I remember wincing when Acclaim went bust. Not because of the job losses, perhaps, although that stuff’s always sad. Not even because a storied piece of my childhood had just collapsed, like a lighthouse on an eroded spar of cliff-face, crumbling into the sea. I winced not for others but for myself: now I would never get to play The Red Star.
That was 2004, but in 2012 – 8 years older and little wiser – I’m glad to report that I did get to play it after all. I’ve finished it, in fact, and it was excellent. The Red Star had been completed by the time Acclaim imploded, and eventually another publisher stepped in to do the decent thing. Capitalism intervened to bring this communist fantasy back to life.
The Red Star’s set in an alternate universe in which the Soviet Union is still a really big deal: it’s got robots and magic and giant mechanical monsters and laser guns, and almost nobody complains about how disgusting Kvas tastes anymore, or how Stakhanov only dug that much of the Moscow Metro because he had a sodding electrical drill. The whole thing’s based on a comic book series I once borrowed from the library but forgot to read, but the end result doesn’t feel like a licensed game. Rather, it’s embraced its game-iness with real flair. It’s a blast.
Combine Gauntlet, Freedom Force, Ikaruga and Robotron and you’ve got something that feels a little like The Red Star: it’s a mostly-top-down action affair in which you have both ranged and melee attacks. This allows the campaign to chuck waves of grunts and giant bosses at you, while switching from close-up brawling to all-out bullet hell in a matter of seconds. It’s surprisingly precise and stylish, given that when Acclaim died it was leaking dross fairly regularly, and the addition of a shield along with your offensive options gives each encounter a snappy rhythm. Throw in a range of playable characters and industrial stages that lead you over rusting gantries and through snowy train yards, while huge gears chatter and mesh in the background, and you’re dealing with a bit of a classic.
Even after its PS2 release in 2007, it still wasn’t the end for The Red Star: a PSP update followed, as did an iOS version, which means well but can’t quite escape from the curse of virtual controls. Despite all this, the game’s never quite had its moment: it’s struggled to find the audience its clever combination of inspirations deserves, and it’s rarely name-checked alongside other quirky action games like P.N.03 or EDF.
Where it really belongs, I suspect, is on PSN or XBLA, with co-op and online leaderboards. The assets may look a little basic by modern standards, but the lighting and art design are great, and downloadable platforms feel perfect for this nerdy collision of different genres.
In some alternate universe, The Red Star’s had an HD upscaling and has emerged triumphant, hopefully. In some alternate universe, the soviets and their robots have risen again.