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Starball review

August 26, 2009

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Dave oldcorn’s PD pinball game Starball, heavily influenced by Devil Crash/Devil’s Crush/Dragon’s Fury (depending on where you live and what system you own) skill-shot its way onto the Atari ST in 1994 courtesy of Volume 11. I came across it on an ST Format cover disk, and was very surprised at the quality of a game given away as a freebie.

This piece premieres a new style of review inspired by Kotaku’s device of highlighting a game’s pros and cons in an effort to simultaneously tell you my opinion of the game and allow you to draw your own conclusions too, while also being quick and easy to read. Without further ado, let’s get this show on the road.

Starball’s table is split into three sections: organic, space, and supernatural themed, all featuring enemies to destroy and targets to hit. There are all the usual things to expect from a pinball table: skill-shots, multipliers, bumpers, kickers etc. Certain actions must be completed in order to reach bonus stages. For example, successfully building the spaceship in the central section, and then hitting the launch ramp will take you to the Space Invaders bonus stage. You control each flipper with the corresponding shift key, and can pause the action with the space bar. As ever with pinball games, you are looking to increase your score at every opportunity, though the reward of seeing something new also pushes you forward. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons.

Oooh isn’t it lovely: The sprites and backgrounds in the game are superbly finished, giving the game a sense of style while ensuring everything is clearly visible and distinguishable. The intro features a trippy mod, and the in-game sound effects add to the atmosphere nicely. This gives the game a proffesional feel with visual and aural flair that surpasses many a commercial release.

This is pinball: One of the joys of pinball is learning a table; finding its nuances, its foibles and learning to exploit it for all its juicy points. Each area of the table has tasks to complete and hidden bits to unlock, and you will not want to stop playing until you’ve destroyed every minion, hit every hole and discovered every secret.

Star Control: Your control of the ball via the flippers is nice and precise, allowing you – with the right reflexes – to hit the intended targets. The inherent frustration at the randomness of pinball is somewhat abated by your ability to aim the ball accurately.

Homage me do: Some of the bonus levels are based on arcade classics, and hidden away quite well is a Jeff Minter pastiche (though I’m not sure it is entirely respectful), all of which were a joy to discover.

Lemon squeezy: There is a very low risk way to increase your multiplier, protect that multiplier (so that you do not lose it if you lose your ball), earn free balls, and get some juicy bonuses. By doing this each ball you cannot fail to score big. I’m not going to tell you how, because that will just spoil the game for you.

Lack of variation: Because of the above, games could theoretically go on forever, and the game’s one table with 3 areas and a handful of bonus levels isn’t enough to sustain interest over a game of titanic proportions.

Wonky ball physics: Not game breaking by any means, and you soon adapt. However, pinball games live and die by their physics engine, and the slightly off bounce and inertia of the ball could be better.

I know I’ve mentioned it twice already, but it really is worth me ramming it down your neck: Starball is a PD game. If I hadn’t told you that (and if it didn’t say so on the title screen – ‘not just your ho-hum everyday PD game’) you would have never guessed. It stands up well against the mostly shocking library of pinball games on the ST, and does not look out of place standing alongside the great Obsession.

Starball is a wonderful pinball game, its charms outweighing its flaws by some distance. You may lose interest when you reach the point of getting hundreds of millions of points each play, but getting to that point is going to be lots of fun.

Score:

Screenshots

Video

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9 comments

  1. Nice review! For a freebie, Starball is definitly out of the best quality. It also plays on any machine with 1MB and up. No TOS or hardware woes 🙂


  2. I was a young ST evangelist back when this came out. The ST was nearly dead and there weren’t many decent releases coming out when this was on the cover of ST Format, and it was such a quality release for the time. I was about 16, I put some money aside to register it, then tried to get other people to register as well, so that I could send the author a bit of money to encourage development. I was very naive 😉


  3. That’s not naive, Tom. The whole spirit of shareware on the ST was built on those sentiments exactly. Jeff Minter wrote an interesting piece on the state of the industry and why he released Llamatron as shareware. Apparently, he got a really generous response from the ST scene.


  4. I created the graphics for Starball back when I was at university – it’s certainly great to find people still playing the game 15 years later.

    We appreciated every donation that we received (but there weren’t very many of them – I think we got a couple of hundred registrations in the end)

    I think that Dave replied to many of the people who registered, but Tom if you didn’t get a reply originally then thanks for your donation.

    As I recall we actually started development of an Atari fighting game after Starball, but with so few registrations from the original game it was impossible to continue the work (we needed to eat!)

    Thanks
    – Andy.


    • Great to hear from you, Andrew! Congratulations on the top quality work on Starball. Undoubtedly, one of the games greatest appeals was its lovely visuals.

      It is disappointing to hear about the lack of funds you received for this top game. If your ST development ended there, were did you move on to? Amiga? or a console maybe? Are you still in the Video Game Industry?

      How far did you get with the fighting game? Does any of it still exist? This genre was quite under-represented on the ST, and it’s a shame it didn’t make the light of day. Any extra info would be gratefully received.

      Cheers,
      StickHead


      • After Starball I worked for Argonaut Technologies (the technology and hardware wing of the company that developed Starglider etc.) developing 3D graphics acceleration technology

        During this time Dave had been working to port the Starball code to the PC, and I left Argonaut to work with him to do some updates to the graphics so that the game could be sold. This version of the game was actually released commercially on a budget label. We then actually got a contract to develop a PC sequel, which was going to be a much larger scale game than the original (multiple full-size interconnected tables, each about as big as the whole original Starball table), but eventually that fell through. We did quite a lot of development work on this.

        These days I work for AMD, heading up their D3D graphics driver optimization team, so I guess I’m still indirectly associated with a lot of gaming software that people play… 🙂

        Regarding the ST fighting game we unfortunately never got beyond some early art development – it was clear by that point that there was no way that the proceeds from Starball registrations were going to fund any more work on it. I might still have some of the preliminary artwork lying around somewhere if I look for it.


  5. More bad news! Shame about the PC sequel, that would have been a blast. So many good projects fell by the wayside…

    It would be really interesting to see the preliminary artwork for the fighting game. Guardians Of The Past (an ST software preservation site) have a ‘software that wasn’t’ section, so I’m sure they would be interested to hear of this project, too.

    Good to hear that you’re still connected to the industry. I bet it was pretty exciting over at Argonaut back then. Was this around the time they were developing the Super FX chip?


    • With regards to the old artwork for the fighting game – if I find anything lying around (that I actually think might be worth preserving) I’ll consider forwarding it on.

      My work at Argonaut was actually after the Super FX chip development – there were a couple of other 3D acceleration projects after that that I worked on as well as some simulation work for the ARC processor core.

      As a side note – I just read back through the write-up above, and I guarantee that no disrespect was intended to Jeff Minter in the content of the hidden bonus screen. 🙂


  6. Like many of you, I got my copy of Starball from the british Atari Mag. It´s the only game I ever played (except for solitaire) and I got hooked immediately. Even sent my 5 pounds to the P.O.Box but they came back, nobody had come for them.
    Now if Starball could run on MacOSX, I´d gladly buy it. All the computer games I´ve seen bore the shxt out of me but this one was really fun!



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