Blissful Death: Enjoying Star Hunter DX’s synthwave shooting

Blissful Death: Celebrating the Shoot 'em Up

Star Hunter DX is an upcoming retro-style bullet hell shoot ’em up that is worth your attention for a number of different reasons.

The “retro” aesthetic has been in vogue for quite some time now — at least partly because these days we have technology that allows us to recreate old-school visuals and sounds the way we’d like to remember them rather than the way they actually were.

There are a variety of different approaches one can take to a creative work that is intended to be a retro homage. You can try for an authentic recreation of a classic console’s colour palette and resolution; you can simply use low-resolution pixel art, which automatically has something of a “retro” feel to it; or you can go for a sense of “retro” that is more about atmosphere than necessarily authenticity.

Star Hunter DX

The latter approach is the one taken by Star Hunter DX, a shoot ’em up from Space Moth creators 1CC Games. It uses low-resolution pixel art, sure, but it also uses far more on-screen colours than would have ever been possible in a video game from the late ’80s or early ’90s. Likewise, its soundtrack evokes a feeling of classic ’90s synthwave, but is unmistakably modern rather than an attempt to simply recreate the sounds of the past.

Simply put, no-one is going to mistake Star Hunter DX for a game that came out thirty years ago — but that doesn’t mean they won’t feel a warm, fuzzy sense of nostalgia while playing. It’s a great-looking game that moves along smoothly, and the soundtrack provides that inimitable sense of abstract, fuzzy auditory comfiness that only a good bit of synthwave can provide.

In Star Hunter DX, you take on the role of one of three bounty hunter pilots. Only one of the three is unlocked at the outset of the game; unlocking the other two requires you to successfully progress to stage 3 and 5 of the main game respectively.

Each pilot has their own ship, and each ship has its own distinct firing patterns. Like Cave’s shoot ’em ups, the ships have two modes of fire — a wide-ranging “rapid shot” and a narrow, focused “laser” attack — but there are a few interesting twists on the conventions here and there to keep things interesting and ensure that you’re paying attention.

For example, an established convention for shoot ’em ups is that when you fire a “laser” type weapon, which is generally more powerful, you’ll slow down to allow you to make more accurate shots — and perhaps to dodge through intricate bullet patterns. This is certainly true for default character Luna, but if you decide to play as her robotic assistant CAT-99 instead, the situation is reversed; CAT-99’s rapid shot homes in and is more powerful, but slows them down, while their laser shot has a narrow focus and is relatively weak in comparison, but allows for extra manouevrability.

Star Hunter DX

Star Hunter DX adds a few extra mechanics to the mix, too. Aside from the obligatory bombs — which here blast a circular region around your ship rather than clear the whole screen — you also have a “Bullet Time” facility which gradually charges up as you collect “energy cubes” dropped by enemies. Once the meter is half full or more, you can trigger Bullet Time, which has several effects. Firstly, it slows things down slightly — not exactly to a crawl, but certainly a more manageable pace — and secondly, it causes both enemies and their bullets to explode into showers of gold cubes when you destroy them. Naturally, this is where the big points lie.

Complementing this system is a multiplier that gradually increases as you continually destroy popcorn enemies, inflict damage on more powerful foes and graze bullets. The higher your multiplier when you destroy an enemy in Bullet Time, the larger and more valuable the gold cubes will be. Thus for the highest scores you need to be thinking about a lot of things: building up your multiplier, timing Bullet Time to coincide with a large number of enemies that fire dense bullet patterns, and ensuring you keep your multiplier up while blasting away.

It feels quite similar to a number of Cave shoot ’em ups — DoDonPachi Resurrection is probably the closest comparison, since that game’s “Hyper” feature is a rough analogue to Star Hunter DX’s Bullet Time — but somehow manages to feel significantly more accessible and easy to understand than many of that company’s classics.

Star Hunter DX

It helps, of course, that Star Hunter DX features a comprehensive “How to Play” guide that fully explains all these mechanics — something which your typical Cave bullet hell title tends to lack — but there’s just something about the gameplay that feels rather friendly and welcoming, too. Despite a selection of randomly chosen sarcastic messages on the continue screen, the game as a whole feels like it wants you to get involved and master its intricacies — but in encouraging you to explore its mechanics, it refuses to patronise you.

Its lowest difficulty level still puts up a stiff challenge and makes it clear that you’re going to have to practice this one in order to get good — but thankfully, there is also an excellent practice mode included in the game, which allows you to not only pick a stage to focus on getting better at — including jumping right to the boss if you so desire — but also to fiddle around with different variables in place such as multiplier levels, how full your bullet time meter is and whether or not you have bombs on hand.

The whole game is just an incredibly considerately designed package that has obviously been put together with great love, respect and knowledge for the genre. I mean, this should come as no surprise when you consider the developer’s name is “1CC Games”, but still — it’s worth acknowledging. Their passion for shoot ’em ups most definitely shows in this one.

As it happens, if you particularly like your shoot ’em ups and are a collector, Strictly Limited Games is publishing a physical package that contains both Star Hunter DX and its spiritual predecessor Space Moth: Lunar Edition. At the time of writing there are still a few copies available for preorder, so hop on over to their site if you want to pick up a Switch standard, Switch special, PS4 standard or PS4 special edition.

Strictly Limited expects these packages to ship around August or September — though they are also a company who has been known to be a little slow to get their releases out the door, particularly during the challenges of the pandemic. They’re worth the wait, though; previous releases from them have been beautifully high quality. In the meantime, Star Hunter DX will have a digital release later this summer, likely in August; right now you can add it to your wishlist on Steam (and download a free demo), but expect to see it also on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch when the full version finally rolls around for everyone to enjoy.

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Pete Davison
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