That Super Stardust is a holdover from the early ‘90s is a testament to its grabby gameplay and splendidly colourful visuals. First released for the Commodore Amiga way back in 1994, it got a second life more than a decade later under the guise of Super Stardust HD on PlayStation 3 in 2007, and has been refined several times since then.
Taking control of a zippy yet hideously outnumbered ship, the player is charged with defending an assortment of wacky planets by obliterating never-ending swarms of asteroids and fending off an assortment of increasingly complex alien threats. For more social ship pilots, there are also co-op and versus modes available both locally and online.
There’s no context, but you don’t need one: you are good, aliens and rocks are bad. Pull the trigger lots and lots and bask in technicolour explosions until you succumb, then celebrate when your score exceeds that of those in your circle of friends.
A twin-stick shooter, Stardust cleverly maps its action not onto a 2D plane as do similar titles like Geometry Wars and Robotron, but onto a sphere, allowing players to wrap around the playfield and approach things from any angle – a design trait which has become its signature.
That signature, however, might also become its noose. Games like Geometry Wars and Nano Assault Neo have taken the basic idea of a score-based twin-stick shooter and run with it, developing complex level layouts and serious flair as methods by which to expand and explore the genre’s gameplay potential.
Stardust, meanwhile, is still pretty much the same as it ever was. Sure, that central game is pretty damn good, but even so, Ultra finds the franchise coasting on prior momentum rather than blasting forward like its peers.
To be fair, the old dog isn’t without its new tricks. Bomber mode only allows the player to detonate one last-resort screen-clearer, challenging players to hold out until the absolute last minute to pull the trigger in a risk vs. reward scenario that’s high stakes and very rewarding – even in short gameplay sessions.
Elsewhere, Blockade has your ship continually spawn rocks from its backside, lending the shooter a Snake-like strategic element without minimising any of the chaos that comes from trying to survive the scores of planet-buster meteors and evil alien death beasts from the game’s normal mode.
There’s also a mode called Impact that’s dedicated to a new charge ability, which combines a get-out-of-jail free boost with limited invulnerability, allowing you to escape a tight situation by ramming and obliterating your foes. It’s fun enough but hardly a stand-out.
On the multiplayer side of things, there are four new challenges in Deathmatch, King of the Hill, Last Man Standing, and Grab and Run, but more interesting is a new Interactive Streaming mode wherein spectators can vote on which enemies will harass the player next. It's a neat if small addition that has the potential to keep viewers engaged, but it probably sounds more exciting on paper.
The new stuff swells the game’s modes to nine, but won’t distract players from the familiar core offerings for long. As such, it’s hard to recommend to any who have previously experienced what Stardust has to offer.
Sure, the chance to play Stardust in 1080p at 60fps is lovely, but when it comes down to it, Ultra is simply a fairly small update to an otherwise excellent game. It’s the definitive version of said game – of that there’s no doubt – but all Stardust vets save the absolute hardcore should probably leave it on the shelf anyway.