With so many games hitting the Nintendo Switch lately, it’s easy to dismiss a title without giving it much of a chance. I’ll admit, when I first fired up Star Ghost by developer Rainy Frog, I instantly wrote it off as another in a seemingly vast pit of Switch indie games. This action game seemed unplayable and so radically different from your typical side-scrolling shooter, that I turned off the system and left it so for quite some time. Here’s the thing though: As reviewers, we are duty bound to give every title fair treatment, and to ensure we deliver an honest and accurate assessment. I reluctantly picked up my Switch once more, and after opening my eyes, I found myself quickly becoming obsessed with its simple yet unique style of gameplay.
The game starts immediately with an overview of the crisis at hand. The Metagon Empire has arrived and is threatening to annihilate the entire human race, and it’s your job to stop them. Aiding you in this peril-filled task is the “most advanced starfighter ever built!” It’s a simple story told repeatedly, but luckily, that’s where Star Ghost deviates from other titles in the genre.
The control scheme is excruciatingly simplistic. Your ship is constantly moving forward on its own, only pausing for a split second when taking on damage. Weapons all fire automatically without prompting. The player, which is you, can only control the vertical axis of the ship; by pressing the A button, your craft floats to the top of the screen and releasing it causes the ship to fall to the bottom. This is what threw me off at first; I had almost zero control over any aspect of the ship, and it was very frustrating.
Once I started to play more of the game, I realized that the very thing I found annoying became very freeing. As soon as you cease to worry about navigation and weapons control, you’re free to concentrate on everything else around you. It’s, for this reason, I am hesitant to call Star Ghost a cross-screen shooter. To me, this game has all the makings of an arcade platformer that has been dressed up like a shooter. It’s crucial to know exactly when to raise your ship up or lower it down due to incoming enemy fire and deadly flying objects. There are points in the game where you have to navigate through slim openings between two points, where crashing into a wall is guaranteed if you’re not guiding the ship in the exact right spot.
As I mentioned, players can’t control their weapons. You start with a single shot, fired off at regular intervals (about 1.5 seconds apart). You can control the angle of the blasts, but it’s very limited in range. As you destroy enemies and objects, your ship can pick up credits as well as ship and gun modifications. Eventually, your ship’s fire rate will increase exponentially, and the single shot can increase to five with instant upgrades. In later missions, my ship also became equipped with rockets, while in others, I acquired a spread of high-powered lasers. Players are also given the option to purchase upgrades at the completion of each mission, based on the number of credits acquired.
The only other thing you can control is a tractor beam, which radiates outward from the centre of the ship, pulling in all surrounding credits and weapon mods. The tractor beam can also be upgraded, increasing in size to allow the ship to pull in more of the good stuff. Players need to be mindful though, because all upgrades have a timer which will run out, causing a downgrade to the previous level; this cycle will continue to occur until you’re either back where you started, or the timer is extended by picking up more power-ups. Players beware; your ship can also pick up floating viruses that temporarily shut down all weapons and tractor beams. Pick this up at the wrong time, and you can find your ship flying through a haze of enemy fire with no way of defending yourself.
Star Ghost is an arcade game through and through; once you die, that’s it, end of story. As soon the game over sign hits, players must start all over again from the very beginning. This aspect of the game is another example of what I found infuriating and highly frustrating at first. It wasn’t until I collected enough credits that I realized you could in-fact continue from your current mission. It costs 50 credits to continue, which means players must carefully choose how they spend them at the end of each mission. I know some will find this aggravating, but I found it added a greater challenge to the overall game.
Composer David Wise has created all the original music for the game. For those who aren’t familiar, Mr. Wise was the mastermind behind the music from the famed Donkey Kong Country series (among others). Wise has found himself a cult following, and if you’re familiar with his work, it’s clear why people love him.
The game gives off a simplistic vibe but is actually quite beautifully drawn and animated. There is a myriad of enemies and space fairing debris, all of which utilize rich colours and fluid movements. One of the most interesting aspects of the game is the inclusion of dynamic level generation; every time you play a mission, it will be different. Players will ultimately have a unique experience each time they head into the unknown.
Star Ghost is the type of game that would have been a quarter-eater back in the heyday of the arcade; players would have plunked coin after coin into the slot, hoping for ultimate triumph. After getting out of my own way, I realized Star Ghost is a highly addictive new take on a tired genre, and it deserves your attention, even though it took a while to grab mine.