As we mentioned in our preview of Stardash [$1.99], developer Orange Pixel set out to make a game the way Nintendo would. The result? A lovingly-crafted tribute to Game Boy platformers of old. It may lack the polish Big N gives its games, but pulls off a challenge more common to a time when creators didn't worry about keeping the lowest common denominator up to speed.
Stardash is a simple game with a simple formula. It's divided into 40 levels over the course of 4 worlds, and each level can be completed in as little as 20 - 40 seconds. The levels don't call for much exploration -- they're just series of platforms and baddies that do whatever it takes to bring you down. Unless you're a platforming superstar, they'll probably succeed. This game is made with equal measures of love and sadism.
Borrowing a page from games like Super Meat Boy, Stardash doesn't let your death drag you out of the action. You're not limited by lives, there's no lengthy loading sequence and the music never stops. This keeps death from being too frustrating, a a very good thing when you'll probably be dying a lot. The first few levels are forgiving, but as you progress you'll find a need for more and more precision -- and more and more things that will straight up kill you if you don't already know what to expect.
The difficulty in Stardash can be cruelly high, but it rarely feels unfair. The controls are excellent, some of the best on-screen controls I've used. A few levels rely on your ability to jump as high or as far as possible with pixel-perfect precision, but most (thankfully) don't. Instead, the most difficult bits are all about speed, timing, and careful jumping. Dashing off an edge and jumping in midair will save you in many circumstances, and once you master that technique most levels will feel hard but fair.
If just completing the game's main levels isn't enough of a challenge for you, Stardash has plenty more to offer. Each level has two stars that can be earned: one for completing it under a tight time limit, and one for collecting all its stars. It's usually impossible to do both at once. Each level also has a hidden key that goes to opening one of the temples, a sealed level that's only available when you collect all of a world's 9 keys.
For the truly dedicated, there are also a selection of extremely difficult Game Center/OpenFeint achievements to earn. Oh, and your high score only maintains through levels if you don't die, so you'll need to work on your survivability to place on the leaderboard. Sounds easy enough, right?
Unfortunately my time with Stardash wasn't problem free, thanks to a number of technical glitches. The game didn't obey my mute switch. Music kept on playing even after I turned the screen off. Leaving a level from the pause menu would result in that level becoming locked again if I'd just reached it. The level-selection menu didn't react consistently to input. And while I played on iPhone, our forum users report several issues with the controls on iPad and iCade. Its disconcerting to see bugs of this scale in a released game.
Still, nothing kept me from spending hours playing Stardash. I played until my hands cramped, running through some levels dozens of times. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then I completely lost my head over this game. It hits the sweet spot of difficulty, sometimes frustrating but never too frustrating. It's also perfectly wrapped in its Game Boy aesthetic, sound, visuals and all. This isn't a game for the easily defeated, but if you're willing to persevere then Stardash will leave you well rewarded.
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