It was somewhere on Super Stardust Ultra's second planet that I started feeling a lingering sense of deja vu. I was blasting giant ice shards into so much space dust, dodging robots armed with buzzsaws, and then it dawned on me: I've played this game before. A couple of times, actually. One of those times was within the first year of the PlayStation 3's release. It may be called Super Stardust Ultra but, other than a handful of new modes, it's practically the exact game that developer Housemarque has released *counts fingers* three times now.
That's not to say it's bad. I mean, the original game was pretty damn good when it launched nearly eight years ago. It's a modern-day throwback to arcade games like Asteroids, with quite a bit of Geometry Wars thrown in for good measure. You command a ship that hovers on a three-dimensional plane above the surface of one of several planets, and your goal is to blast every mother-loving rock, robot, and alien out of the sky. Breaking apart these asteroids reveals glowing green nuggets, each one containing a much-needed weapon upgrade or point boost. Figuring out the balancing act between attacking and collecting items forms the heart of Super Stardust Ultra, and it's as pure an arcade experience as they come. Controls are tight and fluid, as the twin-stick set-up lets you shoot in one direction while moving in another.
At first it seems like sensory overload, as space rocks and dangerous enemies rain down onto the playing field with reckless abandon. Eventually, I found a rhythm, and I was bobbing through wrecked asteroids to grab a new weapon power-up and weaving through a never-ending stream of bullets in no time. Once four waves of space debris and deadly creatures are annihilated, in comes a screen-filling boss to change everything up yet again. Death comes fast, and the obstacles are relentless, but failure never feels cheap, as the right tools are always at your disposal.
Those tools encompass three different types of weaponry, and (conveniently), there are three types of asteroids to blow apart. Attacking the right rock with the compatible weapon will rip it to shreds in seconds, while choosing a different gun will still work, albeit much more slowly. This opens all new avenues of strategy for you to uncover. Do you whip out the rock crusher to serve as crowd control, even though you're walled in by massive hunks of gold? Or do you boost clear to the other side, and hope to attack things from another angle with a more appropriate weapon? Super Stardust Ultra requires that you answer these questions on a split-second basis, and making those decisions provides much of the twitch gaming bliss you'll find.
If all of this sounds new to you, and you find yourself intrigued, don't hesitate - go and download it right now. Super Stardust Ultra is fantastic arcade fun, and you're unlikely to be disappointed. If it sounds familiar, it's because the base concept has gone literally unchanged since 2007. I know this because I went back to Super Stardust HD on the PS3 to check, and sure enough, it's exactly the same, right down to the same floating mines at the end of the first wave and the bonus asteroids at the start of the second - except here you're orbiting a different planet, and everything looks a little nicer. The only thing that separates Super Stardust Ultra from its predecessors are the few extra modes that accompany the original Arcade mode. For the most part, they're… eh.
Friend or foe?
In addition to the single player options, Super Stardust ultra boasts a few additional multiplayer modes, like co-op or brand new Versus matches. Competitive multiplayer runs the typical gamut, from your standard Deathmatch to King of the Hill modes. Like Ultra's other game types, multiplayer is fun to trot out for a bit with some buds, but you'll likely tire of it after a handful of minutes. And it's all local - no online rock crushing here.
In addition to series mainstays like Arcade (the standard mode) and Endless (duh), other modes originally featured as DLC like Survival (last as long as you can while tiny indestructible probes fill the screen), Bomber (score points by only using bombs) and Impact (boosting through enemies increases your speed) are included as part of the main package. These options are fine diversions, but they last only a handful of minutes each, so they're hardly a replacement for the main Arcade game type. Interestingly enough, several other modes from prior games didn't make the cut - which is sad, considering how much of the game is already recycled content.
In fact, the only new content to make it into Ultra includes some local multiplayer options, Blockade, and Interactive Streaming. Blockade is an interesting trifle, pitting you against a never-ending barrage of enemies while a stream of nearly impervious mines get strung out behind the back of our ship - essentially turning Super Stardust into one hell of a game of Snake. Like the other modes, it's fun, but it's just as fleeting as everything in Super Stardust Ultra that isn't Arcade mode.
Interactive Streaming is actually the most interesting of the bunch - if you have a decent audience watching you, that is. By streaming your game onto Twitch, your viewers can periodically vote on different outcomes, like sending an alien onslaught to take you out, or backing you up with some much needed help. But unless you have a good sized crowd cheering you on, or wishing for your demise, it simply turns into another round of Endless - and it's nowhere near worth the price of a double (or triple (or quadruple)) dip.
I played the hell out of this game on the PS3, the Vita, and I'll likely do it again on PS4. But I can't rightly imagine why it isn't part of some sort of Cross-Buy promotion, because it's the same damn game as it was when it came out nearly eight years ago - and the extra modes aren't nearly worth the upgrade. If you've never played it before, or you're dying to play it again on your next-gen console, Super Stardust Ultra offers up sweet arcade action that (clearly) stands the test of time. But if you're a returning fan looking for a true successor to a modern classic, you're going to leave disappointed.