PlayStation 3 Is Good For Something: Blasting Asteroids In ‘Super Stardust HD’

'Asteroids' descendent from PS3's downloadable-games network is reviewing well and garnering a growing user base.

It’s a problem only the fortunate would complain about, but what is the remedy for the unease that comes from spending several hundred dollars on a video game machine that’s been smothered with bad press? One solution might be to wait for the first blockbuster game to emerge on the new system. Last week, a contender emerged: a highly advanced descendent of “Asteroids.”

Dropping down onto the PlayStation 3′s downloadable-games network from almost complete obscurity and negligible press attention, “Super Stardust HD” is showing early sparkle. It has reviewed better than most PS3 games, ranking eighth out of all games on the system, according to score aggregator MetaCritic.com. That’s better than the PS3′s versions of “Madden” and “Call of Duty 3″ and higher than the touted launch title “Genji: Days of the Blade.” It’s earning comparisons to early Xbox 360 downloadable hit and fellow “Asteroids” descendant “Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved.”

And it appears to have garnered a quickly growing user base. While Sony doesn’t release sales figures for its downloadable games, the “Super Stardust HD” leader board listed, for the $8 title, 27,344 scores from different players Thursday morning (July 5) at 9 a.m. ET. They ranged from the 70 points scored by someone named marioruler to top player zafro’s 480,752,155. Four hours later, 289 more player names were on the list.

This isn’t bad for a game with such a low-key profile. In May, MTV News spotted a TV ad for it and asked the head of marketing at Sony’s American PlayStation division, Peter Dille, what it was. He looked at the ad, paused and said, “I think that’s ‘Blast Factor,’ ” mistaking it for a different shoot-’em-up available on the PS3.

So what is this game and where did it come from?

“Super Stardust HD” puts the player in control of a little spaceship that can fly around a planet, blasting a downpour of massive asteroids, spaceships and alien worms. Blast everything and earn high scores: It’s a simple formula that has worked since video games began and been ratcheted to unprecedented intensity on the PS3. The game comes from Finland, where its creative director, Harri Tikkanen, worked with a half-dozen developers at Housemarque studio for 10 months to craft the title.

“It was one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve been involved with in years,” Tikkanen told MTV News via e-mail. The game was intended as a sequel to Housemarque’s early-1990s Amiga computer game “Super Stardust.” For this new one, the team wanted the player’s spaceship to fly around an entire planet in any direction instead of on a flat rectangular field as in “Geometry Wars,” “Space Invaders” and most other famous shoot-’em-ups.

“For the first couple of months it seemed impossible to make an intensive shooter on a spherical gameplay field, as there was so much area to cover,” Tikkanen said. “I felt that we might need to add walls to make the area smaller. But I loved the free-flowing feeling of flying on a sphere and the fact you could see so much more than on a flat plane. So we decided to bite the bullet.”

One of the problems was that a spherical playing field could get sparse if too few asteroids were raining down on it and breaking into too few bits. That could make the game dull. “We needed a huge amount of enemies to populate it,” he said. The solution was to tap the PS3′s processing power. The result is a battle-torn playing field with more than 10,000 shootable objects on the surface during the most intense moments, more than 75,000 particles (the technical ingredients of video game laser blasts and explosions) all running at 60 frames per second.

Part of what has impressed “Super Stardust HD” fans is that demonstration of the PS3′s technical brawn. Few games, if any, on PS3 present as much simultaneous chaos on the screen without a hint of slowdown. But playable frenzy has never been enough to make a shoot-’em-up, or “shmup,” a hit, not in what is such a crowded game genre.

For Tikkanen, the key to developing a good shmup is providing the players a game built on delicate balance. “It’s a bit like making a house of cards; there is no room for errors,” he said. To achieve this, Housemarque developers had a version of the game running on a computer just three weeks into development. That allowed them to tweak every facet of speed, chaos and firepower every step of the way.

(A trivia note to avid “SSHD” players: That first version “already contained the crumbling asteroids, gameplay sphere and an early version of the first weapon,” Tikkanen said. “Initially we tested turn and thrust controls like in the original game, but in hours we realized that we [were] able to improve the control scheme as we had two analog sticks and plenty of buttons at our disposal.”)

Tikkanen shared his philosophy on getting the shmup house of cards just
right: “The game should never be ‘mean’ or unfair towards the player, and it should always reward skill,” he said. “It should offer challenges to the player but never try to kill the player just for the sake of it. It all comes down to the right ratio of risk and reward. We always welcome good shooters — it’s a shame there are so few of them. Some developers just copy the surface, and the result is a tiresome game. Some even seem to think that making a shooter is quick and easy.”

“Super Stardust HD” is part of Sony’s push for an answer to Xbox Live, the PlayStation Network. On PS3, that service has already hosted the release of a game overseen by “God of War” creator David Jaffe and a handful of other games ported from PC and PSP. Treated as a main platform for the company, PSN has recently been touted as the host for a trio of upcoming exclusives: “Warhawk,” “SOCOM: Confrontation” and “Pain” (see Tossing People Into Billboards — And Maybe Paris Hilton Too?).

An early measure that Xbox Live Arcade and its downloadable games would be a commercial and critical success was the rapid adoption of “Geometry Wars” (see “No Ruler Required For Xbox 360′s Cost-Effective ‘Geometry’ “ ). Two months into that game’s existence, 45,000-plus player names were on the leader board. The figure to watch for PSN may well be the 26,000 names and counting “Super Stardust HD” has garnered.

As for what to expect from Tikkanen, he said Housemarque has a “casual game” in development for Xbox Live Arcade and is considering a “couple of daring new PSN concepts.” Beyond that he offered this final comment: “The evil penguin has a cunning plan.”