The shoot 'em up genre really hasn't evolved much since Asteroids came out in 1979, and it really doesn't need to. Like the shark or a spider, some designs endure through the ages and require little-to-no changes to adapt to the modern era. Super Stardust Delta is a shining example of why some genres don't really need to evolve to remain fun. There may not be anything revolutionary or groundbreaking here, but everything Super Stardust Delta does, it does very well.
Thanks to Sony's brilliant but subtle marketing following the PSN outage last year, many people were introduced to the series thanks to the free copy of Super Stardust HD they were offered as an apology. For those who are not familiar with the series, the concept is simple: a shoot 'em up wherein you use the left analog stick to move and the right analog stick to shoot. You destroy enemies and rocks while avoiding attacks, all in pursuit of a top score. As you play, you're collecting points and are granted extra lives and power-ups that gradually increase your attack power, all while facing off against increasingly difficult foes and traps. It's pretty basic stuff, but the tight controls and the perfectly balanced difficulty curve keep it exciting and fun right through to the end. In fact, this is a game that does difficulty perfectly, giving the enemies more aggressive behaviour and better AI with higher settings rather than just inflating their health and turning it into an endurance test. This keeps the game brisk even on your tenth time through.
Super Stardust Delta employs a fire and ice dichotomy like many other shooters before it. Your fire beam is like a whip of energy that kills all red and orange colored enemies whereas your ice blasts kill all blue and purple enemies. As the game increases in difficulty, you can shake your Vita system to generate an EMP blast that kills everything in sight, tap the front panel to unleash a volley of missiles that kill everything in a 360 degree range, or tap the back panel to create a black hole that sucks everything near it up. If, for some reason, you would rather not use the touch or motion sensing controls, you can switch from Delta mode to Pure mode, which only uses buttons and analogs. I prefer using the touch panels, but it's nice that they give you an option to play how you wish.
The game is pretty short on its own and can be beaten in an hour or so, but as an arcade game there's always more to do, like beat your score or conquer a higher difficulty level, and this is fine because it's just a cheap download rather than a full retail game. There are 5 planets to beat, each with 5 stages and a delightfully challenging boss at the end. As you progress, you're slowly introduced to enemies that require more thought and skill to best, including a set of bots that have impenetrable shields, requiring you to flank them and take them from behind where the shields don't protect them. By the end, you're dealing with hundreds of enemies on screen at any given time; managing to evade their attacks while whittling away at their numbers is a truly invigorating experience. If that's not enough, there are also 5 mini games that you can play that utilize the system's various features. One game has you pinching the back and front screens to destroy boulders and another requires you tilt your screen to roll a boulder around whilst avoiding enemies. None are particularly grand, but they're all nice little distractions to keep you busy in between the main arcade mode. You can also replay any planet at any time once you've unlocked it, allowing for more bite-sized fun.
The game looks and sounds wonderful throughout. Even when you've got dozens (or even hundreds) of enemies and thousands of particles exploding in unison, creating a symphony of destruction, there's never any slowdown and it always looks gorgeous; there are no glitches or framerate issues to be seen here, folks. The only grievance I could find is that the catchy, upbeat electronic soundtrack is somewhat muted next to the explosive sound effects, which can fortunately be tweaked in the options menu. The extent of dials and options you have to play with to customize Super Stardust Delta to your liking is impressive; there are few things more frustrating than having to play a game the way the developer wants you to without compromise, so I have to extend a heartfelt thanks for that.
There may not be much content, and the campaign is short, but it's extremely addictive and perfectly designed to be enjoyed in small bursts. Super Stardust Delta looks and sounds great in every way and it utilizes the Vita's features very well for a cheap little $10 download. Super Stardust Delta is a game that virtually every Vita owner needs, and it's a great way to kick off the system's focus on digital content.
This review is based on a PSN download of Super Stardust Delta for the PlayStation Vita.