The first time I knew anything about Super Stardust was when my subscriber’s copy of Amiga Power plopped on my doormat. The monthly cover disk had a playable demo of the tunnel sequence and on booting it up, my jaw hit the floor.
From a technical perspective, that demo was stunning. The Amiga’s graphics always had a way of wowing people, but this was something totally different. Full, fast 3D on an Amiga? With a thumping techno soundtrack? What’s not to like? On the basis of this, Super Stardust was going to be simply awesome.
Predictably, when the reviews came in, the scores were in the high 80s/low 90s. The reviews only heightened my sense of anticipation and I ordered the game. When it finally arrived, I booted it up eagerly and began to play.
First impressions confirmed that early “wow” factor. As all the reviews had commented the graphics and sound were incredible. The metallic glint of rocks as they flew past, the stunning planetary or space station backdrops, the adrenalin-fuelled soundtrack all made for a visual and aural feast. The tunnel sequence that had formed the basis of that Amiga Power demo was there as a bonus stage and was as fast and impressive as ever.
And yet I always felt a little let down by Super Stardust. I know that this puts me in minority since many Amiga users still consider the game a classic, but I never felt that the game lived up to the hype or the presentation.
Dig into the actual gameplay and it was nothing more than an update of 70s shooter Asteroids given a mega dose of cosmetic surgery. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – Asteroids was (and still is) a firm favourite, and there were enough updates to the gameplay to justify its existence (different coloured rocks took different numbers of hits to destroy, power-ups for more powerful weapons etc.). Yet the game never gripped me in the way I hoped or expected. To me it always felt like a tech demo waiting for a game; or perhaps more fairly, a tech demo where a 20 year old game had been tacked on as an afterthought.
It didn’t help that the game was rock hard (if you’ll pardon the rather obvious pun). Super Stardust started off tough and got harder with every level. Death came very easily and you needed the reactions of a rattlesnake on speed to stand even a chance. My (lack of) prowess as a gamer is well-documented throughout this blog and so there were many times when Super Stardust simply became an exercise in frustration where I got to look at my spaceship exploding many, many times.
You’ll find lots of other reviews (both now and at the time) that agree that Super Stardust is a tough game, but argue that if you practice and practice, then eventually you’ll come good. There is a degree of truth in that and, despite my feelings of disappointment with the game, I did sink hours and hours into it because I desperately wanted to like it. Whilst the practice made me a little better, I still seriously struggled to get very far and all too frequently gaming sessions ended with me throwing down my joystick in disgust.
For all that Super Stardust looked and sounded incredible, I found the gameplay frustrating, rather than fun. It always felt like a grind to make any real progress when it should have been a pleasure. I’ve gone back to the game several times since and I still feel the same. I really, really want to like it, but the game just makes that so hard to do.
If you’re an above average gamer, Super Stardust is an incredible update of Asteroids. However, if you’re an average/below average player, you are going to have to put in a huge amount of effort and practice to get anywhere beyond the first few levels. If you do manage to make progress or get high scores, there’s no doubt it’s a rewarding experience. Personally, I’ve always found it much too tough to deliver on the fun promised by that that initial Amiga Power demo. Indeed, it wasn’t unknown for me to ignore the main game and just boot up the AP demo disk because it was actually more enjoyable (if rather shorter!)
As I said earlier, I know that I’m in a minority in this one, and the review might not make me popular amongst Amiga gaming enthusiasts, but I have to call it as I see it. I know that my view is partly down to my lack of gaming abilities, but Super Stardust makes no attempt to meet you halfway.
Personally, I just can’t endorse it was one of the Amiga’s best games. One of its best looking and best sounding games: yes; but as we retrogaming enthusiasts know, good graphics and sound don’t necessarily make a good game.