Thursday, December 16, 2021


After a few seconds, the name floods the screen in a dazzling array of colors

Time:2 hours

Sinistar had an interesting introduction. One of the games I had as FPS for 1987 seemed really questionable, so I decided to put it back in 1987, and instead went for some random 1982 game. Rejected a couple of titles, but then I got to Sinistar. Ah, cool, that's a beloved title, I think to myself. It has an Atari 5200 port I have down, but I'll play the arcade original too. I do my usual research, and discover that the 5200 port is actually from the year 2010. Which gives me some pause.

Now, I realize that I tend to not give credit to early games and their use of sound, since I deal more in home ports than fancy arcade machines. This tends to limit the impact of sound, since the impressive nature of such things tends to be more using limited amounts of space. Sinistar has some fancy voice samples, and apparently its the first to have them in stereo. The home ports being seemingly unlicensed homebrew stuff is significantly more interesting.

Before playing
There's the usual excuse story, but the overall objective of the game is to destroy Sinistar, a giant talking ship. To do this one has to mine (shoot) crystals out of asteroids. (called planetoids, but at this size?) In your favor is that each level Sinistar needs to be built by worker ships. Against you are other ships called warriors which shoot at you. Completing all this is collision, because unlike other games which are content to autokill you if you touch something, this just bounces you. Off asteroids, other ships, everything that isn't a shot or Sinistar.
A less chaotic scene

Playing it, it is frantic, utterly mad chaos. The controls are unusual. Turning doesn't quite work in the way you expect it to and you have momentum. I had to break out my joystick for this, playing it with a keyboard just wasn't ideal. Even so, this game doesn't feel precise. The ship you're flying is not precise, it is very loose. These physics seem universal, since if you look at the enemy ships, the workers and the warriors both move very awkwardly, even as they try to complete their own objectives.

Sinistar, slowly getting built
The workers are actually building Sinistar in real time, and your actions effect how they build him. Mine some crystals and if you don't get them quickly enough, the workers steal it and use it to build Sinistar. They're mining crystals of their own, and you can disrupt this process if you're smart. But more likely than not, Sinistar is going to get built, shout off his characteristic "I LIVE" and kill you. You don't have any say in this, at least in the beginning.

A relatively safe scene

There are two phases to each stage of this game, the first is when you are fighting these unending hordes of ships, trying to survive and maybe mine crystals, and the second stage, when Sinistar starts hunting you down. You need at least 13 crystals to take out Sinistar, as these create a special missile attack that homes in on Sinistar, but they can be intercepted by other ships. If you don't have enough, you better hope you get lucky and get some before you see Sinistar appear on your minimap.

I am basically already dead here
See, when Sinistar is built, the game changes from a frantic space shooter to run away from the big scary monster. The voice samples absolutely sell Sinistar. Its something about games like this, when you hear voice samples in a game that you don't expect to have voices in them, the effect is usually unsettling. Combined that with Sinistar's impressive speed and that his touching you is instant death, you have a tricky boss fight. Its the closest we've had to a survival horror game chronologically.

I am dead here, and my remaining lives are just jokes
Now the big problem with this game, and also why its good, is that once Sinistar comes out you need to focus on him. Because he'll make short work of you if you don't. You are screwed if you need more crystals. When he says RUN, you run. You can avoid him through clever movement for a while, but mining crystals, dodging enemies and Sinistar is a lot of tasks to divide your attention among, and usually Sinistar wins. I never beat Sinistar if I haven't gotten enough by that point. Lives don't really matter at that point, because Sinistar crosses the distance surprisingly fast.

The screen goes all crazy whenever you kill Sinistar
Given enough time, its not that difficult to figure out how to kill Sinistar once. You get used to the movement, defeating workers and warriors. But then you get to the second zone, of which there are five, then it loops starting from the second. Each zone after the first has two differences, an increase in a certain aspect of the game (or decrease in the final zone) and Sinistar can be repaired. I did not handle the second zone, which had more workers, very well. It wasn't so much the repairing, as it was the sheer number of targets on-screen.

The Atari 5200 version is interesting, and by interesting I mean wildly inferior. The only plus are difficulty settings. It controls worse, perhaps owing to the less precise nature of the 5200's joystick. The asteroids give out crystals much slower and yet I somehow managed to get 13 of them one game. The whole area is massively smaller. Sinistar himself turns from a menacing figure to being silent and underwhelming. Its just not worth it.

Fairly standard weapons. 1/10

Sinistar is something special. 2/10


Perhaps there's something different in the remaining levels, but the two I played really felt like random rocks were placed upon it. I guess there was some logic to it, but it didn't seem that important. 1/10

Player Agency:
Its not the smoothest thing I've played, but after some time with it, it works. It could be a lot worse. It didn't ever feel like I was turning my ship quite right, which I guess is up to par with my usual realistic spaceship experience. 4/10

I guess you shoot the asteroids, but that's a stretch. 1/10

The game conveys a hopeless fight very well. Sinistar will always return, his followers, assuming they are followers and not robots, will always rebuild him. You will eventually falter and lose in this fight, while Sinistar will come back. 6/10

High quality for the era. Its not that special now, but it still looks nice. 3/10

A token effort.

Typical stuff except for Sinistar's taunting. Even though its low quality there's something just more effective about the voice bytes. 2/10

That's 20. Interesting, that's now the highest rated game until 1986. While on his own, Sinistar isn't that impressive, the whole audio-visual package surrounding him is. Its something that we may miss living here in an era where there's no reason for a game not to have voice acting.

There is one sequel, made in 1999, so its entirely possible I'll never reach it. Considering how frantic this was in 2D, I shudder to think how crazy it would be in 3D.

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