This is the one hundred first entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

We’re heading to space with the next random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. It’s HellStar Squadron, by Cosmic Crystal Games, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

Embark on an adventure through space with the ferocious HELLSTAR SQU…

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the truncated word there is probably “squadron”.

HellStar Squadron is a shoot ’em up, a genre often affectionately referred to as “shmup”. It’s not the first to appear in this series, either. That honor belongs to Zenodyne R, and I spent some time introducing the genre when I wrote about that game; rather than repeat it all here, I’ll just direct curious readers there for a primer. Zenodyne R was specifically emulating shmups from the Sega Genesis (AKA Mega Drive) console, going so far as to feature an original soundtrack composed for that system’s YM2612 sound chip. HellStar Squadron is also retro-styled, but with a less specific inspiration. Its pixel art and chiptune music recall an even earlier generation of games, in fact, but both also feature modern touches that make it look and sound slick, too. It’s also much more welcoming to new players.

As I discussed when writing about Zenodyne R, shmups became a niche genre after their heyday in arcades in the 1980s and 1990s, tending to cater towards hardcore players by embracing stiff challenge. Zenodyne R is very much in that tradition, but HellStar Squadron is more gentle, which I found refreshing. It still falls within the “bullet hell” subgenre, which puts great emphasis on piloting one’s ship through screen-filling patterns of enemy bullets, but it does so without the blistering fast pace of Zenodyne R, giving players more time to react. The player’s ship can be destroyed by a single hit, but extra lives are much easier to obtain, appearing fairly often amongst the other powerups that sometimes drift down the screen. Interestingly, one’s remaining lives are depicted as hearts across the top of the screen, and players cannot have more than three at one time, so they behave more like health than lives, even though the ship visibly explodes and any weapon powerups are reset after taking a hit. There’s also a shield powerup that can protect against a single hit, further increasing survival rates, and as far as I can tell players can use an unlimited number of continues to pick up where they left off after losing their last life. On the default “normal” difficulty setting, I managed to finish the game’s eight stages having used two continues, but those seeking more challenge can try the two higher difficulty settings too.

HellStar Squadron uses a limited color palette, which makes it less visually vibrant than many entries in the genre. Enemy ships are uniformly red, distinguished from each other only by size and shape, and they all fire red bullets. There are far fewer fiery explosions than might be expected, with destroyed ships breaking up into a few bits of metal scrap instead. The player can pick from three ships, each with its own color, and each stage has a characteristic background color too (with the possible exception of the second stage, which has a colorful landscape backdrop that ironically distracts too much from the action). Backgrounds quickly repeat as they scroll past, with no attempt to integrate the scenery into the shooting, and there are never any walls that hem in movement as there are in some more complicated shmups. In that sense, HellStar Squadron is a more pure affair, just the player against the enemy ships, and most stages are on the short side. The emphasis is clearly on the boss battles at the end of each stage — in fact, the bosses show up at the start of their respective stages to taunt the player in a brief dialogue sequence, and resume their banter at the end before beginning their duel with the player. Most shmups are pretty light on story, but these exchanges are fun enough, and add some context to the battles.

Unfortunately, the three different playable characters all share the same dialog, so there’s no extra flavor when playing again with a different pilot. In fact, their ships don’t handle that differently either. They all possess a focused beam weapon which is functionally identical, doing a lot of damage to anything directly in front of the ship but slowing the ship’s movement while firing. The beam also takes a little time to reach the top of the screen, so rapid bursts of beam fire are not possible. The beam is a secondary weapon, and each ship’s primary weapon (which can be powered up during play) is technically different, but doesn’t change the overall combat strategy much. The Azure ship fires its wave guns with a very slight spread, while its orbiting turrets fire bullets of their own straight ahead. The Citrine ship’s forward-mounted laser cannons and orbiting missile launchers end up feeling nearly identical. The Emerald ship is a bit different, with a bigger spread on its burst fire gun and orbiting sentries that fire sideways. This felt weak at first, but could be very useful after a few powerups, letting it hit more enemies at once.

Most of the time, however, I was using the beam, since it’s stronger than the base primary weapon, and I wasn’t always able to keep my primary weapon powered up. The beam is also a great choice for bosses, since it does high damage and slows the ship to make intricate dodge maneuvers easier. Since every ship can use the beam, the choice between them isn’t that important. Just use whichever ship looks cool, or whichever color you like best.

And while the limited colors looked odd at first, they grew on me. HellStar Squadron doesn’t use the rapidly flashing sprites of Zenodyne R or Bleed 2, so its colored bullets move smoothly around the screen in a way that feels very modern (and looks good in screenshots). The dinstinct colors make the bullet patterns easy to parse too, and I felt in control most of the time, clear on where I needed to move to escape death. If I died, I felt responsible, rather than blaming the game for an unfair challenge. There are limited use bombs too, which not only clear out enemy ships and bullets, but also do a big chunk of damage to bosses. Challenge seekers will likely try to defeat bosses without bombs, but I was happy for the opportunity to shorten the onslaught when necessary.

Overall, I found HellStar Squadron to be a nice introductory shmup. I finished its eight stages (and two bonus stages) in a single sitting, but the higher difficulty settings should offer more challenge, and there are some nice options available for genre fans, including a “TATE” mode that lets players use their monitors in portrait mode to match the vertical scrolling action, and an unlockable boss rush mode. I liked the chiptune music a lot too. It sounds like music from 8-bit console systems, but a bit more advanced. In places, I’m pretty sure it uses more modern synthesized percussion to add some drive to some tracks, but I also heard plenty of the “noise” channel which often doubled for drums in early games. There may also be more voices than actual 8-bit sound chips could muster. It sounds great, though, and is a nice accompaniment to the action. My only complaint is that, for some reason, the music is absent in the boss rush mode.

If you fancy jumping into a spaceship bristling with overpowered weaponry and blasting some space-borne demon worshippers, by all means give HellStar Squadron a try. It’s shorter and simpler than many shmups, but that also means it’s more welcoming to players who aren’t hardened shmup veterans. And it looks, sounds, and feels pretty nice too. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $1.99.

That’s 101 down, and only 1640 to go!