Starscape - Moonpod


Moonpod - PC - 2003

Reviewed by Spyboy

Starscape caused a dramatic change in my gaming life. I'd grown up on games in the 8 bit era, and moved along each year with new developments, but I'd started to get a little jaded with games and begun to wonder if I'd grown out of them all together. Of course I was completely wrong - all those 3D first person shooters had numbed my brain! It took Starscape to remind me why games are fun, and since then I haven't looked back. It prompted me to find websites like, buy a dreamcast and a pile of shooters, and lately I've been eyeing up supergun hardware...

So, you'll have to forgive me if I rave a little about this game, as it will always have a special place in my heart. I'll try my best to offer a balanced opinion rather than a fanboy's rant!

Starscape is an ingenious hybrid game - a shootemup with resource collecting and strategy elements.

The story (yes, it has one - and pretty good it is too), borrows heavily from classic scifi movies, but ads its own flavour- The research station 'Aegis' and its support ships are pulled into an alien dimension whilst testing out new faster than light technology. The crew are scattered across this dimension, called 'the grid'. You are the first crew member to be found by the Aegis - piloting a tiny ship with only a mining laser, and you soon discover that the Aegis was boarded by an unknown enemy who took most of the crew and stole the dimension drive.

It's a difficult game to quantify - Sinistar is closest to the gameplay core, and Tyrian to the the more complex ship construction parts. The easiest comparison to start with is Asteroids. The game has the same top down view, and you even start off shooting asteroids. They are quite different games though - in Starscape you need to mine asteroids to obtain gems which you can convert into new equipment. The bulk of the gameplay is a shmupfest that occurs within 'nodes' of the grid dimension. Nodes are about 4X3 screens and enemies range from fighters armed with a variety of weapons, to capitol ships that launch swarms of drones, or have strange abilites such a shield jammers or gravity pulses that suck you in and try to crush you.

To enter and exit each node, you need to dock with the Aegis which will then warp out. When you are between nodes you can execute a wide selection of tasks - put resources you have collected into research and development of equipment, rebuild your fighter or upgrade the Aegis defences, and choose a new node to enter from the warp map. The great thing is that this all happens outside of the shooter part of the game and doesn't water it down.

The entire game is broken down into 5 zones, each bigger than the last and containing new equipment, enemies and a boss ship. Bosses are extremely inventive, although the difficulty is a little mismatched and peaks with the third boss (perhaps because in later stages you will start to aquire some of the all powerful weaponry. Even so, they all take skill, and there's a real sense of achievment on beating them.

To break things up even more, a race of robots called the Xenarch also inhabits the grid, and has an outpost in each zone. The outposts can be found by picking up data cores left by enemy mining barges - and once there, they will usually trade technology information with you if you complete a simple task for them. You'll want to make finding the Xenarch outposts a priority because the technology they can offer is substantially more powerful than you can make on your own.

Once you've defeated a boss you will reclaim a section of the dimension drive from the wreckage (complete with a neat little animation showing the drive part being added.) Afterwards it's time to move on to the next zone. If you hang around too long the increasing migration of 'space worms' will make life too difficult anyway. Defeat all zone bosses and reclaim the 5 dimension drive parts to complete the game - easier said than done of course.

Aside from the unique gameplay experience on offer, the game's other forte is its graphics, and in particular the weapon and explosion effects. The game is 2D sprite based, but each sprite has a lovely lighing effect on it and objects like asteroids look so real you think you can pick them off the screen with your hand. Effects are on par with recent 3D shooters like Ikaruga - really I can't think of a shootemup that exists today that has better effects or such a wide variety - from around Zone 3 the weaponry on display is awesome.

Most of the sound effects are of a good standard with a couple of really great audio effects for some of the weapons - everything sounds unique. I'd have liked a little more music, but what there is doesn't get annoying, and in fact the title track is one of those that will stick in your head.

As well as the campaign mode, there's also 'Survival Mode' which removes all the strategy and ship building aspects, and pits the player against ever increasing waves of enemies. Starscape is not a horizontal/vertical bullet pattern-fest though, and if you aren't hooked by campaign mode I doubt Survival Mode will change your mind. Although it does make Starscape a good way to spend 20 minutes unwinding after a hard day at work with some mindless violence against aliens!

Some other points of note:
Starscape has an active high score table which is updated each month. You can even add your score from the demo version of survival mode.
The game was made by three people working out of a bedroom in the UK.

Taken as a whole Starscape provides something different, and yet still evokes feelings of nostalgia and joy - it's the sort of thing people would have made in the pre-3D era if they had the technology available to them. It's a slow starter, but I have yet to reccommend it to anyone who hasn't eventually fallen in love with the game. There's just something really special here that you can't quite put your finger on - like a really good book, you want other people to read it so you can talk about it.

I really wanted to give this game a ten, because it had such a profound effect on my gaming life, but I know it might not appeal to hardcore shmuppers who perhaps would prefer not to deal with the R&D and ship construction aspects of the game. Personally I like both, but I think 8 might be a fair score for people who are more interested in a purer form of shooter, so I've split the difference and given Starscape 9/10.

King of the hybrid shmups - 9/10


The Intro

A nice little introduction animation sets the scene. The style is reminiscent of old snes shooters or good flash animation (cut out sprites moving around rather than individual animation frames), but with nicer effects.

Ship Construction

This is probably the area of the game that will divide most people. Equipment has to line up in logical order: weapons on weapon points, generators at the back, etc, but otherwise you have free reign to set things up however you like.


Mining Barges

Mining Barges make life in the warp a constant challenge - not only are they tough to kill, they also mine each node of its valuable resources; resources you could be using to make bigger and better weapons.

One of the best techniques is to circle the barge boosting at top speed - if the barge's main cannon does manage to lock on to you, hopefully it won't do to much damage, and you'll have time to fire a charged weapon.



To Serve and Protect

In Starscape, unlike most shoot-em-ups where you are a lone pilot against the entire enemy, you are not alone. The Aegis science vessel was also pulled into the warp, and you must protect it.

Initially the Aegis is unarmed and vulnerable, but as you mine resources you can upgrade its on board equipment. Useful features like mining lasers let you get on with the business of handing out destruction, but the best upgradel is the level three main defence laser!

Lost In Space

All the 'non-shmuppy' aspects of Starscape occur between 'levels'. Here you can navigate the mothership between nodes (where the shoot-em-up part occurs) and decide whether to enter them.

The fifth and final zone is the largest and quite vast - although you aren't required to visit every node unless you want to search for missing crew.



Good Things Come...

'Oh! You want some too?'

Starscape starts slowly with a weedy ship, but things start to get hectic as you progress though the zones. In Zone 3 you'll be able to manufacture Nova Bombs. The first time I used one I ended up giggling to myself like a maniac. When finally you have the top power level bombs, it's hard to contain your glee when you wipe out 50+ enemies with one button press.

Zone 1 Boss

My favourite boss- just when you think it has given up, it pulls out another trick.

Giant Beam lasers on each corner first need to be destroyed, but you need to destroy parts either side first - a clever ploy which forces you to make mad dashes past the business end of the gun between blasts. Once you have crippled the mothership, it pulls lava-asteroids into the node and flings them out at you. Finally, a super fighter is launched out of the debris!



We Need Guns...

Weapons come in many flavours: blasters, ion cannons, beam lasers, missiles, homing missiles, plasma torpedos and more. Each weapon usually comes in 3-4 power levels, with some even having alternate fire modes (Blasters have an extremely useful charge shot).

You can pretty much fit out any of the available ships however you like (depending on the size restrictions of the hull you choose).

Zone 4 Boss >>

Not incredibly difficult, but a fun concept.
It fires an endless stream of bullets in all directions. Shoot the core either side of a gun to destroy it, and wait for a short gap in the firing to move round to the next one.


<< Boss 2:

Randomly obiting drone ships leave behind deathly plasma trails - these need taking out first and then you can move into the body. This is protected by 4 way fire beams, and a central spiral shot that needs to be traversed.


Zone 3 Boss

The most difficult boss in the game, and also the largest (the whole thing doesn't even fit on screen all at once!) You need to blast shield doors off both sides and get inside it to destroy two generators. Each corner is protected by fast turning beam lasers that are difficult to negotitate, and regular, screen filling lightning blasts mean you need to keep your distance and then boost in with quick raids.
Building light, manouverable ships can be helpful.

Zone 5 Boss

Before you can even get this boss on screen, you will have to cut a path through the swarm of fighters that constantly surround it. At times it feels like you are swimming though a sea of them - there must be at least a hundred or more on screen at any one time.

The boss itself is circled by a chain of fire passing through obiting spheres. When these spheres leave the main body, they expose the only weak point.


Final Thoughts

The best thing about Starscape is it gives us all hope, because if three people working out of a bedroom can make a game that looks this stunning, and is so much fun, then we can all sleep at night knowing the Shoot-Em-Up torch is still being carried well into the new millenium.

Special thanks to Fost over at Moonpod for helping out with some background information and boss fighting tips, and my girlfriend for standing by and hitting the print screen key when I shouted!

Related Links:
Moonpod Home Page
Starscape Pages
Starscape Forum


shmups!   © 1997 - 2007  Malcolm Laurie