It's hard not to like circus performers. Other than clowns (because they are obviously evil and from the bowels of hell itself), they're charming, colorful, entertaining and full of more action than your standard Saturday night on CBS. Starshot seems the same way when you begin playing -- he's got the look of a sherbet ice cream cone whipped into a frenzy, and his flips and tricks are more entertaining that most Circus of the Stars episodes, certainly. Take him out on a spin through some of the game's gigantic levels though, and you'll find out that Starshot is a polite, charming, but slightly dull host.
You play as Starshot (actually, all the characters in the game call him Starshort, despite the fact that the game is named after him, sans-r), a juggling performer in a failing circus company called, appropriately enough, the Space Circus. With a lot of luck, you'll be able to run through seven gigantic levels in order to help your boss get his circus back up to speed and pay off your debtors, who were kind enough to plant a talking bomb on your ship in case you don't pay back the money in time. Nice of them, isn't it? Starshot's an interesting hero to play, especially because he's actually the sidekick to Willfall, a tiny robot whose job it is to smooth over matters with the bank, and stop the machinations of Wolfgang von Ravel. You? You're the muscle, my friend. A little stringy, but good enough to do the job.
Starshot has the standard set of platform tricks at his disposal, namely the ability to run like he's on fire and jump better than most pouch-wearing marsupials. He fires/throws a set of energy balls from his hands, and can do multiple pounces to reach higher areas. If you hold down the fire button, you can control your shot, which in the end proves to be an interesting trick which doesn't get implemented all that much in the final product. Your robot pals WillFall and WillFly (a "tame" rocket) are constantly at your side during your adventures, and if you grab the right fuel you can even ride WillFly, one of the best tricks in the game.
If it sounds very much like the plot to your standard console platform game, that's because it is. Starshot's a port of an N64 game that is Infogrames entry into the PC platform field, and it still feels very much like it. Maybe it's just that Starshot is stuck between a rock and a hard place. For the most part, PC Gamers don't want PC games to feel like console games, and if so then they've got to be sly about it, like Shadowman. "What? Only four keys to play it with? Well, it was all a big accident actually. You are dead, right? What kind of console game has you playing the undead? Purely coincidental. And that part where it's coming out for the N64 at the same time."
Starshot, however, looks and plays like nearly every N64 and PlayStation platformer you've ever seen, but doesn't really capture enough of the subtleties to get the center ring on its own. That doesn't mean it isn't a fun ride, though. The game drips every level with a nice coating of Looney Tunes-inspired French design, from the bright colors to the cartoony look of the 3D villains and friends you encounter on your travels. There are an endless stream of characters that cross your path, and much more dialogue than you'd expect from your standard jump-and-run epic. Then again, the development team striven to make a hybrid, an action game with a little sprinkle of adventure on top to differentiate it from the hulking crowd of competitors on the N64, and help give it some PC credibility.
The game does look like a standard platformer -- and in most senses, it is -- but it plays a lot like an action-oriented adventure game, with a set of mini-missions that you must accomplish in order to finish a larger mission. Though your hero doesn't have an inventory system (how could he in that spandex suit?) he does subscribe to the "take object x to person y" school of thought, and you'll find yourself doing a lot more cross-hoofing than most action games. Most of the "puzzles" are just gimmicks to get you into new areas, and expound on the gloriously cartoonish plot. It's perfect, because the game rarely strays far enough from the action formula to become annoying.
Unfortunately, what action there is to be had isn't that exciting. On a keyboard the controls are wonky at best, and with a standard controller it was manageable, but still a bit hard to get used to. The game strives to imitate classics like Mario 64 layered with a little bit of Contra or Expendable, which means that most of your energy will be spent jumping and running from enemies, with a little bit of firing in between, but doesn't push into new territory with either genre.
The levels have a bright, clean look, but tend to focus on space rather than density -- sometimes it works, but other times it feels more like... well, an N64 game. With titles like Wheel of Time and Drakan showing off dense environments, it feels odd to run through levels that make you feel guilty for polygons. And you'll be doing a lot of running, since you spend a bit of time pressing a switch or wrangling an object in order to cart it to the other end of the level to solve a puzzle. The team wanted to have a free-flowing level structure instead of the standard focus, but for lazy gamers who want action action action, it feels more like running a marathon than getting from exciting point A to enthralling point B.
The game has a lot of inventive elements, but overall it just feels smaller than the system it's running on. Most of the fun revolves around the elaborate plot, which concerns talking bombs, evil circuses, bank debts, and a environments like a theme-park world dedicated to weaponry. It's fun to watch Starshot mumble through scenes like a giant tank salesman who seems more in place in Grim Fandango than Infogrames platform entry into the PC market, but get him moving and the fun quickly begins to fizzle. Unfortunately this isn't an adventure game, and it can't rely on plot alone. Hurling balls of energy at enemies, and back-flipping on Hippos stomach's is entertaining, but it's gets old quickly. Overall, Starshot has got to be the most fish-out-of-water game I've ever played, not really fitting in with the PC hardcore crowd, or the N64 platform arena. Poor Starshot will just have to do a bit more juggling if he's going to impress either camp.
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