Star Parodier: A PC Engine parody

Originally a 1992 Japanese PC Engine exclusive before being finally gifted to the world in 2008 via the Wii’s Virtual Console service (the same year it appeared on the PSP’s now painfully expensive Soldier Collection) and again over a decade later as part of the PC Engine/CoreGrafx/TurboGrafx-16 Mini line up, Star Parodier is – yep, you’ve guessed it – a parody of the rightfully beloved HuCard-based shmup Super Star Soldier.

So what this means is we have a vertical shmup that still plays in the classic Hudson Soft style freshly decorated with a colourful and cheerful makeover, complete with endearingly enthusiastic speech samples –  “Speed up!” “Congratulations!” “Bye bye!” and so on – commenting on your every move. In spite of the visual difference the structure of the game is very much the same as it’s always been: Normal Mode offers eight linear stages leading up to the inevitable confrontation against a cartoonish version of Super Star Soldier’s final boss, Mother Brain, and Battle Mode is a renamed version of those hectic and rewarding “Caravan” score attack stages that are so very easy to have just one more go of (and you really mean it this time), once again offering the usual two and five minute variations and packed full of hidden points-scoring bonuses just waiting to be uncovered.

However you play you’ve got three ships to choose from: There’s the Paro Ceaser (based on Super Star Soldier’s Neo Ceaser), a gigantic Bomberman-controlled Bomberman-shaped mech (from Bo- heck, you know), and an anthropomorphised PC Engine, charmingly loaded during the lengthy intro with a copy of Super Star Soldier. They all have three unique and pre-set shot types to pick up during the game (broadly classified as “Mostly Vanilla Lasers“, “A Sort Of Spread Shot“, and “The Other One“), with all three craft having their own specially themed kind of power up collectible to match. Paro Ceaser uses Soldier’s recognisable circular items, Bomberman uses different colours of its home series’ iconic fire ups, and the PC Engine uses HuCards. On top of this basic firepower each ship can also collect their own brand of upgradeable “Option” (the Ceaser and PC Engine opting for a protective whirly satellites while Bomberman has “shadow” style mini Bombers), or grab a helpful shield capable of absorbing three otherwise life-ending hits instead. Devastating bombs are the final tool in your flexible arsenal, and you’ll learn very quickly (and no doubt the hard way) that you’re not invincible while unleashing one of these blasts (the good news is the majority of enemy shots will vanish if they collide with one of your own bullets or your “Options”). The end result of all these apparently slight tinkerings is that every ship feels unique enough for those who wish to specialise yet similar enough for most to switch between on a whim, and no matter who you go for they always have a fighting chance in any situation, whether there’s a boss ahead in need of some concentrated fire or fast moving swarms coming in from the sides. To help this all make sense a thorough (if hands-off) tutorial section can be accessed via the main menu, starting with the most basic actions “This is the shot button” (complete with an animated PC Engine pad graphic) before going over each ship, every single shot type, and all the items you’ll come across in turn.

The game’s fast and tough but more than anything it wants to to revel in the push and pull of a thrilling challenge, you and it both well aware that the 1-ups it regularly dishes out either as floating tokens or as rewards for easily cleared score thresholds can be snatched away again just as quickly (in this case by death or literal big item-grabbing enemy hands). The same can be said of the heart-shaped items that allow you to restart exactly where you are if you die – they’re plentiful and they’re cumulative, so if you’ve managed to collect five so far then the next five deaths won’t send you back to the beginning of the stage even if you find yourself eating bullets for breakfast, dinner, and tea but when they’re gone… well, what happens after that is down to you and your skill. In spite of all this very seriously considered design work there’s a casually irreverent streak running through Star Parodier, perhaps best demonstrated by the way the difficulty levels start at “Kid’s lunch” and go all the way up to “Super incredible“.

When judged purely on its shmuppiness the game’s as worthy of bearing the Soldier name (well, at least the -ier bit) as any other in the series; it has that brilliant balance between immediacy and depth, possessing enough of both to entertain those looking to shoot things for ten minutes just as much as it does those hoping to add another expertly earned 500pts to their hard-won high score. And that’s all great but being a good shmup isn’t enough for this particular title to succeed: We expect our shmuppy parodies to be very colourful and perhaps a bit odd too – and happily Star Parodier offers a healthy dose of both.

As I’ve tried to unsubtly hammer home via the deliberately chosen screen-wide rainbow in the gaggle of screenshots above, Star Parodier is about as vibrant and visually entertaining as shmups in any era get, stages taking you through ever-shifting locations packed with anything from from octopus pots to ancient pyramids. Wherever you go you’re sure to find plenty of smile-inducing details, like snowmen patting snowballs into shape before throwing them at you, bosses that cry when they take damage, and tiny daruma-like enemies frantically waving white flags when shot into submission rather than simply vanishing into thin air. Better still much of this extravagance has a purpose beyond simply impressing passers-by. Tiny ninjas will leap out of the water as you fly nearby, but you can pre-empt their attacks if think to look out for the reeds they breathe through as they lie in wait. Skeletons will burst out of destroyed wall-mounted coffins. Enemies on the Bomberman stage (and its boss – a giant bomb-laying Bomberman) all obey the series’ well-known rules, trundling back and forth within their grids of indestructible blocks. And that layer of cuteness sits on top of some incredible if understated technical achievements, scenes frequently boasting multiple layers of parallax and various special effects – including some shockingly casual sprite scaling – that are always well-used but never artificially highlighted, giving the impression the team behind the game didn’t feel there was anything special about doing the impossible on an aging 8-bit console with a CD add-on.

There’s a lot that can go wrong with this sort of shmup. Make it too funny and the core gameplay might end up sacrificed at the altar of comedy. Make it not funny enough – or craft jokes that are only going to raise a knowing smirk from a small group of people already intimately familiar with the series in question – and players end up stuck with the gaming equivalent of a clown working in a funeral parlour, manically trying to whip up a crowd who were never there for the laughs in the first place with inappropriate nose honks and plastic water squirting flowers. Thankfully Star Parodier somehow finds the magical sweet spot between these two undesirable extremes: It’s a game that’s very serious about being very silly, and a joyous celebration of the PC Engine’s power in every sense of the word.

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