Star Blazer (Apple II) review
"In the early nineteen-eighties, there were a hell of a lot of games around with 'Star' in their title. "
In the early nineteen-eighties, there were a hell of a lot of games around with 'Star' in their title.
This is not at all surprising considering the paradigm set up by cultural phenomenon Space Invaders. The 'player versus space aliens' scenario dominated game design in the pioneering days when concept was story, coin-ops' state-of-the-art electronic bleeps and warbles were great at accurately reproducing the sounds made by alien lasers (How are you going to prove to me that aliens don't sound like they did in Space Invaders?) and rainbow-coloured pixels and vector graphics created a new visual world best suited to the imaginary.
At this time, if a game's name was catchy enough, it didn't matter if that name wasn't entirely accurate or descriptive of the game content – especially if it contained the magical word 'star'. Tony Suzuki's Star Blazer for the Apple II is a prime case in point. Hailing from 1981, it's a classic five-level 'jetter' (side-scrolling shoot-em-up with the player flying a plane) which stands the test of time both on the Apple II scale and in broader gaming. I'm quite sure you could publish this for the Gameboy Advance right now to player satisfaction, by only adding more levels and jazzing the graphics appropriately.
As for that name, Star Blazer is really an earth-o-centric game (you're always flying across the surface of our planet) and your plane is technically a WWII aircraft, even if it can shoot what are clearly lasers. And the bad guys aren't aliens. And if this is the future, it's obviously not far in the future. I will grant that a night sky starfield swishes past in the background, and more enthusiastically, that the impressive number of things which will explode under the rain of your bombs probably amounts to all the 'blazing' you could want.
In each of the game's five missions, your slightly wonky WWII jet soars forever rightwards, with full run of the screen as you see fit, and a slight motion drift of the kind you'd expect on a beat-up old aircraft. One fire button looks after both your armaments. You pack thirty bombs at a time, which can only be dropped when you're very low, as signalled by the opening of the bomb hatch beneath your plane. At any other altitude, you spit lasers instead, and can spit them at will, the price being that they hasten the burning of your small and perpetually dwindling fuel supply. A fuel-less plane drops from the sky to explode violently, and you only have two of these babies and can't earn any more. A friendly bomber jettisons a parachute-borne refuel and resupply pack at regular intervals, and these packs are precious and must be protected from both the indestructible, vindictive bird which likes to swoop and steal them sometimes, and from enemy fire.
Scrolling beneath you on levels one, three and five is an unending and semi-randomly generated stream of near future-looking enemy shelters, installations, houses, towers and military facilities. You can bomb these for fun and for profit (points). Once in a blue moon, you will spot your target amidst all the construction – the radar, the ICBM pad, or ultimately, the strange colosseum bowl which represents Enemy HQ on level five. Bomb your target on one of the occasions when it rears its head and you can proceed to the next mission.
It sounds simple, but the challenges and complications Star Blazer delivers are manifold.
Complications From Below
In the first place, targets tend to be sneakily obscured by collections of trees (which happily collect your bombs unexploded in their branches, and sap twenty points from your score while they're at it) or by painful configurations of towers, the only objects high enough for your plane to fatally careen into while you're in bombing mode. You have to work around these obstacles through some excellently programmed inertia. With the appropriate deft joystick action applied to your plane at the moment of bomb release, the bombs can be tossed forward or backward, snapped straight down, arced 'up and over', or skidded along the ground. The animation of the bombs is particularly good, capturing their sailing rotations and providing excellent feedback on your pattern of attack.
The alternate levels, two and four, take place over a desert and goad you to Attack The Tank. Gone is all the military busywork – it's just a bunch of point-sapping cacti and a tank which speeds away from you across the sands, infuriatingly managing to stay out of reach at all times... until you know the secret. That secret involves inertia, and as a little kid, it had me stumped for a very long time, until that older kid from around the corner came over and let me in on it.
Death From Above!
Since level one eased you into the game with no airborne attackers (in fact, no attackers at all – only the threat of tower collision or death by fuel ineptness), the contrast of level two comes as quite a shock. The airspace isn't meant to be survivable on these tank-chasing levels. It's filled with lightning-fast jet planes which are guaranteed to ram and shoot you if you ever stay airborne for too long.
When you reach level three, unwieldy B-52 style craft make an appearance, hovering ominously and filling the air with a maze of floating bombs. The second time you meet the tank on level four, it's packing self-defence in the form of an endless supply of one-at-a-time homing missiles. They really do home, turning corners, chasing you around the screen and providing oodles of fun as you can actually make them smash into enemy jets, and collect the points!
Level five throws the B-52s, floating bombs and homing missiles at you all at once, resulting in some supremely intense action and a delightful chaos of collisions, artful jet weaving and explosions, while you sweat on the next appearance of the enemy HQ on the ground below. This level is hectic enough to cause some slow-down, which should touch any modern historically-minded gamer when they consider that the Apple II had to milk the mighty power of its 1 Mhz CPU for all it was worth to propel the finale of Star Blazer, back in 1981. Clockspeeds may increase, but slow-down is eternal, it would seem.
If you're victorious on level five, the game is completed and awards you a performance-based point bonus. This feels satisfying, given its discrete mission set-up, and even when you do acquire total familiarity with Star Blazer, there is always enough randomness, chaos and difficulty in its action to ensure that each new game has the strenuousness to challenge and entertain. Sometimes I can go through dozens of games before I survive to take out the headquarters again.
What truly makes Star Blazer stand head and shoulders above pretty much any other comparable shooter from its vintage are the many fine details in the programming. Essentially, every object is programmed with full interactivity (and even democracy) regarding all other relevant objects in the game's inventory. A tower won't just take you out, but also any enemy that ploughs into it. The tower itself is destroyed in the process, which might even clear the path to your bombing goal. Enemy bombs and missiles can and often do take each other out in midair, while you collect the points. You can deliberately lead the homing missiles into each other or into other threats, and so use them for cover. The refuel-bearing parachute is vulnerable to almost any collision or shot, and a severed refuel pack will drop like a stone, but you can still catch it midair if you're quick – or just watch an enemy crash into it, or, best of all, watch it annihilate a ground target when it hits the deck. It's even possible to take out the elusive tanks by this method, thus completing a level indirectly!
The 'random' elements are also programmed with some intelligence. Hang around on any level too long and the game will try to increase your anxiety or hasten your demise by sending in the thieving bird after all your refuel packs. Likewise, if a level is going on forever without mission success, Star Blazer might give you a better shot at completing it by letting your goal target appear unprotected by trees or towers. You just have to be vigilant enough to spot the moment.
It's also a great joke that the only completely indestructible parties in the game are the soldiers of nature: The rage-inducing bird, and hordes of trees and cacti whose placement often seems evil.
Jetter games were especially prolific on the Apple II, and there were many excellent ones, but Star Blazer is fondly remembered in the culture because it was one of the first, and ultimately stood out as one of the best. Graphically, it was only mildly dated by the arrival of something slicker like Aquatron in the mid-eighties, then properly dated by the arrival of more realistic graphics in a late vintage Apple II game like Wings Of Fury near the turn of the decade. It's worth emphasising that in Star Blazer's own time, there was literally nowhere else you could find an equally sophisticated arcade-style action game, except in a real arcade. Gaming consoles such as the Atari were not up to providing this level of graphic and gameplay detail, nor were the only other available personal computers, which had much smaller, less gaming zeitgeisty user-bases anyway. Thus, this time window in the early eighties was when Apple II action games proved particularly influential for broader gaming. Titles like Lode Runner, Choplifter and Star Blazer were ported to other systems, and ultimately out to the arcades in some cases.
Star Blazer itself was ported to the Atari computer a few years after its creation. But interestingly, to avoid confusing everyone, what with all those 'Star' games around, the Atari version was renamed 'Sky Blazer'.
I'll stick with Star Blazer.
-- Star Blazer -- 9/10 --
Community review by bloomer (February 05, 2004)
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