Starball reviewAugust 26, 2009
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.