Hudson was a prolific video game developer for almost 30 years, providing players with such gems as the Adventure Island series and the Bomberman franchise. The general quality of their titles meant that many would mourn their unfortunate demise in early 2012. One of the cartridges they contributed to for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System console was a humble space-themed shoot-'em-up entitled Star Soldier, as published by Taxan in 1989.
This is one of a handful of science-fiction themed space shoot-'em-up games made for the NES, in which the player controls a starship that can move in any direction on the vertically scrolling screen, using the A and/or B button to fire. Star Soldier has 16 stages, each demanding the player survive an onslaught of waves of enemy craft followed by a boss fight against a “star brain” entity.
The shmup genre tends to have various commonalities throughout its offerings, as to whether each chooses to go with certain option or not. For example: Unlike Galaga or Sky Shark, Star Soldier has a limited number of levels and an actual end to the game, thus not tuly being an arcade-style shooter purely for high-score purposes. While it does boast a power-up system, it is not as in-depth as something like Gun Nac or Life Force. The first power-up gives the player a one-hit shield and double cannon fire forward with a single shot backward, while a second power-up provides a five-way shot.
Then there are the wrinkles that add some distinctiveness to Star Soldier. For instance: Rather than treat opposing forces with dual altitudes of firing choice, as in Alpha Mission where the player must fire at flying enemies separate from ground-based opposition, Star Soldier purely uses altitude to the player's advantage. In each level, there are areas in which the player can go under the environmental elements. While in “cover,” the player cannot fire, but also cannot be fired upon.
Then again, some of Star Soldier's characteristics may not exactly be desirable. There is an odd mechanic at work whereby, if the player fails to defeat a boss "brain" in a certain amount of undisclosed time, the player actually has to restart at the very beginning of the level. This makes every end-of-stage fight rather intense, likely causing the player to fly a bit more risky and truly try to get dozens of shots in as quickly as possible.
While Star Soldier has an ending and does not exist purely for score, it does still track points, and various bonuses can be gained throughout. There are impressive arrays of obstacles that can be blown away in rapid succession, whether a few dozen little blocks strewn in rows or giant eyeballs that take several shots to destroy. This is not to mention opportunities to rack up points in quick succession by defeating the various squadron formations that emerge in noteworthy variety, from looping patterns to quick fly-by dashes across the screen.
This unique interplay with the stage elements forms the core appeal of Star Soldier, managing to give it a hint of special flavor amidst the usual range of NES space shooters. With lots of stuff to fire at, generous expanses of cover to hide under, and intimidating “space brain” bosses (watch out for the giant ones, beginning with level 4), Star Soldier may not be remembered as among the all-time greats, but genre fans should give this one a fair shake, as Hudson's signature touch shines through.
Star Soldier does not overwhelm with sweeping themes, but impresses in the fine details. There are so many neat little flourishes throughout the galactic-architecture stagings. There are faces that change expression between two options each time they are hit. There are little snakes and letters distributed in the backgrounds. The stars pay homage to Galaga, cascading downscreen in parallax formations. Pay close attention to some of the projectiles fired by foes: Some are intricate, multi-colored, with their own geometric shapes, threatening to go unnoticed in their minute splendor. All in all, a well-crafted game, even if the levels do seem a bit repetitive in their overall atmosphere. The big brain stars are definitely frightening at first.
To put it crudely: The sound is pretty good. The gunfire is a little watered down, but not beyond a typical extent for this sort of game. At least the death explosions are satisfying. Where Star Soldier really shines is in its music, where layered notes form pleasant melodies that effectively serve heroic themes or tense situations while echoing times of arcades past.
Star Soldier is a treat for space-shooter purists: It has enough uniqueness to be interesting, while adhering to protocol enough for seasoned veterans to slip right into the pilot seat with few qualms. For average retro-Nintendo fans, perhaps this is just a curiosity more often cast so the side, but at least the Hudson bee has blessed this cartridge with decent development values.
Overall score: 3/5 stars.