The shmup market isn’t that crowded these days, but every new release has a difficult challenge; to do something different in a genre that reached its popularity pinnacle decades ago. New shmups have to be very unique because we the audience have seen everything before. Good news is that Project Starship X really manages to have its own unique feel, humour, quirks and vibe. It’s loud, it’s vibrant, and for some reason it’s got some Cthulhu in there too.
And yes it’s name is still Project Starship X, when usually the Project part is dropped upon release, and a new title chosen. It’s retaining its working title. You don’t think Project Athia is going to be called Project Athia on release, do you?
So in Project Starship X there’s no real story to be found. It’s arcade action – shoot the aliens, the spaceships, the crazy squid creatures and the zombie Hitler bosses out of the sky, and do it in style. Project Starship X is far more concerned with getting you in the thick of the fight as fast as possible, there is no setup of any kind. And that’s fine. I like a story, but even I can admit the shmup genre is often not the place for War and Peace.
So instead let’s delve into the action. Project Starship X is a vertical shmup or shoot-’em-up with a lot of personality, and plenty of frantic, screen-filling chaos, but it’s somehow quite simple to follow. Your enemies are simple, but apart from bosses, are rarely that difficult to kill. Their actions are telegraphed all over the screen which can make everything look difficult to follow, but n actual fact make it all easy to digest.
Gameplay consists of three basic functions, but these combine to make some fun sections and fast challenges. It’s move, shoot and dodge. Move shouldn’t need an explanation, but here goes – you move your space fighter jet in all directions on a 2D plane with the left thumbstick, but beware your movement speed is curtailed by shooting. The second function is a north-facing bullet barrage, slightly different for each character. There are tons of bullets coming from your ship making it look like some of the Cave classics, and shooting will slow you down.
The last function is the dodge-crash – where PSX diverges from the pack – a quick hit of X to make you dodge through lasers, walls of bullets, or obstacles, and into enemies. Usually this is just forward but sometimes powers ups appear that you can dodge towards, allowing more left and right shifting through solid barriers. After each dodge you need a second to recharge, so you can’t dodge through everything, or spam it, but with strategic use this can be a fun mechanic. The best use is when an enemy has been weakened by laser fire you can then dodge into them to Crash-Kill. And as you progress, this mechanic becomes more and more important, requiring you to crash-kill your way through entire sections, where enemies can’t be shot behind barriers for example.
There are more levels than you will see in a standard run of five stages, and they seem to be thrown at you based on the pilot you choose. But that does mean there’s a bit more replayability than in your average shmup; in PSX you haven’t even seen everything until you’ve completed it with each character.
I should also bring attention to the very cool character selection screen complete with distorted retro-games-sports-announcer-voice calling out characters names like Garret Zeppolla, Gwen Rossi, John Johnson (who missed every leg day), and Sophie Jefferson. They all have punchy animations that really pop, and there’s a bonus squid head character to earn later on.
That retro-infused manic feel with screen shake and epilepsy-inducing strobe permeates the whole game. It’s over the top in its delivery and if that appeals there’s a lot to like here. There’s also a number of retro video game easter eggs dotted throughout the levels, including Pac-man and the ghosts, and mushrooms and sewer tubes from Mario.
Power ups are pretty integral to the experience requiring you to crash-dodge into them, but they provide at least half a dozen different shooting patterns for your ship. However there’s no upgrading, nothing to earn or buy with the gold coins you’re collecting throughout the levels. These are simply for score-chasing. I also failed to see how there was anything preserved from run to run, so the marketing of this as a roguelite makes no sense to me. Possibly a roguelike, but by that definition, if this is a roguelike, then all shmups are roguelikes.
The closest thing to earning something you keep is the tank mode, where once you’ve earned it, a random tank buff will appear in subsequent runs. This is a larger version of your ship that flies slower, but has huge armour. It can’t crash-dodge, and you end up dodging out of it whenever you press the button. A ship transformation I had more fun with was Crawler mode. In certain sections land appears under your ship or you fly down a Mario sewer and you change into a sort of Frogger shape. Movement handles the same, but dodging becomes a frog jump over obstacles.
Project Starship X’s soundtrack really pops, managing to be both an homage to synth tracks on shmups of old, and also new and vibrant. It sounds like it’s generated straight out of an absolute classic Gameboy (proper chiptune) and has been programmed to swell and react dynamically either to you getting hit or under certain conditions. It’s a nice effect and more than once found myself bopping to the music instead of worrying about enemies.
Getting to the end of all five stages can be tough, but plenty doable with practice. It’s not an especially tough shmup in a genre that can claim some of the hardest games ever coded. for example anyone used to dodging the bullet-hell games will find the slow-moving bullets in this very easy. Achievements won’t take you an hour – I lost count of the number of them that popped during my first few runs – the sound of their pings overrode the music.
Project Starship X is a well put together retro shmup with tons of style. It’s simple and hones its small selection of moves into well-handled and white knuckle sections of gameplay. However it’s also relatively short, and lacks any real depth unless you’re a score-chaser.
Project Starship X is available now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 , Xbox One (review platform), Google Stadia, and Steam.
Developer: Panda Indie Studio
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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