Evil space pirates have moved in next door to the planet Satazius and devalued all the house prices, so a mass exodus is in progress to a safer part of the universe. Of course, driving huge transporter ships past a group of intergalactic buccaneers probably wasn’t the brightest of ideas so a small, one-person spaceship has been sent into their stronghold to cause a bit of a distraction and hopefully make a mess of the place at the same time. At least I think that’s what the back story is, it arrived in Japanese and Google translate wasn’t exactly keen to help!
Still, Satazius the game is a horizontally scrolling shoot ‘em up so if we’re being honest the scenario doesn’t entirely matter anyway, the important details are that there’s a lone spaceship going up against loads of other spaceships and everybody involved has brought along big guns. Only the hero gets to pick and choose what they wade into battle using though, because the game arms a pilot with one primary front-facing cannon, two secondary weapons which can be switched between at the touch of a button and a smart bomb, all of which can be chosen from a weapon selection screen that appears at the beginning of each level.
During the stage itself, collecting colour-coded tokens will power things up (red tokens for the primary, green for the currently active secondary and yellow for the bomb) but getting a weapon maxed out isn’t the end of the story because their power degrades over time and there is a constant need to top everything up. New toys are added to the roster after most of the end of level boss battles, but they’re shipped without having been charged so, depending on which stage is about to be played, it’s sometimes better to stick with a known and powered up weapon rather than bolting on the interesting-looking but weaker new arrival and getting smashed to pieces.
The most obvious parallel to be drawn is with the Gradius series and a lot of the set pieces and indeed “locations” will feel familiar to fans, but a few other titles have influenced Satazius as well; Darius in particular seems to have been a donor for parts of the power up system and some of the weapons whilst R-Type pops it’s head around the door occasionally.
Basically, this is what would happen if a Japanese developer had made Hydorah; it’s a solidly presented Gradius-inspired no nonsense killing spree with some hugely satisfying destruction and varied boss battles. Whilst the weapon selection system might look familiar, players can choose to either stick to their guns between stages or mix and match as the mission progresses. Satazius doesn’t follow the tried and tested Gradius formula directly so might not suit all fans of the series and the difficulty has been geared towards fans of the genre so less experienced players might find it too challenging, but it’s certainly worth at least giving the demo version a go to see how it feels.
Download the demo here (from the Astro Port website).
So I played Satazius quite a bit, but I have to say I did not really end up liking it.
The presentation of the game is pretty good, the graphics are nothing special but they are mostly well done and work. Sometimes the enemy shots can get lost in explosions or the player shots because of similar colours, this can lead to occasional "Why did I just die?" moments, but other than that I have no complaints about how the game looks (so far so good).
The music is forgettable and pretty monotonous, but at least the sound effects are quite nice, again nothing outstanding, but good standard fare.
The gameplay is strongly inspired by games like Gradius and R-Type and the weapon system is reminiscent of Axelay in that you get a new weapon after each level. You have four weapon slots; the first is your primary weapon, triggered with your main fire button, and the second and third slots are for your secondary weapons (one of which is fired alongside the primary weapon, with an extra button for you to switch between the two secondary guns chosen). Finally, the fourth slot is for your smart bomb - which of course has a separate button as well.
There are upgrade powerups for primary, secondary and smart bomb which you can pick up throughout the levels and make the power bar under your selected weapon grow. If it is at MAX it will be quite a bit more powerful for a certain amount of time and then go back to the power level before this.
My main gripe with the weapon system is that most weapons seem to be pointless; they are just there for people who beat the game and want to try to beat it again with crapper weapons, more or less. Once you figure out which weapons work well things get relatively easy in most cases. There are a few cheap death scenarios where you are likely to die during your first encounter, but in the future you usually wont repeat the mistake because you know what is coming (very oldschool memoriser fare).
Apart from weapon powerups there are speed-ups and speed-downs as well as shields. The speed-downs are totally pointless, as there is not a single occasion in the game where you would want to go less than maximum speed. On top of that, the speed-ups you collect past max speed give you points - another reason why you do not want to go slower than max. The shield gives you protection from one shot, and just as the speed-up, if you already have full shields (limited to one) you get bonus points for collecting further shields.
Now this brings me to scoring in Satazius and this is where the game totally fails (although most oldschool shmups do this, they can still be fun to play for survival - but let me elaborate anyway). To begin with there are two difficulty modes; Easy and Normal. Let's say in easy everything is worth it's base amount, then in Normal everything is worth exactly twice and much, and in the unlockable Hard everything is worth three times as much. I reckon after Hard there also is Very Hard or something along those lines, which I am sure will give you four times the score for everything, but I could not be arsed to wade through Hard, so I am not entirely sure (it's just an educated guess).
In some shmups, harder modes give you more scoring potential because there are more bullets, more enemies, or the actual scoring mechanism changes somewhat. This is fun. Satazius just makes the game a bit harder and gives you more points for everything. The score at which you get an extra life is also accordingly scaled. So basically nothing changes as far as that is concerned. The main part of your score comes from 'star' pickups. There are ten in each level, and they can be missed because a lot of the levels have vertically looping bits (just like in Gradius games) which are higher than one screen, so finding all these stars can take a bit of effort (it's not too hard though). The infuriating thing is that if you die you lose your stars and then start with your next life from the closest checkpoint (again like in Gradius, R-Type and the like) - so therefore you'll have no chance to get full stars in the level. Why would you want full stars? Collecting a star rewards you with 5000 points (on Easy) at the end of the level, and if you have all the bonus doubles. So this means 100000, 200000, 300000 and probably 400000 points for full stars. I think that in all cases the score you are awarded for the stars outweighs the score you can achieve from blasting enemies or collecting shields and speed-ups quite a bit. In Easy mode you get an extra life every 150000 points, and this is accordingly scaled in the other modes. So if you play for survival and are not as good you want to try and get as many stars as possible as they are essential for extra lives. If you play for score (which you most likely wont be in Satazius) then you should ideally speed up to max as fast as possible, collect all further speed ups you can, get all shields, never get hit, get all stars, and simply shoot as much shit as you can. The thing is, because of the way that scoring is calculated, players which are good enough to do this (which is not impossible since Satazius is not too hard) will end up with very similar scores - making it boring to play for score competitively.
So the game might still be fun for survival, right? Might be, although I found it too easy in most areas and then too boring to replay. You can however practice areas you want to, although the practice mode could do with some more options.
Easy and Normal are pretty similar apart from there are more bullets in Normal and some extra bits which make things harder, for example the fireballs in level three split up into smaller fireballs until they are quite small and can not be destroyed (so the initial bit of level three can be tricky at times). I found that the only really hard parts in the game (on Normal) were the aforementioned fireballs, the fourth boss (which I hate with a passion) and the spider midboss in the last level - and that is it. All other bosses, including the four bosses of level five are pushovers if you have the right weapons.
On Hard the level layouts change a bit. I have not played it a lot, but in level one there are more towers and the boss cave chase is redesigned as well as with stalagmite/stalactite obstructions at different heights (which conveniently makes you crash into them after playing on Easy and/or Normal for quite a while). This kind of 'difficulty' is something I really do not like - it feels cheap. I venture a guess that the fourth difficulty mode is to Hard what Normal is to Easy. Meaning same layouts as hard, but more bullets.
So my conclusion would be as follows: If you like to play shmups mainly for score, stay away. If you like playing shmups mainly for survival and are not a very good player, this might be for you. If you are pretty good (can beat Gradius for example) then you will find this to be not very challenging at all.