I've never been great at SHMUPs, but I've always been attracted to them. I'm a fan of most any genre that was born in the arcade, and the alluring high octane action and neon colored lasers of older SHMUPs forced me to memorize the first stages of games like Gradius and Raystorm many times over. Procedurally generated elements are the next logical step for many arcade genres, and Starr Mazer: DSP looks to be the next logical step for SHMUPs. In its current Early Access form, it's not quite there yet, but if the developers at Imagos Softworks can up the variety in the gameplay and maintain their slick presentation, then they really could have something here.
As with most games of this type, Starr Mazer doesn't go too deep with its narrative, although there are some hints at the world beyond the G’ell invasion force you're fighting back. When you first launch into the game, you got a group of three pilots, and everything from their appearance and voice to their weapons and ship design is randomized. Your goal is to get as far as you can while racking up the most points, but losing all your lives is anything but a game over. Instead, you can cash in your points to hire new pilots, each acting as a single new life as you restart the game and try to get further than before. There is no lasting progression beyond this, and your points reset once you quit the game, which promotes an arcade level of mastery that isn't common in 2016.
This arcade-style difficulty is valuable, but it comes at a price, as it requires familiarity that clashes with the game's procedural elements. Like in many other SHMUPs, Starr Mazer's opening moments are mapped out ahead of time. At a certain point in the level, there will be an attack from the sky, followed by your pilot breaking through the clouds to face a tougher fight. Said miniboss is something that the game's Cat Admiral (don't ask) insists you've "never seen before," no matter how many times you've completed the stage in the past. For me, part of the appeal of a randomized game is a move away from familiarity, and I find it much more satisfying to take on new variations of familiar themes each time I drop a proverbial quarter into the slot.
Of course, this isn't to say that the game isn't worth mastering. Starr Mazer's gameplay is precise and intense, helped greatly by the work put into the designs of the many ships you'll encounter and how they look when they explode. After a few runs, dodging shots and taking aim at foes was second nature, and the game is great at giving audio cues about when you're performing well and when you're taking too many hits. You don't usually die in one hit in Starr Mazer, although it depends entirely on how much armor your current pilot is sporting. In any case, I found it satisfying to see how long I could hang on to the most expensive space jockeys, as their weapons were usually the most interesting to use.
Even more impressive than the shooting mechanics is Starr Mazer's absolutely stunning presentation. The burning cities and star systems that you fight past in the game are dense, and every action is backed by a killer soundtrack of 80s synth that you'll be humming throughout the day. It's also impressive to see the wide array of pilot portraits and voices that are in the game even in its Early Access state. I do wish that the pilots had a few more unique lines among them, as you'll hear many repeats as you keep repeating sections to get further and further into the game. The Duke Nukem 3D/They Live pastiche they're going for is only really amusing the first few times, and changing the voice behind the lines does little to change that.
Overall, Starr Mazer: DSP is solid as it is now, with a great gameplay foundation and a pixel art style that perfectly captures the game's arcade sensibilities. What strides the game does make towards roguelite mechanics are engaging, but it's not quite enough to justify the level of dedication that some other games in that genre inspire. It will be interesting to see if the developers take strides to appeal more to that audience or focus in on the dedicated genre fans who imported anime shooters on their Japanese Xbox 360s. In any case, if you're looking for another great shoot 'em up to master, you can do far worse than jumping into the Starr Mazer universe and fighting the G'ell.
Starr Mazer: DSP was previewed on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.