(Full Disclosure: A review copy Steam key was provided by Super16bits. All opinions are my own.)
As big as independent games have become over the last 15 years, there are many, many games that get lost in the sea of titles. Some of these titles are put out by very small studios, many of which are even one-person operations. Today’s game is from one such small studio. Sakura Stars is a bullet hell shooter from Super16bits, and it’s something shoot ’em up fans may want to look into.
PROS: Bright, colorful characters. Tight controls.
CONS: Some gameplay imbalances. Minor hitches.
CLASSICAL: Hopefully you like classical music because the OST entirely made up of it.
When a demonic threat arises, a team of three appears to fight the menace. After a brief introductory paragraph, you’re greeted with the title screen. Sakura Stars is a shooter that allows you to choose between two girls and a raccoon. Each of the characters has their own attributes. It hearkens back to some of the classics of old in this regard. Games like TRUXTON, UN Squadron, or Strikers 1945.
One of the girls can shoot a single shot. The second girl can shoot a double shot. The raccoon can fire a handy spread shot. And while the first two characters give you two lives, only the raccoon will give you three. Honestly, if you’re new or lapsed to the genre you’ll really want to start with the raccoon.
The game is relatively short, only going on for four stages. But don’t let the short-run dissuade you from considering this one because Sakura Stars is tough. There are no continues, nor are there any 1-Ups. At least none that I found in my time with it. And when I say this is a bullet hell shooter I mean it. There are bullets everywhere. Each enemy type will fire anywhere from one to ten bullets in a myriad of patterns. Destroying enemies will often create another ten bullets in the explosion. If you were hoping for an 8-bit era horizontal Giga Wing with anime influences you’re in luck.
At the end of each stage, is a boss encounter. These are anime-inspired demon girls who do insane bullet hell attacks. Much like the rest of the game it’s going to be a war of pattern memorization as you try to avoid getting hit while doling out enough damage to defeat the bosses. All in all, it’s easy to describe the core concept. But it’s also going to take you many, many attempts to get anywhere close to beating the game.
The game gets a lot of things right. I loved that it had a fairly memorable regular enemy or two. Flying space eyeballs with optic nerves flailing around and flying tengu faces are prevalent and have several different flying patterns. Sometimes they’ll come in horizontal rows, other times vertical. Sometimes they’ll zig-zag about. Early on, the eyes don’t shoot at you at all, but by the second stage you can expect a volley of bullets flying at you.
I liked the rather large sprites of the playable characters and their different firing mechanisms. But there were a couple of small things that I felt could have been done differently or improved. First of all, while the large character sprites are nice, it’s going to take you several deaths and restarts before you realize that their hitboxes are actually quite smaller than the characters themselves. You really have to navigate the characters’ eyes. If their eyes or the small circumference of pixels around them get hit, you’ll die. But hands? Feet? Hair? Bullets pass right through them.
Once you get used to that, it becomes a much more manageable game. But that still doesn’t mean it will be easy. It’s still a pretty challenging if short game. Maybe not to the degree of the hardest Toaplan, Treasure, or Cave shooter, but still pretty challenging for what you’re given. Keep in mind you’re not going to see the crazy options, multiple power shots or other items you’ll get in those major names of yesteryear. That’s another reason why this one is such a trial. The other thing that seemed a little off to me though is really the balance between the first two stages. After dying a ton, you’ll begin to realize you can breeze through the first level without firing a single shot. As I said earlier, the eyeballs don’t fire at you at all, and the Tengu faces’ shot patterns can be navigated. Plus you avoid a ton of bullets by not killing anything. Because killing things creates more bullets. You still have to kill the boss to progress however.
But all of that goes out the window in the second stage as everything does fire at you and the challenge makes a large jump rather than an incremental one. It could have perhaps helped players get a better handle on the game’s rules had it been a little different. Be that as it may, I still enjoyed my time with the game. I could nitpick about the bosses’ minimal animations or the game playing chiptune renditions of classical music as it doesn’t seem to fit with the look of the rest of the game to me. But that’s exactly that: nitpicking.
There is one thing I wish the game had though, and that’s a deeper options menu. You can’t really change the volume at all. It would have been nice to have music volume, effects volume, or overall volume settings. Especially if you want to play the game on stream. As is, you’ll need to figure out the volume in your own PC settings or streaming software if you do stream. There’s also nowhere to remap buttons. Though it is nice you can use an Xbox 360 or Xbox One controller without a problem. I was actually able to use my Horipad for my Nintendo Switch without any issues.
In conclusion, Sakura Stars is a solid effort from a studio that has only one previous game on Steam. Hopefully, a fleshed-out sequel or future project can iron out some of the minor issues I had with the game because overall it’s a fun, challenging bullet hell shooter. If you’re looking for something a little bit different or something small to play between some other games you may just want to give this one a look.
Final Score: 8 out of 10.