Star date: something something. Location: Somewhere, I dunno. Mission: blow stuff up real good. A bit of a facile start but, at this point in gaming history, who’s turning to horizontal shooters for story, or context? Not me, for sure. I want that blasty action beamed directly into my frontal lobe.
Star Hunter DX does have a story though, or at least an outline to get you into the rhythm of what’s going on: you’re a space merc… sorry, bounty hunter… named Luna, tracking down her ex-employees who mutinied and left her a space-loner. It’s about as crucial to the gameplay as you’d expect, but does at least prompt some lovely accompanying artwork, which has a glossy, lurid style reminiscent of a PG-rated Heavy Metal comic, or Don Bluth’s Space Ace perhaps.
This gaudy chrome-and-neon style is present through the entire game, with simple sprites with either a pixel art wireframe or flat-shaded effect. It’s evocative of Flash Gordon and cheesy stuff like Buck Rogers too, but has a very solid – very shooty – core.
Your ship comes with a spread shot and a more direct set of laser blasts, plus a ‘triple threat’ bomb that slows time, causes damage within its corona, and also shields you for a brief moment. The key USP of the game, though, comes in how you gain bombs: charging up a meter grants you munitions, and this can be done by both collecting drops from downed enemy ships, and by grazing bullets – risk vs. reward.
You can also press a button to slow time, making the drops even more valuable and charging your shield more effectively. This essentially causes a feedback loop of challenge and strategy that’s kinda like a miniaturized Doom Eternal – interconnecting systems that require juggling of both cooldown and cause/effect. Neato.
The rainbow palette and 16-bit pastiche are all well and good, and the systems very clever, but is it fun to play? It assuredly is, but with a couple of caveats. Firstly, I’m still to be convinced a horizontal layout is the right home for bullet hell shooters. With small, precise movements required and a good view of the lasers coming at you needed, I find the vertical layout more suitable – less lateral movement, more time to judge the path through the waterfall-like cascade of raining death.
Secondly, your main weapons can’t be swapped out or powered-up. Different characters with different loadouts can be unlocked, but their weapons are static too. This is just a personal thing, but I find any shooter that doesn’t provide an upgrade path to lack the umph of a decent dopamine hit.
Finally, I found the ship speed too slow; or, at least, the lack of a speed control disappointing. Generally it’s fine and going too fast would be ruinous, but I couldn’t help feeling a blast of speed to take me out of harm’s way would have been a good tool to have when things started getting a little too hairy.
Innovating in such a venerable old genre is a challenge unto itself, but Star Hunter DX takes a decent stab at it. Lovely to look at, easy to read but pitched at a high level of difficulty, it might not be a revelatory experience but it’s a slick, confident product with some impressive innovations under its retro-themed space-bonnet.