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Starblade. It has no heritage and is something of a video game evolutionary dead-end, something of a dinosaur, a branch of the evolutionary gaming tree that was considered by the mainstream too rotten and ultimately cut-off.

My opinion on the game is quite different. I guess it wouldn’t be much fun if it wasn’t. I personally consider it is one of the pinnacles of arcade gaming. It should, in my opinion, be considered one of the crowning moments of gaming. Or perhaps one of the very epitomes of shallow arcade gaming thrills. A game almost entirely designed for grabbing money and wowing graphic whores and of cause thrilling cheap ride arcade gluttons like me.

However, what was good in the arcade is rarely good in the home and Starblade represents perhaps the turning point for this realisation. The point where people began to ask – "...do we really want arcade games in the home?" And ultimately, "...do we really want arcade games?" Of cause history shows that the answer to both questions was “No”. 

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“A few neat touches…”, “…style over content…”, “…shallow experience…” Nay sayers and the people I hold responsible for killing the arcades, may even pooh-pooh Starblade by judicially saying its genus may shows an ancestry dating back to Spacewar and Space Invaders since after-all it is a shoot’em up but somewhere along the line it was infected with the on-rails bacterium and the poisoned bloodline of Laserdisc. Not to mention being almost ‘Star Wars’ and featuring single figure playing time.

…but I don’t care what they say.

Laserdisc, once considered playmate of the year for people with a desire to re-introduce the ice-cream break half-way-through a movie, is these days a sure-fire way to put a sneer on most peoples faces. However, mention it in association with video gaming and that sneer contorts into a child disturbing grimace. Further more it floods anyone over the age of thirty with memories of Mad Dog Mcree, Space Ace and Mach 3. (What?) Put simply, Laserdisc gaming is to retro gaming what the Austin Princess is to classic cars – simply not cool and unlikely ever to be.

Starblade is also, to add insult to Laserdisc injury, an ‘on-rails’ shooter. Yikes! OK, I’m mad. On-rail shooter!? Definitely not good! You must be thinking to yourself, surely in this age of modern gaming no-one likes on-rails shooters? It’s inhuman – right? Images of Microcosm also on the 3DO and that early 90’s arcade Bohemouth, Galaxian3 come flooding back. Perhaps even memories of Starfox or Rebel Assault? Again – mention ‘on-rail gaming’ and most people immediately think they are William Wallace – “FREEDOM!”

The icing on this cake of gaming sure-fire disaster, I’m saving the cherry for next, is that a lot of the in-game content seems to take its cues from the Atari classic wire-frame Star Wars. Waves of enemy fighters, a dive on to a planet surface with rising towers complete with gun turrets on top, Death Star style killer mechanized planets, a mission to shoot the core and then a dramatic escape from the exploding super structure – OK, perhaps more than just cues. Well, Star Wars itself is hardly original, taking its ideas from as far a field as ancient texts, to Japanese movies, to new-age (1970’s style) thought, so I like to think of Starblade as a sort of tribute …

To the cherry then. If being an on-rails Laserdisc Star Wars clone wasn’t enough, each game of Starblade from start to finish lasts no more than 10 minutes. To anyone who has bothered to read this far, this all must seem freakish. I guess it must be easy to draw parallels with those bazaar women who marry prisoners with life-sentences and me liking this game. You must be thinking that nobody today, surely, can still be enjoying games like Starblade?

So, at which point I’m guessing pretty much like right now, people throw the psychological switch marked “off”.

To crystallise the point: Starblade is the bastard child of Princess Daphne of Dragons Lair and an impotent Peppy O’hare of Starfox, with, perhaps, a George Lucas look-a-like holding a Polaroid camera over them. Their grubby short-lived bestiality taking place down a dark alley somewhere near Namcos’ 1990 development studios. The product of their shame giving life to this Neanderthal of a game.

…still there?

I love Starblade though – I really do and it is not through pity. I know a lot of people have just had a fit – I hope you’ve taken your sedatives. You’re calm. You can see past the rails. Past the laserdisc mantel.

Yet even with rose-tint-o-vision (patent pending) Starblade could hardly be compared to a night of sensual embracement with a “The Sun page 3 stunner”. It’s not that deep.

…in my opinion it’s more akin to a nice smile from Miss World.

You see like that smile, Starblade offers a pleasant glimpse into a fantasy world that may have been. And for those ten minutes of game-play you feel happy. Warm. Content in a universe that promises depth you cannot see or gain access too. Fighting a virtual war you have no real knowledge of. Starblade is not Privateer, Elite or even Wing Commander. All this doesn’t mean it’s not a classic game however.

My overall opinion is that Starblade is an insight into someone elses' fantasy. A fantasy of deep space battles. I like to consider it a voyage through another mans vision. It is clearly a labour of love. It is after-all not a cheaply thrown together game with grainy visuals, weak soundtrack and a standard arcade box. Blood, sweat and tears clearly went into Starblade and if you know where to look, you can still see it.

But why make such a shallow game? The answer maybe this - gaming, for me at least, is not about trends, or platforms or developers or time, or even brands. It’s about experience. Like a good book, film or music score it’s where the game takes you emotionally. The question should always be ‘Is it fun?’ A game can have all the freedom, all the scope, all the Artificial Intelligence and all the ‘cool stuff’ but if it’s not fun, then it is not a game.

For me and perhaps the developers Starblade is equivalent to the chase scene in the original Italian Job or the famous introduction to Beethoven’s symphony #5. It is the bit people remember.

Ultimately, in my opinion, gaming can either be a story telling, a test of skill or an experience. Starblade is clearly in the “experience” category. However, when playing Starblade you can’t help but feel that somewhere there is more depth to the story, it is almost as if you have stumbled across some epic story of planetary survival just at the critical moment. Or if it was a movie ‘the good bit’.

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Let us focus on the “experience” of Starblade, so it perhaps helps if you imagine being back in 1993, stood in front of the arcade custom cabinet and you are looking at a poor plastic mock-up of a spaceship console.

The first thing: You’ll deny it in public but the excitement of being in a fake space battle, in that fake ship, put into that ‘arcade life-or-death fake scenario™’ invokes some primeval emotion. It is after all politically correct to kill aliens. Guilt free murder – such as it is. Ultimately Starblade is a promise. The attract mode promises something you have fantasised about.

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Since seeing Star Wars the movie you have been promising yourself this: To take part in a genuine space battle. Your heart beat goes up, your eyes start to race around the massive screen, your fingers tingling with anticipation. You give the yoke a waggle – just to get the feel. It is exciting. It really is. You are going to play to win because the experience so far has hit all right buttons. It’s all embarrassing but true. The game has sold you. Only the truly cynical are sat there in front of the screen thinking of freedom, exploration and rails. Most people just want to see what happens.

The introduction has you leaving a beautifully rendered mother ship, reminiscent of a Viper exiting the Galactica. As you exit the tunnel, the depth of the universe expands before you. You can see your home world ‘Mother Planet’ and a number of Battle Cruisers burning away. You cannot tell whether they are friends or foe. sb10

Suddenly, the action starts. It’s frantic. Swarms of alien ships attack. These should be familiar to anyone who has played the sister game – Galaxian3. The blue atmosphere of Mother Planet and the motion blurred stars add incredible depth to what you seeing. You ‘Woo!’ and duck and dive in your chair as the game confuses your brain. The original Namco System 21 graphics, eventually ported to the 3DO and Playstation, swings the rendered images left and right, rolling you over enormous battleships, dodging missiles and avoiding asteroids.

Like a cannoneer in an old time warship you pound away at the enemy battle cruisers as they majestically sweep across the screen and as dozens of enemy fighters swarm your field of view you take aim to reduce them to a short lived ball of flames.

You battle through the fighters and then you are sent through an asteroid belt, laced with ‘Battle Asteroids’, to emerge to face a huge wire-frame space station complex.
 
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Eventually your ship plunges onto the planet surface, the same way it always has, for every player that has ever played Starblade. Finally, you’ll blast away at the central target, “Heart of the Octopus” in the cavernous core, and, just like in Star Wars, it will be destroyed. Then the on-rails engine will auto-pilot you out of the wreckage.

Ten minutes and you have won. Mission completed. You could almost not fail too. It is not the hardest game. But you won! Your heart beat returns to normal. Your eyes adjust to the light outside the game. You feel euphoric. 

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The game has also won. It got your money. It played the player and it played well. Ultimately you won’t have forgotten your Starblade experience. It was fun. There can be no denying. For ten minutes this deep space epic over shadowed the freedom of Elite and the story line of Wing Commander. For a moment the awesome spectacle that is Starblade dwarfed its nearest rivals absolutely. With its scale, its sense of reality, its wonderment, its incredible power and its tribute to the technology of its time. For a moment Starblade showed you exactly what you wanted. What you hoped. What you dreamt games like Privateer would be like but never were.

In the arcades this experience is priceless. If 50p is priceless. But for some reason you remove the cabinet, the yoke, the smell of cigarettes and the Starblade experience dwindles in the light of the red and green LED’s of your 3DO Multiplayer – Trips dream machine exceeded the Namco uber unit technologically but lost something intangible spiritually. It is simply not as fun in the home. Could the spirit of arcade gaming be contained in a 50p coin?

Not all the rare for the 3DO either. This was a 3DO Kid Megablog! 3DO Kid.

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Many people claim that the 3DO version of Starblade is arcade perfect. Well, as it turns out it is and it isn’t.

On the whole the game graphics are identical. The 3DO version even boasts a textured version but there are other differences. Firstly the introduction. The Arcade original is crystal clear and readable – unlike the 3DO version, and presents, albeit with spelling errors, a clear explanation of the battle that is about to take place.

From the threat to Mother World in 35 hours from Red Eye, the mechanised planet, through to Red Eyes nuclear power reactor “Octopus”, the entrance to the “Octopus” named “Mouth of the Octopus” and the final objective a power stone named “Heart of the Octopus”. All of which the on rails action will sweep you past so you can blast the hell out of it.

On even closer examination however, the introduction screens are very different. Although unreadable in the 3DO implementation, the ‘blurred wording’ is a different shape and length to the arcade version. Why change it? The other difference is the explosions. The 3DO explosions are not as big as the arcade ones and seem to be from the 3DOs standard library of explosions rather than the arcade ones.

The introduction information (below) is taken from the Japanese version of Starblade and thanks to MAME. Spelling errors have been maintained. Noticeably the word “Octopus” and “Vector”.

Mechanized planet = red eye
Mother planet = our living planet.
Mechanized planet is approaching Mother Planet with 35 hours.

Red eye Category:

Foe attack device Class Q.
    Hardware spec:
           Diameter: 780Km Cruising speed: 18.74km/sec
    Structural analysis:
           Fe: 28.9%
           Si: 19.1%
            C: 12.7%
           Al: 11.4%
           Bi: 7.3%
           Ti: 4.0%
 Unknown: 16.6%

Notice: Defence level A High energy defensive barrier. Limited access passages.

Power reactor: Octpus attack vecters.
         Position: E 135.43’ , N 43.12’

Federation FEDCON database. FEDCON File No. VPD-10963-Q1

Power reactor “Octopus” Category:
Foe planet attack device Class Q
Foe position: E 135.43’ , N 43.12’
Foe hardware spec:
          Diameter Max 3200m Min. 1200m
          Height 1170m
          Maximum output: 45200tw (Terra Watts)
          Power Source: Nuclear fusion magnetron. Notice:
          Defense level A.

Foe control in center of mechanixed planet Access denied by foe defenses.

There is an access passage “The mouth of the Octopus” This is the access to the interior of Octopus The entrance is defended with reinforced portal.

Position: X: 1600m Y: 720m
Size of entarnce :
Height: 64m Width: 74m

Federation FEDCON database. FEDCON File No. VPD-10963-Q2.

In the centre of the Octopus is a “Power Chamber” This chamber has a Power, has a Power Stone, the heart of Octopus. All Red Eye energy converges here. This is the only weak point of Red Eye.

Position. X: 1600m Y: 590m

Good luck Geosword.