Making ‘em Like They Used To: Star Guard

By Alec Meer on October 9th, 2009 at 8:42 pm.

There's a star man, waiting over there.

Our inbox runneth over with much-appreciated links to this free, indie BBC Micro-esque platformer. A game of minimal controls and beyond minimal graphics, it pulls off the remarkable feat of evoking a grim invasion – you as one of a Spaceman army invading a Wizard’s fortress, occasionally encountering doomed comrades, but always pushing on, against the endless tide of bright red monsters. Ah, even names like ‘spaceman’ and ‘wizard’ are so warmingly reminiscent of an age when a character required only a title, not a complicated backstory, love interest, long-lost son, eight different kinds of amnesia and the forename Jack. But that’s not the whole of Star Guard’s cleverness.

Its greatest strength, to my mind, is throwing out the old-school traditions of difficulty. It does certainly get tricky, requiring the platformer standbys of carefully timed jumps and learning enemy patterns – there’s something of a Metroid vibe to it. But you don’t get punished for failing to meet one of its challenges – you’re just plunged a few feet back to most recent checkpoint, and carry on. Lives are not finite, but the small mound of green pixels that mark your corpses are a maudlin testament to your ineptitude. However, death is useful – I ritually found myself sending in a suicide spaceman, taking out an enemy or a mine so that the path was clear for my next go. It was massively inefficient and began to encourage a worrying disregard for my little spacemens’ lives, but it created flow rather than frustration. It made me feel like I was achieving, even when I was being incredibly lazy.

However, it doesn’t leave people who pride themselves on their gaming skill, and demand their games to be hard, out in the cold. At the end of each level, your score alters dramatically depending on how many times you died. So play well, and a big number reflects it. You can chain shooting and jump together to create a supremely elegant sense of momentum and action, as this video demonstrates:

Man, I’ll never be that guy. And I’ll certainly never be the guy who hits Tab in the main menu screen to activate the semi-secret hard mode.

All this is set to to a strangely affecting mix of plinky-plonk retro noises and semi-nihilist messages from your unseen commanders. Incredibly accessible yet nonetheless fairly hardcore in its way, it’s bleak, charming, clever and masterfully minimalistic. Grab it for no-pennies from here.

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28 Comments »

  1. mcnubbins says:

    Really fun, but then I hit esc to take a break and it instantly took me back to the main menu without saving at all, it seems ;(

  2. Alexander Norris says:

    What I most enjoyed about this was the narrative, as silly as that sounds. Sadly, I’ve given up on finishing this for now since relatives/the phone/the dog made me restart level 9 three times when I was a good ways in.

  3. Inanimotioon says:

    “The Wizard has been defeated.”
    Probably the saddest part of my day. The story was great and I wanted to hear more!

  4. elmuerte says:

    Stopped playing at the level where I had to dodge a shitload of enormous plasma balls. Too frustrating.

  5. twentysides says:

    I got to about level 8 before I thought my boss came in so I turned it off. Wow, that was a blast. I’ll have to finish it up later. I would pay small amounts of money for more games like that.

  6. Hybrid says:

    It was great fun, frustrating, but fun. There’s definitely a Metroid feel to it.

  7. Caiman says:

    For a game with a score, and even a score attack mode, it’s sadly lacking an online high score table unfortunately. But otherwise great, although I still can’t beat the final boss.

  8. Dracko says:

    It reminds me of Michael Moorcock’s Kane of Old Mars, which in turn reminds me of Another World. So good times all around.

    Also: Hit Tab at the main screen to activate hard mode. Takes the training wheels off, separates the boys from the men.

    Now, the real question is: Would the already great sound effects be improved if replaced by Williams Electronics ones?

  9. iQue says:

    Really fun. Not that easy either so you’ll spend a little time tricking your way through the levels.

    Haven’t figured out how to use my gamepad with it though…

  10. Bret says:

    I finished it, if only because I couldn’t let that bastard wizard win.

    Reminded me a little of the last level of Minerva. Wish the ending had been a bit longer.

  11. Berzee says:

    HA! The first name “Jack”. So important for heroics. Sometimes “Jake” (it makes me angry when my name is thus abused).

  12. Miles of the Machination says:

    Great game, I really enjoyed the way it was composed, using seamless gameplay and unobstrusive story telling, great fun

  13. Gabe McGrath says:

    Looks like fun – thanks!

    Reminds me a bit of Pug Fugly’s Destructivator.

  14. Narretz says:

    Man, this game is hard!

    Or more precise, the endboss is hard. I must have tried it a hundred times, but the sucker just takes too many shots.
    My ingenious tactic looks like this:
    When he attacks with his normal attack, go into the corner of the pit. He will always jump up and thus cannot reach you there (you can shoot him obviously). If he proceeds with his normal attack, go into the other corner, but not too fast, othwerise his attacks will go directly into the corner. If he rises, get on a platform. Here it gets tricky. If you move away too fast, some of the missiles are bound to hit you, If you move too slow, he will hit you when he goes down. In the perfect case, you end up on the other platform with one missile to shoot down; then comes his normal attack. You jump over it, land in the pit, jump right back up on the platform, then jump over him, back in to the pit.
    Til now I have always screwed this up at one point or the other, due to bad timing.

    But it’s a fun game!

  15. Grandstone says:

    You can actually shoot and destroy the missiles he shoots at you. Also, there are two more phases of the boss after that.

  16. Bret says:

    To be fair, the last phase is beatable by spamming respawns.

  17. Mark O'Neill says:

    The “PC” version should be called “Windows” – Macs are PCs
    The “Mac” version should be called “Other”. It’s just a HTML file with flash! That’s multi-platform!

  18. LionsPhil says:

    Dang. Didn’t even see the crystal (path) on level 7, and I’d got it on all previous ones.

    I like the way the cheap death makes this a sort-of platform wargame—a stream of brave young men dying to clear the way for their brethren.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Also: you don’t really seem to need a savegame; press 1-9 from the title to levelskip.

      I like how this is properly pixellated—e.g. projectiles on diagonals staircase their way towards you. It’s annoyingly rare in modern “lo-fi” games.

      Can’t make a dent in this damn boss, though.

  19. Rane2k says:

    Nice little game, reminded me a lot of Megaman 1-3

    At some point in level 4 or 5 i realised that you could just hold the fire button. Didn´t let go of it for the rest of the game, except when those exploding spiders came. :-)

    37 death in the last level, most of them to the first boss phase.

  20. Hodge says:

    I thought it was brilliant for the first seven levels then the ridiculous difficulty spike on level eight soured it for me. Eventually gave up at the wizard fight (and glad I did, because from reading other comments I see I was less than halfway through it … and the first half was so horrible there’s no way I’m sitting through the rest of it).

    A shame, so many great ideas are introduced early on, only to be abandoned in favour of random insta-death nonsense at the end.

    Still, on the whole it’s mightily impressive. I eagerly await their (his? her?) next offering.

  21. nullwert says:

    Next developer using “Z” as non-configurable key for an essential action gets clubbed to death with my German QWERTZ layout keyboard!!!

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