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Review: Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha – Great Games Shamed By Horrendous Input Lag

At face value, Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha is an excellent proposition – a collection of some of the most beloved shmups and arguably the best titles Psikyo ever produced. At the humble price of $39.99, the new owner of the Psikyo properties, City Connection, is offering four must own shmup titles and two solid STG at an average price of $6.67 each.

Again, at first glance, Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha looks like an irresistible proposition; many of these games had full-price releases back on the PS1 and Sega Saturn, after all. What is more, getting these same games on these consoles right now, especially with how hot the collecting markets for the two systems has become, is going to be significantly more expensive than this entire collection. So what is not to love, right? The price point is just too good to resist, so we can pretty much end the review here then…

Alas, if only the situation were that simple. This is going to be a controversial review because this collection cuts right between two opposing demographics of the genre: the casual pick-up-and-play crowd looking for a relaxing way to spend a few minutes versus the dedicated, prepared to burn hundreds of hours to master a single game, hardcore scene. Each demographic has their own needs and wants, of course, but this time around one camp is going to be left out in the cold.

Before we cross that bridge, let us have a look at the games themselves. The six titles on offer in this collection are Strikers 1945, Strikers 1945 II, Strikers 1945 III, Dragon Blaze, Sol Divide, and Zero Gunner 2. Of these games, the first four – in this reviewer’s opinion – are stone-cold classics. Every shmup fan at some point in his or her life should play these games and be both awed and terrified by the brutal, relentless action. Sitting somewhere between a classic shmup, like Capcom’s 19XX games, and a bullet-hell, like Raizing’s Battle Garegga, the Strikers series somehow manages to maintain a straight-forward appeal for old-school fans while also placing an impressive amount of bullets on-screen.

Of the three games, Strikers 1945 II tends to get the nod from Psikyo fans as the best due to its carefully refined systems overall. In comparison to the first entry, Strikers II includes more generous invincibility frames, a bigger bomb count, and more thoughtfully-distributed suicide bullets. In comparison to Strikers III, II also has a stronger balance between the ship types. With that being said though, the other two titles are absolutely worthwhile in their own rights as well – especially the third one, which has a unique gameplay feel and setting compared to the other two.

Next is Dragon Blaze, an under-rated shmup to be sure. After playing the game, Dragon Blaze can be described as Psikyo’s answer to CAVE and danmaku. The bullet speed is turned down, the bullet density is turned up, and there is now a fantastic creature the character rides on (like the beetle of Mushihimesama). Even the colour of the enemy attacks has been swapped to pink. Perhaps it is our inner CAVE fan speaking, but we love this game as well.

The last two games of the collection, Sol Divide and Zero Gunner 2, are more experimental and eccentric additions. In Sol Divide, we get the impression that Psikyo was interested in trying to create a fusion between a Golden Axe-style beat em’ up and a horizontal shooter. The result is mixed, and nowhere near the quality of a game like Golden Axe, but it is still a cool concept and an enjoyable addition.

Finally, there is Zero Gunner 2, which is also a solid but not top-tier shmup. What’s interesting to note about Zero Gunner 2 is that it utilizes 360-degree rotation of the player’s helicopter. like many twin-stick shooters. However, instead of mapping the rotation to a second analogue stick, turning the chopper can be handled with a button press and movement combination.

With all this said then, as alluded to before, the selection, price, or quality of games is not up for dispute. For any shmup fan – or even the casual player interested in shmups – the games themselves in this collection are absolutely worthwhile and worth owning. However, the job of a reviewer is to dig deeper than just the listed features and advertised price. How these games function and are delivered to the player is critical to recognize. It’s important to keep in mind that, when we review a collection of previously released arcade games, like Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha, we are not just evaluating the quality of the games themselves, but the quality of how these games are ported to the Nintendo Switch.

It is on this note where the review gets ugly. The first thing that needs to be pointed out, right away, is the fact that this release is identical to the previously-released Psikyo ZeroDiv ports on the Switch. City Connection has not made a single change to any of these previously ported games. It was our hope that City Connection might have taken this opportunity to make some sorely-needed changes to these ports (which will be explained shortly), but alas, they did nothing more than to group the ZeroDiv releases together with a new title screen. Therefore, if you already own the ZeroDiv releases of these games, there is no reason whatsoever to buy this collection. Nothing has been improved or altered, even the background art is identical. Still though, for the people who have not already purchased these games on the Nintendo Switch, this must be a recommended buy, right? Here’s where things get dicey.

Despite all the positives that have been noted about the games themselves, this collection by City Connection is very difficult to recommend due to how severe the input lag issue is with these ports. As mentioned in the previous Darius Cozmic Collection review, the average delay of shmups on the Nintendo Switch (in ideal conditions) is four frames. For shmups as a genre, four frames is a lot of input lag to suffer under and that number is essentially on the knife’s edge of long-term playability.

Some notoriously laggy shmups, like Battle Garegga, are within that range of delay. In the case of Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha, however, four frames looks like an ideal compared to the absurd seven frames of delay these games are being crushed under. In a 60fps game, each frame of delay equals 16.67 ms. This means that, in total, these games are taking 116.69 ms to respond to input. That is a lot of time for a reactionary genre like shmups and especially for Psikyo games, which are well-known for their blistering bullet speeds.

The argument could be made that the lag doesn’t matter, that the player can simply learn to adapt to the lag and remember to start pressing buttons earlier. This is not impossible in some games, like Super Mario Bros., where the player has plenty of time to react to what’s happening on screen and the sequence of events is locked-in and predictable. In the case of shooting games, and especially Psikyo, that lost response time impacts your ability to correctly control the ship and navigate the gameplay. Not only are actions like panic bombs (bombing right before getting hit) going to become less reliable, but the basic movement of the ship is going to feel slippery and imprecise. A delay on a shot does not matter that much, but a delay on both movement presses and movement releases is going to completely throw off well-practised timings and hand movements.

Imagine a concert pianist has to play a song, but moments before getting on stage he learns that the piano he is playing on has an extra delay between the keys and the strings, so he’ll need to press and release every key 116.69 ms earlier than he had been rehearsing for months. That is what it feels like to play these games with such high input lag.

Finally, compounding upon the issue of the high lag, these ports lack any accessibility features at all. There is not so much as a basic stage select mode to give the player a chance to try to learn. This means that, if you are interested in investing time in these games, not only will you have to suffer under horrific levels of input lag, you will also need to replay the game over and over again needlessly to hone in any late-stage practice. We shudder at the thought of someone trying to learn and clear both loops of Strikers 1945 II on Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha.

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