Review: Sol Cresta

Shmups occupy a strange space in gaming: They “should” be cheap because they’re short and because they’re shmups – ancient games where you shoot whatever scrolls into view until you die or there’s nothing left to shoot – and yet in spite of this mindset following the genre around like a bad smell since forever many of its finest examples are not just enjoyed but revered, going on to routinely command three-figure prices for their physical forms… years if not decades too late to actually help any team or individual responsible for their creation. These are the exact same games that didn’t sell well in the first place because they were always too short and too shmuppy to justify paying their RRP for… until they became so rare and desirable that “only” paying double the RRP for a used copy began to sound like a bargain. Again. PlatinumGames’ Sol Cresta is yet another shmup to trying to find its way through this impossible scenario, its £30.99 price point (plus an optional £7.19’s worth of DLC too – I’ll discuss that later) viewed as an expensive outlier even when it’s aimed at people who know the differences between an Aero City and a Blast City arcade cabinet because they have one or the other sitting in their homes, even when people can and do spend more than that on virtual costumes for digital weddings.

In this highly competitive and openly hostile landscape Sol Cresta has a real need to make not just a good first impression but a fantastic one and… it doesn’t. This made-for-landscape-screens shmup’s default settings (horizontal, with the play field running vertically up the middle) makes everything look slightly crushed, as if it’s all either zoomed out too much or not quite zoomed out enough (by the way, there are no zoom/scale/fit/1:1 settings whatsoever). There’s an obvious shimmer to everything as it scrolls by, and it just looks wrong. Being the battle-hardened shmuppers we are we know this must be an issue with the screen’s orientation, just like it was in the old days. With a quick dive into the meagre display menu and no small amount of worry for a laptop I can’t afford to replace if this all goes horribly wrong, I tilt everything by 90° to see how it looks on a screen that is temporarily taller than it is wide and… while it is exciting to have the action fill the screen in that way it definitely hasn’t improved anything. Thankfully scanlines, more accurately described as Platinum’s own special sort of slot mask filter, help immensely – almost as if they should have been turned on by default. The only problem with them is, as I’m sure you can see in some of the screenshots dotted around this page, they pretty much kill the colour and brightness stone dead, to the point where I switched them off again and learned to live with the shimmer just so I could see what was going on.

Still, as disappointing as that is it’s not enough to spoil the latest Cresta in a long line of vertically scrolling shmups, beginning with Nichibutsu’s arcade hit Moon Cresta at virtually the dawn of gaming (1980), through Terra Cresta (arcade again) and Terra Cresta II (PC Engine) to this. The series’ stand-out feature has always been the multi-part ship you build up and control, and I’m happy to say Sol Cresta proudly seizes upon this unique idea and runs with it. A quick dab of the split/dock button at any moment will break up your ship, allowing you to stack the three parts however you like, freely rearranging your main (lead ship) and charge shot (mid ship) capabilities to best suit the current situation. It’s also possible to pick up formation chips as you play(these must be reacquired every stage), granting you the ability to drag your energy-tethered ships into one of six pre-set patterns and then unleash a special attack at the cost of three Sol Power gauges (the circles on the left of most screenshots, generally replenished by shooting at things – you can have up to nine gauges stored at once). Using these well does take some practise, but not as much as you might think: Whenever you hold the split/dock button down the game slows to a crawl – think of the rebooted Doom series’ weapon wheel time – and also shows markers for whatever formation you’re physically closest to performing, making it easy to line all three ships up quickly. Further fun comes in the form of command shots, unlocked (again per stage) by collecting silver and gold medals (the gold ones have Nichibutsu’s classic owl logo on them – I thought that was a lovely touch) filling up the Sol Gauge on the right hand side of the screen. These allow you to fire a shot behind, to the sides, or all around so long as you input the required motions first – you may recall the excellent ∀kashicverse -Malicious Wake- doing something similar a few years ago. As daunting as all of the above may sound the default screen layout is filled with visual prompts to help keep memorisation to a minimum and the arcade style instruction images used in the manual (tucked away in the options menu) ensure you have access to all the information you need in an easily absorbed format.

Even getting hit works a little differently here, thanks to Sol Cresta’s shield/life/ship system. You start out with just one of your three ships and must collect Sol Emblems, often found within eye-catching bright red enemy craft (these will even spawn during boss battles if you need them), to summon the other two. Once you’ve assembled (and assuming you’ve kept!) the complete Yamato any further Sol Emblems add one shield to the empty circles at the top-left of the playfield, just under your score, protecting your trio of ships from a single hit. Get hit while you’ve got a shield and…. you lose a shield. Get hit while you’ve got not shields and… your rearmost ship is destroyed, leaving you a shot type short and unable to do anything other than the weaker two ship formations. Get hit again and you’re left with one ship whose split button is now used to perform a spin attack with a short period of invincibility (at the cost of some of your Sol Power gauges). Get hit after that and you finally lose you life, the game swiftly returning you back into the fray with all three ships (but no shields) where you died after a short retro fanfare.

Beyond those obvious features lie a plethora of thoughtful additions and ideas that add up to a balanced mix of raw arcade challenge and that most impossible of all features to nail down, accessibility. The opening “retro” sections of each stage serve two welcome purposes, a nice homage to past Crestas as well as a gentle way of easing you in whether you catch the reference or not, a little warm up stretch before the stage starts proper. There are coloured hoops to fly through for bonus points and special crates to destroy if you can quickly switch to the matching ship – both helpful extras, but never so helpful, or the rest of the game so mean, that missing one (or two, or three) is a real problem. It’s also not all that difficult: I was able to reach stage five (of seven) on my first go on the default settings/difficulty, including plenty of scrappy on-the-job “What the heck does this do?!” learning. This is a good thing. Sol Cresta has a lot going on, and so by choosing to not kill you off every five seconds even your first formative go has room for experimentation and curiosity, giving you the chance to see where you could use a diagonal beam, to find the time to switch your ships around to use the right shot to destroy incoming asteroids or decimate an enemy’s shields – and without having to pour hours into plain surviving first. There’s a heap of extras to unlock too: Hard and “Platinum Hard” difficulty levels, a sound test showcasing Yuzo Koshiro’s wonderful music, as well as “Caravan” and score attack modes.

Sol Cresta has a neat way of unlocking these features: Achievement-related tasks – anything from starting the game to defeating each boss to collecting or destroying 500 of something (if that sounds like a lot – I cleared one of these while reviewing the game) – award varying quantities of points, and once you’ve reached set thresholds you unlock something new. There’s even a little progress bar on the achievement screen so you can see what achievements are left for you to aim for and how many points you need for your next mystery prize, creating a sort of informal challenge mode where you decide what you’re going to aim for next.

Caravan mode is sadly fairly barebones, with just one mode of play: You get five minutes to score as many points as possible using the default difficulty and starting on the first stage. It’s not as exciting as the hand-crafted Caravan modes of old, but that desire to wring every last drop out of every enemy remains, and the addition of online leaderboards make competitive play as easy as soul-crushing glances at the top ten scores. Score attack is equally straightforward, locking you in to the default settings and difficulty before giving you the option to play one stage or go through the whole lot before uploading your score. It’s not much, but it’s enough to give you something new to aim for.

If that’s still not enough there’s the paid-for “Dramatic Mode” to consider, which adds Radiant Silvergun-like chatter as you play. The main cast – the hot-blooded hero (Sho), the mysterious woman with special powers (Luna), the comic-relief nerd with the cute pet (Dril) – all look and act like they’ve stepped straight out of a Seventies anime and are all the better for it. Unfortunately the dialogue they and the supporting characters speak is only offered in Japanese (English – and only English – subtitles are available) which makes it distracting to read what’s happening while you play but if you can their lines do add a lot to the experience, with a few things that may have slipped us less Cresta-enamored shmuppers by explained with an enthusiasm that draws you in. The stages are often slightly different to their arcade counterparts, and some scenes have no equivalent at all (Dramatic Mode has its own high score table to accommodate these changes) – there’s even a brand new eighth stage to round things off – I won’t spoil the surprise, but I came away from it smiling. An extensive database is unlocked after clearing Dramatic Mode once covering pretty much every key concept/idea/ship from every Cresta game there has ever been to the extreme of listing each unique segment of all previous fighters individually, complete with their own official names and artwork. This information is written “in character”, so for example Moon Cresta’s entry talks about the Earth Federation Forces and the Cosmic Year 0080, not the arcade shmup or its numerous home ports. It’s more interesting for being this way: nobody needs or wants to pay money for a paraphrased faux-Wikipedia. As separately released (and priced) DLC Dramatic Mode understandably has a significant hurdle to overcome, but you can see where the money went without any great effort, I felt happy to have spent an afternoon with it and yes, knowing what I know now I would still buy it again.

Sol Cresta’s clearly been made out of nothing but love for the series it’s based on; so much so that it’s hard to play this and not want to make a few extra Arcade Archives purchases just so you can experience the older games Hideki Kamiya obviously adores for yourself. It plays like a dream even if it does look like a dog, a well designed and welcoming shmup with a unique twist that is genuinely different from everything else while also throwing up some tactically interesting scenarios, and doing so without feeling overcomplicated or obtuse. No shmup will ever please everyone, but I do honestly feel Platinum have created something that is entertaining and inventive enough to be worth the supposedly high price they’re asking for it.

[PC (Steam) version played and reviewed]

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