Blazing Star is a sidescrolling shmup that was released over a year after the hardware of the NEO GEO was discontinued, which is not as uncommon as you might think. Several developers continued to create games upwards of five years after the final system was manufactured, and SNK certainly had no problem continuing to peddle titles as long as they sold. The sequel to Pulstar, Blazing Star had a bananas plot about intergalactic enslavement that had nothing to do with the original (which was focused on war between Earth and Mars). But, as was the case with many NEO GEO games, it wasn’t the setting: it was the execution.
This installment of NEO GEO games on the Switch reminds me that, no matter what the packaging, an emulated game is ultimately as good as the core design, not how well it emulates. I’ve hashed out the shortcomings of the NEO GEO roms several times over, so revisiting things isn’t necessary and, frankly, isn’t needed here. A horizontal shooter already plays a lot better with the fixed perspective, and there’s no need for player two. The arcade board for Blazing Star is absolutely FULL compared to the other games that I’ve encountered: players are actively vying for top spots in both high score and caravan mode. Perhaps because it is a newer title in regards to NEO GEO history, the fanbase is still relatively active and, especially in Japan, a good shmup never dies, it just gets moved to a smoky, windowless arcade.
The game itself looks and plays fantastically despite being nearly twenty years old. You’re in the cockpit of a spaceship, things are flying at you, shoot them till they explode. Mashing the fire button as fast as possible is the only way to achieve proper bullet density. Holding down the button starts charging up for a larger attack which, depending on your ship, is either very close range and strong or far range and middling. Blazing Star offers a selection of ships right from the get-go to give the discerning player a variety of ways to blow the ever-loving hell out of waves of spaceships.
Graphically, I’m also astounded by how well Blazing Star presents itself. Though there hasn’t been any massive evolution in shmups for some time now, it’s clear that this is a well crafted, beautifully designed game that must have had jaws gaping when it first appeared in arcades and on televisions. The colors and ships pop in stark contrast, and each level has a coordination that allows for a memorable interaction regardless of skill. I often revisit Ikaruga in my free time, not because of how pretty it is, but because of how well it’s designed. Blazing Star has that same kind of celebrity quality to it. It’s fluid and enjoyable to sit down and jump into the fight without much preamble.
The game is as unforgiving as you may expect. Destroying chains of enemies cause items to appear, from power ups and point tokens to the ever important LUCKY charms. Getting all five letters unlocks a huge point bonus at the end of the level, but it’s pretty paltry to try and grab when you’re desperately dodging for your life. Fans of classic bullet hell games such as Mushihimesama might find the density of projectiles too easy in comparison, but new players and average enthusiasts will find Blazing Star teetering on the cusp of unfair. It only really becomes troublesome later on, when losing a ship means having your power ups stripped away and dropping you back into the fray with only a second of invincibility. The moral of the story is simply not to get shot; handy, right?
Blazing Star is probably also best known for the mocking commentary the game provides as you play, and all of that is still quite intact. Giant words flash across the screen telling you to pick up any/all items that appear, which is helpful if you’ve never played a video game in your life. It does warn you when a boss is about to appear, so I guess that serves a purpose to some extent. But when you lose a ship, the phrase “ARE YOU SERIOUS?” isn’t the most encouraging message I’ve ever received. As far as I can tell, the popular game over message “YOU FAIL IT” has been removed, or I just haven’t failed hard enough to get a semi-meme to appear over my game. Either way, it’s tacky and fun in the same swing.
Fans of the genre should definitely pick this up: the Switch version of Blazing Stars is heads better than the iOS version that dropped some time ago, and it’s both the best modern way to enjoy the game on the go and at home. If you are a lucky owner of the original game and a working system, please continue to enjoy the classic version, as the nostalgia factor remains important in preserving what made Blazing Stars so amazing in the first place. Either way, I gotta strap back into the cockpit and destroy some things, and, yes, I am serious.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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