Friday, November 30, 2012

Of Import: Star Luster (1985, Famicom)

Japanese arcade giant Namco (a.k.a. Namcot) was active in home videogame publishing during the 8- and 16-bit era.  While many such titles were ports of the company's arcade hits, occasionally they targeted the home market more directly, with titles like Star Luster, released in 1985 for the Nintendo Famicom:

"Luster" in this context appears to refer to starshine, not to, shall we say, more earthly fires; it's clearer in motion, where the outline around the logo shimmers through a rapidly shifting palette.  Star Luster is another in a long line of games that starts with the mainframe computer "Star Trek" programs, travels through Atari's Star Raider, and still turns up now and then today.  The player's mission, as usual, is fairly straightforward:

The main display features a map of enemy clusters (denoted with the letter E), intent on destroying the player's star bases (B) and neighboring stars (*); asteroid fields (//) appear to serve no purpose beyond creating risk when we try to fly through them.   A cursor is used to select a destination, then we shift into hyperspeed to reach the targeted sector, while the action continues in real-time in all the sectors we are not dealing with at the moment.  The action is seen from the player's cockpit perspective; the player aims and maneuvers with the D-pad, using the B button to fire and the A button to accelerate.

According to Wikipedia, Star Luster is set in the same universe as the Galaxian / Galaga / Gaplus arcade games, but there's not much evidence onscreen; the style reminds me more of Xevious. The cartridge label depicts a starbase that looks very like the ones in Namco's Bosconian arcade game, though I never actually saw one in-game (and I suspect the NES would have had a hard time managing a sprite that large.)

The enemy aliens are generally blue or gray, rendered in a variety of detailed shapes with different attack patterns and behaviors.  They flit about the screen fairly quickly, exchanging fire with the player against a 3-D starfield, and while there isn't a lot of variety to the gameplay, the intense dogfighting and chasing is fun and challenging.

We're free to travel around the galaxy as we please, but occasionally an onscreen alert calls upon us to DEFEND STAR or DEFEND BASE, and it's good etiquette to check the map and fly to the vicinity of the fading target (the icons turn black when they are under attack.)  Sometimes multiple enemies attack the same base or star, and we have to cross our fingers and hope we're taking on the biggest threat first.

Eventually, of course, our bases and stars are taking heavy damage, and more critically, we start to run low on energy, which is consumed by taking enemy damage as well as by traveling.  Eventually the EMPTY ENERGY message pops up, and the game is over.

The scoring model is fairly complex, taking time and energy use into account against enemies and outposts destroyed.  I played a couple of times, and didn't do tremendously well on the scoring or ranking front:

I got the same ranking both times, so I have no insight into how the scale works -- if I did better, would I be upgraded to Ensign Wang?  Or am I a step up from Cadet Butt?  Does British New Wave band Wang Chung, popular at the time, figure into it at all?

Star Luster never came to the US -- by the time Nintendo's console was released here, this cartridge probably looked a bit simplistic, though Acclaim released a similar game in the US called Star Voyager early in the NES' life (no relation as far as I know to Imagic's Atari 2600 Star Voyager, which was also a Star Raider clone.)  It's not a great game, but it's well implemented and I enjoyed spending an hour with it.

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