Star Luster: Namco Does Star Raiders

One of the great things about the Evercade retro gaming handheld is its unofficial mission to bring a variety of overlooked, underappreciated or unlocalised retro gaming titles to a worldwide audience.

The publishing partners who have signed up to distribute their games on the platform are seemingly more than happy to jump on board with this philosophy too — and this is especially evident with the two Namco Museum Collection cartridges, which not only provide the classics we expect to always see on such compilations like Pac-Man and Dig-Dug, but also some lesser-known titles, some of which never officially left Japan on their original platforms.

Part of the reason for this is the Evercade’s initial focus on retro home consoles, whereas Namco’s own Namco Museum releases have historically tended to focus on the arcade side of things. And so, we come to Star Luster, a 1985 release for the Famicom that never came West. Until now!

In Star Luster, you are Dan Heinick, pilot of the starship Gaia and apparently the only “good guy” with a pilot’s license in the entire galaxy. It’s your job to flit around destroying the forces of the evil “dark planet” Battura and prevent the friendly planets and starbases from being overrun and destroyed. Oh, and if you’re feeling feisty, you could take the fight right to Battura, too — but make sure you’re good and ready before you take on that challenge!

Star Luster is a first-person, cockpit view space sim that combines fast action shooting with strategic gameplay. Longtime gamers will recognise it as drawing heavy inspiration from both Mike Mayfield’s classic (and widely cloned) text-based Star Trek game that was originally designed for mainframe computers, and also from Doug Neubauer’s 1979 “killer app” for Atari 8-bit computers, Star Raiders. This is no straight clone, however; Star Luster does a lot of things its own way and makes what could potentially be a very complicated experience work extremely well using nothing more than the Famicom’s two-button controller.

When you start up Star Luster, you’re presented with three options: Training, Command and Adventure. These are more than just difficulty levels: they actually affect the overall complexity of the game quite significantly. In Training mode, for example, you have very few bases to defend and just four enemy squadrons to defeat; in Command you have planets as well as bases to protect; and in Adventure there’s an optional objective that leads to a “true ending” as well as stronger enemies in greater numbers.

Regardless of which mode you pick, a “universe” is randomly generated when you begin, meaning no two games are quite alike. Depending on the game mode, this universe may consist of starbases, planets, asteroid fields and enemy fleets. You win if you destroy all the enemy fleets. You lose if your ship is destroyed or if all the things you were supposed to be protecting are destroyed.

There are two distinct phases to Star Luster’s gameplay: a strategic overview and the action-based combat mode. In the strategic mode, you view the map of the game universe on your ship’s computer screen and have a few options. You can warp directly to any sector, which allows you to engage enemies in combat, dock with starbases for repairs (plus upgrades in Command and Adventure mode) and visit planets, which is necessary to acquire the “keys” you need for the true ending in Adventure mode.

In Command and Adventure mode, you can also fire some of your limited stock of photon torpedoes at any sector, allowing you to destroy an entire enemy squadron without engaging them directly. Trouble is, you don’t know how many torpedoes you’ll need, since it’s based on the strength of the fleet, and you’ll only discover this by engaging them or just repeatedly hurling torpedoes until they disappear.

The enemy fleets have three possible strengths, denoted by the colour of their ships when you engage them directly. Blue ships are the weakest, then grey ships, then finally purple ships are very dangerous. Not only does each “grade” of ship require more hits from your lasers to destroy (or more photon torpedoes to obliterate the entire fleet from afar), but they also do more damage if they score a successful hit on you.

When you engage in combat, your ship’s computer display switches to a long range scanner mode, represented as a top-down view with your ship in the middle and a light blue cone representing your visible range. The scanner does not, however, show the relative elevation of ships and other objects to you, meaning that an object may appear to be “in front” of you but not be visible — if this is the case, pitching up or down will usually reveal your opponent. And in the case of enemies, they actively seek you out, anyway, so in fact staying still can sometimes be beneficial!

Each fleet of enemies consists of ten ships, gradually increasing in strength as you go. The last is usually the spherical Disruptor, which takes the most hits to go down and is also the most dangerous in the terms of damage it can do to you — but it’s also the slowest moving, so as long as you can avoid its shots you should be able to take it down without too much trouble.

Piloting your ship during combat involves moving a crosshair around the screen; this will “lead” your ship’s movement and make firing ahead of moving enemies easier. However, if your targeting systems take damage, the crosshair will become fixed to the centre of the cockpit display, making it a little harder to aim. Other systems can take damage too, with the most serious being your engines, since they are also responsible for regenerating your shields after taking a shot or two.

You can repair your ship and replenish lost energy by docking with a starbase — this is where an understanding of the long-range scanner is essential, since it inevitably won’t be on the same plane as you when you arrive and thus can be a little tricky to track down sometimes. And you’d better believe the enemies aren’t going to be waiting for you while you fumble around looking for a thing to dock with; everything in Star Luster unfolds in real time.

There’s another reason to dock with starbases in Command and Adventure mode, however; the first time you dock with them, they’ll provide you with a power-up that increases your weapon power, your shield strength or your energy efficiency. In longer missions — particularly Adventure mode — these are very helpful and worth pursuing, so long as you have the time to take a quick detour!

Star Luster is really enjoyable to play. Despite being entirely sprite-based, there’s a very convincing feel of piloting your ship in three dimensions thanks to the use of both pitch and yaw — this is by no means a game where you just have to turn left and right to track down your enemies and other points of interest!

The presentation is straightforward and simple but effective, too; your ship’s cockpit actually moves as you pitch up and down, providing a good feeling of “movement” as you chase down the enemies, and all the information you need is clearly presented at a glance — the only screen-switching you’ll need to do is between the long-range scanner and the universe map, and you don’t have to leave the cockpit to do this. Those who enjoy ’80s sci-fi will also be in heaven from a sound perspective, too — this game is full of pew-pew lasers and computers that go “boop! biddle-iddle wooooop! REEEOOWWWREEEOOOW!” for no apparent reason.

There’s plenty of longevity to this one. While the Training mission is very easy — as it should be — the Command and Adventure missions both provide a significant challenge and, thanks to their randomised openings, are very replayable. At the end of a mission, you’re rated with a score and a rank according to how quickly you accomplished your goal, how many friendly bases you saved and, in the case of Adventure mode, whether you beat the “true ending”. As such, there’s plenty of incentive to try again and improve your rank — and it’s a lot of fun to do so.

Star Luster is an excellent take on the mid-’80s space sim formula, offering an accessible but deep blend of strategy and action, and a good learning curve for those new to the genre. It’s great that the Evercade has finally made this Famicom gem more accessible to everyone — and I’ll most certainly be spending a lot more time with it in the near future!

Tips and Tricks

  • Enemies will only ever hit you from the front. Turn away from incoming shots to avoid them. This is essential when fighting the purple fleets, as their stronger ships can take you out in one hit!
  • The map updates every fifty “ticks” on the time meter. This means that under most circumstances, when you get a message that a base or star is under attack, you have a little under a minute to get to the situation and deal with it.
  • Blue fleets need four photon torpedoes to destroy from afar, grey need six and purple need all eight. You cannot partially damage a fleet — it’s all or nothing. Fire four and see what happens before blowing your whole payload. Alternatively, warp in to scout out the fleet, then warp away to an empty sector and let ’em have it.
  • In Command and Adventure mode, three of the starbases will give you powerups, and one will replenish your photon torpedoes… but only under certain circumstances.
  • To “repair” a planet that has been damaged by an enemy assault and turned black on the map, fly to it and “dock” with it. This does not work on bases!
  • You can “repair” all the planets on the map at once by flying into an asteroid field and shooting 32 asteroids. Your computer will say “GET ITEM BARRIER” when you accomplish this.
  • To temporarily slow down all the enemy fleets, fly into an asteroid field and shoot 8 asteroids without missing a single shot. You will not get a message if you accomplish this, but you’ll be able to see the effect on the map.
  • To customise your ship’s colour scheme, wait for the title screen to stop scrolling and the title to start flashing, then quickly press Select, A, B, Right, Left, Up, Select, A, Down and Right. (On the original Famicom version, reverse the A and B buttons.) You can then use the directional pad left and right to select a cockpit component and up and down to change its colour.
  • To finish Adventure mode with the true ending, you need to collect seven keys by destroying a fleet, then visiting a planet. After acquiring all seven keys, you need to find Earth and dock with it. At this point, a single pixel on the map will flash. Fly to this specific pixel to engage in combat with the final boss.

More about Star Luster
More about Evercade 02: Namco Museum Collection 1

More about Evercade

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