I first fell in love with The Red Star six years ago. At that time this arcade-style shooter/brawler was one of Acclaim's most promising games. Unfortunately, Acclaim filed for bankruptcy mere months after showing the game for the first time at E3. For three long years The Red Star sat on the shelf. In 2007 the game was picked up by XS Games and released on the PlayStation 2. Despite receiving rave reviews, this action game failed to win over a huge audience. But I didn't care. I was just happy to be able to play this long-overdue game to my heart's content in the comfort of my own home.
For the last three years I have spent a lot of time and effort talking about The Red Star, trying to get my friends to embrace this over-the-top throwback to classic titles like Contra and Final Fight. But alas, I've had very little luck. Perhaps it's the fact that the game came out at a time when gamers decidedly moved over to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, or perhaps my friends are just losers. Either way, selling people on an old-school shooter in 2007 was uphill battle.
But just as I was about to give up hope, XS Games did an incredibly smart thing. Instead of just letting this game die (making me the game's only fan), they decided to re-release it as a full-on port to the Sony PlayStation Portable. And best of all, they chose to make it available for download and, most importantly, gave it a nice and cheap price point. For a mere $15 my friends can finally play this must-own arcade shooter/brawler on a handheld they still own and take with them. And even though the screen is smaller and the PSP has fewer buttons, this handheld port is every bit as good as the PlayStation 2 title I loved so much.
Based on a popular graphic novel, The Red Star takes place in an alternate reality Soviet Russia (the USSR). It's a future where technology and magic live side by side, which makes the game sound like a Communist retelling of Shadowrun. Comparisons aside, The Red Star takes place in a version of Russia that appears to be bombed out, on fire and full of death-bringing machines and soldiers. This downbeat backdrop sets a perfect atmosphere for a game that is about nothing more than shooting soldiers and beating up robots. There's a story in the game, but it doesn't get in the way of you running around, dodging bullets and using hand to hand combat to get up close and personal.
You play one of three characters (two playable from the start, one you earn after beating the campaign mode), each with their own pros and cons. Right from the get-go the game makes you feel like you just put a quarter into a classic arcade machine. Even if the game is using 3D polygons instead of traditional sprites, the action is on par with the arcade cabinets I grew up playing in the 1980s and 90s.
The gameplay is simple; you can either shoot or punch. The Red Star maps the "O" button for long-range machine gun attacks and the "Square" Button for close-range combat. While that seems so basic, there aren't that many games that successfully merge the Streets of Rage-style beat-em-up with the bullet-hell Contra gameplay we played back on the NES. It's not an either/or situation, there are plenty of enemies that will require you to use your melee attacks to weaken them and your bullets to put them out of their misery. This mixture is the perfect way to spice up two old school genres that many gamers have all but written off.
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