I first fell in love with The Red Star six years ago. At that time this arcade-style shooter/brawler was one of Acclaim's most promising games. Unfortunately, Acclaim filed for bankruptcy mere months after showing the game for the first time at E3. For three long years The Red Star sat on the shelf. In 2007 the game was picked up by XS Games and released on the PlayStation 2. Despite receiving rave reviews, this action game failed to win over a huge audience. But I didn't care. I was just happy to be able to play this long-overdue game to my heart's content in the comfort of my own home.
For the last three years I have spent a lot of time and effort talking about The Red Star, trying to get my friends to embrace this over-the-top throwback to classic titles like Contra and Final Fight. But alas, I've had very little luck. Perhaps it's the fact that the game came out at a time when gamers decidedly moved over to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, or perhaps my friends are just losers. Either way, selling people on an old-school shooter in 2007 was uphill battle.
But just as I was about to give up hope, XS Games did an incredibly smart thing. Instead of just letting this game die (making me the game's only fan), they decided to re-release it as a full-on port to the Sony PlayStation Portable. And best of all, they chose to make it available for download and, most importantly, gave it a nice and cheap price point. For a mere $15 my friends can finally play this must-own arcade shooter/brawler on a handheld they still own and take with them. And even though the screen is smaller and the PSP has fewer buttons, this handheld port is every bit as good as the PlayStation 2 title I loved so much.
Based on a popular graphic novel, The Red Star takes place in an alternate reality Soviet Russia (the USSR). It's a future where technology and magic live side by side, which makes the game sound like a Communist retelling of Shadowrun. Comparisons aside, The Red Star takes place in a version of Russia that appears to be bombed out, on fire and full of death-bringing machines and soldiers. This downbeat backdrop sets a perfect atmosphere for a game that is about nothing more than shooting soldiers and beating up robots. There's a story in the game, but it doesn't get in the way of you running around, dodging bullets and using hand to hand combat to get up close and personal.
You play one of three characters (two playable from the start, one you earn after beating the campaign mode), each with their own pros and cons. Right from the get-go the game makes you feel like you just put a quarter into a classic arcade machine. Even if the game is using 3D polygons instead of traditional sprites, the action is on par with the arcade cabinets I grew up playing in the 1980s and 90s.
The gameplay is simple; you can either shoot or punch. The Red Star maps the "O" button for long-range machine gun attacks and the "Square" Button for close-range combat. While that seems so basic, there aren't that many games that successfully merge the Streets of Rage-style beat-em-up with the bullet-hell Contra gameplay we played back on the NES. It's not an either/or situation, there are plenty of enemies that will require you to use your melee attacks to weaken them and your bullets to put them out of their misery. This mixture is the perfect way to spice up two old school genres that many gamers have all but written off.What keeps this game from being just another mindless shooter/brawler is the fact that as you play through the game you will unlock new moves and special abilities. What first feels like nothing more than a button masher, quickly turns into a game where skill and a proper command of your move list will ultimately win the day. You will also need to use your shield (which blocks most attacks for a short period of time) and a powerful burst attack (which can only be used so often and will seriously hurt everybody around you). On top of this you will also need to use points earned in the game to buy new weapons and upgrade your existing weapons/armor. For an arcade-style action game, there's really a lot of depth to The Red Star.
Although the levels are short, the game is surprisingly long. The Red Star comes with 19 action-packed levels. Like Gunstar Heroes and other games that seemingly influenced this throwback, many of the levels are teaming with smaller mid-level bosses. While most of the levels play out in similar ways, from time to time you'll run across a level that does something completely different. In one level you'll do nothing but fight a huge boss. In another level you'll play a Gradius-style 2D shoot-em-up. These breaks help keep the momentum alive, even if most of the game involves you doing nothing more than beating up soldiers and shooting down flying droids.
The game's backgrounds are intentionally gritty, though never to the point where you don't like looking at them. I enjoyed the bombed out Russia, though I'm told that I would like it even more if I was a fan of the graphic novel. As you progress through the game you will run into a bunch of different types of level, including a factory, caves and so on. There is an argument to be made that some of these backdrops overstay their welcome, but you'll likely not even notice since you will have your hands full fighting waves of bad guys.
Given the fact that The Red Star is essentially a six year old game, I was a little worried that the presentation wouldn't hold up. In some ways they don't, especially when it comes to the characters and some of the bosses. However, outside of those minor gripes, the game looks absolutely rock solid. It's not going to win any awards for best graphics, but at the same time it doesn't look woefully out of date. I would argue that The Red Star is visually on par with most latter day PlayStation 2 games.
This is far from a perfect game, and gamers who are just now discovering this throwback will no doubt see its age. The gameplay, while varied, is still incredibly repetitive. If you're not a fan of old school brawlers or shooters then you likely won't find much to like in this game, since you are essentially doing the same thing in all but a few levels. On the other hand, you can save after each level and put it down at any time. I found myself burning out on the non-stop action after a few levels of constant play. After switching over to another game (mostly Half-Minute Hero) and coming back, I was completely refreshed and ready to take on another few levels. Gamers that attempt to beat this game in one sitting will find that it's both hard (especially at the end) and a little too repetitive for its own good. But isn't that always the case with old school shooters?
The Red Star is a perfectly priced port of one of the PlayStation 2's final must-own games. Old school gamers will get a kick out of its mix of Final Fight and Contra, all while not feeling like they were ripped off for what is essentially an arcade experience. This is the type of game I would like to see more of on the handheld consoles, even if that means dusting off six year old PlayStation 2 games. I can understand you missing this game the first time around, but you would be a fool to miss out on this PSP re-release of The Red Star.