be to critical on that one. I believe practice would help a lot on that front. Plus, I have a feeling my eyes are just getting shitty after all these hours of concentrating on glowing little balls. I’d say some of the bullet animations make it difficult to guess their bounding boxes though.

I have more gripes, but I think that covers the most important ones.

Starr Mazer: DSP seems to have ignored the fundamentals of old-school Memorizers, yet bases its marketing on retro nostalgia. In my mind, it is clear the game misses the mark. There is nothing inherently wrong with a more randomized game, but if that is your goal, care must be taken when creating patterns. STGs are hard, but one thing they are not, is unfair.

tl;dr Despite its beautiful presentation and high-quality production, Starr Mazer: DSP leaves one wishing for more. It misses the mark in terms of gameplay and game design. Newcomers to the genre will probably enjoy the title, while intermediate or advanced players will want to steer clear of the title in its current state. We can only hope some of the base systems get reworked before official launch.

I first learned about Starr Mazer: DSP while it was going through a copyright debacle on YouTube. Yet another game hit with DMCA abuses. During the drama, I got a chance to hear some game details that raised red flags. The authors want to create a shooter game which banks on nostalgia, bringing back memories of times past. They seemed to think Shmups somehow stopped being released, and stopped being played. Most readers will know this is far from being accurate. I kept hopeful this was going to be a high profile release. Unfortunately, my fears were justified.

If you are unaware, in the STG community, EuroShmups are often synonym with bad games. In my opinion, EuroShmups get their bad reputation due to a lack of research from game designers. A lot of these studios, Imagos Softworks included, have fond memories of playing classics when they were young. They bank solely on this nostalgia to make a new title, without doing appropriate research into the genre’s evolution and without looking into classic Japanese titles like CAVE games. If you have not 1-cced a Japanese shooter game, you should not be making a Shmup. Simple as that.

Yet game after game, Western developers produce titles that break many fundamental rules of the genre, without understanding why these rules exist in the first place. Just like a great musician must learn, integrate and someday break musical theory, so must a game designer with a genre’s rules. Nostalgia doesn’t cut it, your memories are lying to you.

Starr Mazer: DSP releases in a very crowded, yet extremely niche genre. It competes for your attention, but other games have come before and masterfully pulled off the exact same premise: make you relive experiences of yore. SM: DSP brings some innovation to the table, which I always appreciate and look forward to in EuroShmups. Yet the basics simply aren’t there. No fancy mechanic will save a broken core loop.

Lets talk about the good stuff first. The game is very pretty. I’m a sucker for high quality graphics and I have no issues with pixel art. The visual style of the game is on point and feels meticulously crafted. The color palette creates a beautiful post-apocalyptic vibe. I love the deep purples and the oranges. Even the menu screens add to the retro vibe. I guess this beautiful presentation set my expectations quite high.

The game has an interesting ship crew mechanic. For each round, with the money you earned, you buy multiple ships which you will take to battle. Loosing a life will change the current ship. Once you are out of ships, you are ded. I like this system. It brings gameplay variety in a novel way that doesn’t impede too much on the core Shmup loop.

Sometimes, if RNGesus is on your side, a run can be fun. But those are few and far between.

Inside levels, things get pretty bad. The backgrounds and foregrounds are nice, there is no question about that. Yet the levels are not hand-crafted as I would have expected. The game has no level design to speak of. It uses the Bullet Hell formula of “empty” screens that are filled purely with enemies. Not what I expected going into this, certainly not old-school, but it could have worked. Even though stages are split into thematic chunks, waves of baddies are randomized. Once I understood this, my interest started to wane. I was surprised and truthfully, it just doesn’t fit the retro vibe of the game. Old-school Horizontal Shooters usually fall in the Memorizer sub-genre. That is, brutal games with intricate level design you must learn along the way, dying and dying and dying… You get the point.

Here, Starr Mazer: DSP throws one’s expectation out the window. It provides no level design, just blank playing fields (very beautiful playing fields mind you) and throws randomized waves of enemies at you. To me, it feels lazy. The waves themselves are somewhat memorizable though, and then it hit me. An enemy model, one of which I had learned its bullet pattern, threw an undodgeable new pattern at me. And that was it! [Queue throw the controller at the screen, etc.]

There are other issues as well. The ship’s bounding box seems rather large, or plain buggy, for some of the patterns presented to you. If you want danmaku (yes we do!), then you have to make that hitbox smaller. Readability isn’t super great, but I wont be to critical on that one. I believe practice would help a lot on that front. Plus, I have a feeling my eyes are just getting shitty after all these hours of concentrating on glowing little balls. I’d say some of the bullet animations make it difficult to guess their bounding boxes though.

I have more gripes, but I think that covers the most important ones.

Starr Mazer: DSP seems to have ignored the fundamentals of old-school Memorizers, yet bases its marketing on retro nostalgia. In my mind, it is clear the game misses the mark. There is nothing inherently wrong with a more randomized game, but if that is your goal, care must be taken when creating patterns. STGs are hard, but one thing they are not, is unfair.