Starr Mazer DSP is a fast-moving, synth-driven retro SHMUP

Starr Mazer 6

If "horizontally scrolling shooter" was a tongue twister, Starr Mazer director Don Thacker would be in the running for world champion of saying “horizontally scrolling shooter.” In the half-hour he spent showing me his new horizontally scrolling shooter Starr Mazer DSP, he said the words “horizontally scrolling shooter” many times very quickly. Thacker clearly loves horizontally scrolling shooters, and it looks like he and the team at Pixeljam are on their way towards making a good one. I played about 15 minutes of the SHMUP (sorry—horizontally scrolling shooter) at GDC last week, and had a good old time doing it, even if the game mercilessly pummeled me into oblivion.

Starr Mazer DSP is actually a prequel to the point-and-click/SHMUP hybrid Starr Mazer, which is coming in 2017. When Pixeljam knocked out the shooter engine ahead of schedule, the team started iterating on it, adding features, and had most of a game on its hands.

“Eventually, by accident almost, we had an incredibly cool horizontal scrolling shooter, and I was like, we can’t just let this go. I can’t take this cool thing and destroy it and just take the parts and put them in Starr Mazer,” Thacker said, talking a mile a minute while gripping a Monster energy drink can. “Starr Mazer has its own mechanics. You can talk your way out of boss fights in Starr Mazer proper, whereas I love the purity of a horizontally scrolling shooter ... so I had the team at Pixel Jam to dedicate some time to wrapping it in a roguelike layer, and I worked on the story.”

The art here is all throwback 2D spritework, with strong echoes of Gradius and Macross and just about any other 80s/90s sci-fi touchstone you could name. The difference is a dozen enemy ships will flood the screen at once in a sprite dogpile that would have turned a classic SHMUP into a chugfest.

As Thacker said, the horizontally scrolling shooter is pretty much a known quantity—they haven’t really changed all that much since the 80s—and Starr Mazer DSP modestly aims for fun in simplicity. The roguelike layer is its major feature. When you start out, you can bankroll a small roster of fighters with relatively weak ships (they’ll die in one or two hits) and less potent super attacks. As you kill enemies you’ll collect floating ore which you can use to buy more and better fighters. The system’s a bit like Rogue Legacy’s slow power accumulation.

The UI is unfinished, but gives you an idea of how Starr Mazer DSP's ships can vary.

The UI is unfinished, but gives you an idea of how Starr Mazer DSP's ships can vary.

“You'll start with the shittiest pilots. The worst pilots,” he said. “As they die you'll be able to upgrade your pilots. Further down the line you'll get characters from Starr Mazer itself, and they'll rando show up in your group. At the end, you'll assault the ADAMASTOR, the big Gell ship, not with a ragtag bunch of cheap dudes, but with a really well constructed team.”

Starr Mazer DSP already has a healthy variety of super weapon types available between its arsenal of disposable fighters. My favorite was the Death Blossom, which spewed pink and purple energy from my ship in a spiral pattern that quickly wiped clear the entire screen. Another, Phase Slip, slows down time to let you weave through enemy fire. I also tried out the heavy-hitting cannon, fast-firing Infinite Salvo, and the super powerful Exterminator. It exterminated some stuff.

The catch with all these supers, and probably Starr Mazer’s smartest mechanic, is that firing your super drains power from your primary weapon. A bar indicates whether your main weapon is level 1, 2, or 3. Killing enemies charges it up, and the higher the level, the more damage you do. At level 3, the primary weapons (rapid fire, missiles, shotgun, and more) also gain additional effects like splitting into a spreadshot. There’s a fine balancing act to play between using your super to easily wipe out enemies and keeping your weapon inside the third power bracket.

Another balancing act: dodging enemies while also collecting the ore necessary to hire better pilots. If you wipe, though, Starr Mazer DSP will take pity on you and give you Dog Pilot, who sounds like the best pilot in the galaxy and also a very good boy. Dog Pilot will be temporarily invincible or at least tough enough to let you rack up a bunch of ore to pay for a new team of pirates.

The harmless enemies to the right turn into the very fast, very harmful enemies to the left.

The harmless enemies to the right turn into the very fast, very harmful enemies to the left.

Starr Mazer DSP is driven by a jamming synth soundtrack and some great sound effects that sound exactly like what a SHMUP should sound like. The fundamentals are already strong, though Thacker plans to do months of tuning before the release.

And there are little things that can be improved. The ore can be a bit difficult to spot against the starry background and distinguish from bullets, even though it’s one of many many iterations the team has already tried. The hit feedback could still use a bit of amping up—landing hits on enemy ships doesn’t always feel like it has a ton of impact, maybe because the smaller ships tend to stack on top of each other and take a few seconds to chew through with lasers. There’s something satisfying about wiping out a big pile of bad guys, but it can also be frustrating when one transforms into a giant arrow of death and hurtles towards you at nearly undodgeable speeds and then you die.

Expect to die to Starr Mazer DSP's bosses.

Expect to die to Starr Mazer DSP's bosses.

I died a lot in Starr Mazer DSP, but I wanted to jump right back in after each death, which is a good sign. I swear I almost had the final boss. What’s his deal with using his minions as a shield and making me murder all of them, anyway? Uncool.

Thacker plans to have Starr Mazer DSP out this summer. Even with a few months left to go, it’s in good shape to fill that horizontally scrolling shooter void in your heart. If you say horizontally scrolling shooter five times fast, Thacker might even appear and give you a copy.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).