Before we get into that, look at the similarities that tie the three heroes together. Regardless of whom you choose, the path remains the same: 19 levels of waved assault from the gazillion-strong opposition. Besides moving about shooting wildly, the gun has two aimed attacks: one is lock-on, good for maneuvering around and bullet molesting a single target, while the other has you revolving around fixed in your spot, best reserved for Dawn of the Deadish situations. And when your personal space gets violated, melee attacks and combos are at your disposal.
At this moment, I am on my seventh playthrough of The Red Star.
Or you can choose to block. You’re invulnerable from all sides, but every second in this position and every bullet and punch deflected forces the shield meter to kick up considerably. Initially, the shield feels slow and cumbersome, but shielding isn’t a twitch move like in other shooters. Enemies move in predictable patterns and only have one or two attacks, each with individual brief windows for counterattack. While this sounds terrible, try keeping track of all this when a dozen robots are attacking at different times in different ways. The shield system becomes a subtle trick: The Red Star conditions you to recognize you’re about to be overwhelmed, premeditating when to curl up and wait for the time to return fire. It integrates the shield as part of your attack plan, rather than as an emergency period of grace. While both designs have their merits, this one is suited to The Red Star’s meticulous action.
During bosses, the camera zooms way out and turns into a manic shooter, going into full-on bullet hell mode with sheets of neon spheres pumping out of mechanical monsters. The presence of a life bar is two-edged since most shooters employ the one-hit-and-you’re-out methodology. Arguably, life makes players lazy, shuffling through these grandiose firefights rather than learning and weaving the bullet patterns. Yet, also arguably, life stunts the frustration of getting a game over after thinking your character’s hit box was two pixels tinier than it actually was. Knowing that you can withstand a few hits, good developers will become inclined to go more overboard when dreaming up ways to decimate you. And it’s done here; the later bullet formations and boss designs rival the best any country has ever done. So there you have it. The Red Star: it’s the combat of Gauntlet, the run-and-gun of Contra, and the ornery robots tossing shit at you of Ikaruga, all in one. And you didn’t even need to hit up the pirate carts kiosk at the mall.
At this moment, I am on my seventh playthrough of The Red Star and as much as I love action games, I almost never look at them again after seeing the credits roll the first time. And also consider that this game is long. The walloping number of stages (19) is the game’s only fault, and while new enemies are continually introduced (even on 18), some levels feel tacked on only to address the stupid complaint in every mainstream review that shooters are too short.
And it’s the characters that keep The Red Star perpetually fun. Kyuzo the brute is as slow as a trackless Soviet tank, but his ability to kabob a guy and toss him back into an oncoming enemy group never fails to satisfy. Makita is the spry character, but without making the levels feel rushed or the character weak. And Maya is a challenge: she’s almost entirely projectile-based but is the only with that can heal. Every time I think I got “my” character pegged down and I’m done for good, I switch to another and the argument for that one comes back. And The Red Star, once nearly dead and forgotten, wills itself back into existence. Makes you relieved publishers pay in advance.