A common criticism of the ill-fated Sega Mega CD console is that the games made for it very rarely took advantage of what the system could do. All too often a “new” Mega CD game would be a simple Mega Drive port with a CD quality soundtrack and perhaps the odd FMV cut-scene tacked on the side. Unfortunately, this criticism is rather accurate and it’s only through titles such as Core Design’s forgotten gem Soulstar that we can actually answer that nagging question: “What can the Mega CD do?”

Sega’s unhealthy obsession with full motion video cursed the Mega CD with a particularly weak library of games which is a damn shame because the number of quality Super Scaler arcade games that Sega had created in its time would have made a natural fit for the Mega CD’s capabilities (the shoddy Mega Drive port of Galaxy Force II notwithstanding of course).

Soulstar has hallmarks of a good Sega coin-op. Playing in a fashion similar to Star Fox, this into-the-screen shoot ‘em up really pushes the Mega CD’s scaling abilities to output 3D effects that look stunning for a 1994 home console game. It should be mentioned here that this sprite-scaling technology often looked a lot more impressive than those early 3D polygon graphics which were so prevalent in the 32-bit era. It’s a real feast for the eyes, assuming you have eyes that are able to “rollback” to the time period… It’s a retro thing, don’t ask.

Soulstar's graphics are a real highlight.

Soulstar’s graphics are a real highlight.

But again, the graphics in Soulstar really are magnificent for the time. The feeling of flying through space is accomplished well with your ship visiting a variety of colourful environments including asteroid fields, a besieged city, several machine colonies and even the surface of an ocean world. Each of the game’s chapters are preceded by an animated FMV sequence that outlines the level in wire-frame before establishing your mission parameters and although these rarely stray far from the basic ‘destroy the [blank]’ objective, they’re still a nice touch.

Variety is also bolstered by the transformations that your ship will make between levels. In addition to the standard space-faring Strike Craft, several levels abandon the “into-the-screen” format in favour of levels that feature 360 degree movement where you’ll get to pilot a hovering Turbo Copter or a mechanized walking tank called the Strike Walker. 

As you might expect from an old-school “shmup”, the storyline is rather forgettable. In short, an evil alien race known as the Myrkoids has awoken to terrorize the galaxy and following the destruction of your homeworld you set out in your starship to hunt down every last one of them…

He who controls the giant stompy robots; controls the world.

He who controls the giant stompy robots; controls the world.

John Carmack once said:

“Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”

It tends to be the way.

One area that is important however is a game’s soundtrack and you better believe that Soulstar delivers on that front. Composed by Nathan McCree (known for his work on the Tomb Raider franchise), Soulstar’s soundtrack really takes you there. The foreboding thump of the title screen march is complimented by orchestral space-faring themes that ooze thematic flavour.

One of the game’s tracks called Planet Gigun bears a massive similarity to one of McCree’s later themes that he used in Tomb Raider. A nice point seeing as Soulstar predates it by two years!

It’s such a shame then that the sound effects fail to match the quality of the background music. Everything from collecting power-ups, firing laser blasts and the sound made when your ship collides with an object are rather “tinny” and basic.

There also doesn’t seem to be quite enough SFX to go with the onscreen action. Enemy ships fly through space silently, the Strike Walker quietly marches onwards with no sound of a mechanical footprint and perhaps the biggest disappointment; when exiting a planet’s atmosphere with the Strike Craft (which looks awesome by the way), there is no sound to accompany the craft’s roaring thrusters. It’s a strange situation because the “missing” SFX allow you to appreciate the CD soundtrack all the more but then on the other hand the game ends up feeling a little too quiet.

The ocean world level takes place above the surface in stage I and below it in stage II.

The ocean world level takes place above the surface in stage I and below it in stage II.

But what about the actual gameplay? It’s most important part of any game, so how does Soulstar hold up?

Well, the game is arguably at its best when you’re in control of the Strike Craft. All you need to do in these levels is guide your craft to the goal whilst not trying not to get shot down by enemy fighters. Your ship starts each new stage loaded with several gadgets to help you progress. In addition to the genre-standard laser beam, all of your vehicles start with a very handy smart bomb that exterminates any enemy that happens to be on screen at the time whilst also dealing heavy damage to bosses. Another life-saver is the RAM (Robotic Assistance Module) that deploys a pair of R-Type-esque robotic helpers (in the language of shoot ’em ups such items tend to be called “options”) that flank your ship and provide an additional stream of laser fire at whatever you’re currently targeting. Unlike the various missiles, bombs and other laser beam pickups you can find, the smart bomb and RAM only recharge at the start of a new level or credit so it’s important to use them sparingly.

Although the action is fairly fast and furious, Soulstar often suffers from the problem that you need to be facing an enemy for your basic front-facing weapons to damage it. Obviously this creates a situation where you’re unable to see what you’re shooting at and it causes many instances where you’ll inadvertently collide with an enemy you were trying to line-up, taking unwanted hits to your shield in the process. I get the feeling that the developers were kind of aware of this and so your health gauge is pretty large; able to withstand at least a dozen hits before you’re destroyed. But even with the occasional health powerup in game, Soulstar’s enemies seem to win out through sheer attrition more than anything else. Even the wiliest of players will be worn down by the horde eventually and Soulstar only gives you a set number of lives to beat the game. All things being said though Soulstar is not an overly difficult game and can be beaten with enough persistence, it’s just that the challenge doesn’t feel as well balanced as it could be.

The odd boss battle gets thrown in there for good measure of course and most them offer up a reasonably effective twist gameplay-wise. One of the earliest of such fights tasks you with destroying a giant drilling machine that you encounter during a rather tense chase through a crumbling tunnel. It’s surprisingly thrilling actually.

The 2 player mode makes the game much easier to handle.

The 2 player mode makes the game much easier to handle.

But one of the nicest bonuses in the gameplay department comes with the inclusion of a 2 player mode. Like in Core Design’s Mega CD game BC Racers, Soulstar allows two players to enjoy the game by splitting up the controls between them. In this case, the first player gets control over the ship’s movement and the second player control over the bulk of the ship’s weapons. Player 2 also controls the ratio of shields to engines (higher shields means you can take more hits, higher engines equals increased maneuverability), a function which is normally automated in the single player game. This means that both players need to communicate on what ratio is needed depending on what’s currently happening. Steadily approaching an asteroid field for instance? Player 1 needs to request additional engine power before collisions become a concern. It’s an ingenious system and one that I have not seen many examples of since the Mega CD.

Despite such innovation however the designers have managed to make another mistake here which hampers the gameplay and that concerns the difficulty level. The 2 player mode, as fun as it can be at times, is too damn difficult. It’s true that playing with two players does make the game slightly easier to manage but it’s nowhere easier enough to justify the developer’s rather unreasonable shift; enemies take a lot more damage to kill in this mode and when the bosses show up that can cause a real problem (mainly because these encounters have a tendency to drag on for way too long). And I don’t know if it’s just me but the “on-rail” sections seems like they are extended too, which further accelerates the rate of attrition by which the game seeks to outdo you.

The 360 degree levels often devolve into an exercise in frustration.

The 360 degree levels often become an exercise in frustration.

And that brings us to Soulstar’s single biggest problem; the controls. The Strike Craft levels are the easiest sections to get along with and are generally okay with regards to handling. The real trouble starts when you reach the 360 degree levels featuring the Turbo Copter which is a nightmare to keep under control compared to similar levels featuring the Strike Walker. This Turbo Copter can do a lot more with regards to movement but therein lies the problem; the control pad struggles to keep up with those options. The Turbo Copter strafes when pressing left or right and accelerates or brakes when pressing up and down respectively. To get the thing to turn or increase/decrease in height requires you hold down the c button before pressing the appropriate direction, as you can imagine this gets fiddly really fast. Anyone who has played Blast Corps with that godforsaken dump truck Backlash will understand the levels of pain I’m talking about…

And for some reason the developers thought it would be a nice idea to have the Turbo Copter constantly accelerate forwards… I simply cannot fathom what kind of idiot thought that would be a good idea. When fighting the bosses for these levels (encounters that, by their very nature, ask you to target a particular weak-spot), you’ll find yourself constantly reversing the craft to keep it at the correct distance. It’s really is horrible design. One boss for instance has a unpleasant tractor field that drags you towards it regardless of the direction you’re facing which is especially obnoxious in this regard.

What makes matters worse is that a lone player also needs to be in control of every weapon system which can quickly overwhelm you with commands in the heat of battle. I’ve not dared attempt to play Soulstar without Sega’s 6-button controller! In the single player game you will find yourself having to make uncomfortable adjustments with your hands (much like Sega’s 2004 game Gun Valkyrie) which is a sure sign that something has gone wrong with regards to usability. These kind of control problems were common before analog sticks became a standard inclusion for console joypads but man does it really show here.

An early prototype for an Atari Jaguar version exists as well as a Sega 32X rendition that would have been called Soulstar X.

An early prototype for an Atari Jaguar version exists as well as a Sega 32X rendition that would have been called Soulstar X.

Soulstar is the quintessential example then of how a bad control scheme can cripple an otherwise fine game. It’s such a shame because so many things here are impressive considering the year it was made. From the graphics, the music and just the whole spectacle, Core Design really set out to take advantage of the hardware at their disposal. It’s just a shame that the actual gameplay couldn’t capitalize on that as well as maybe it should have.

Core Design would prove themselves as very able developers when it came to the Mega CD and I’m sure there will be more forgiving enthusiasts than me that will be willing to consider Soulstar a real sleeper hit and an excellent game in spite of its flaws.

I still do have fondness for it though; you can tell that the developers really did put some effort in and for the most part it shows really nicely. This is one of the few titles for the Mega CD that really gives you a glimpse at what the console’s games should have been like.

And if that’s the only legacy that Soulstar leaves behind, I’ll be happy with that.