Polystars - Konami - 1997

Konami - Arcade - 1997

Reviewed by Malc

Ever since seeing this game in an old issue of Edge magazine I wanted it. Badly. Looking like a cross between Twin Bee and Raystorm, and running on the much-vaunted M2 hardware, I literally drooled all over my copy. Wiping up, I knew that it wouldn't be easy to get, and a wait of several years would be in order.

Those years have passed - slowly - and I'm now sitting happily thanks to a nice man I know with the rather large pcb cage that is my prized Polystars kit. So here's a review.

Strangely, the first thing that people want to know about it is what is the M2 system like. As you might know, M2 didnt come to anything as a home console, or multimedia system, but instead was fairly ingloriously plonked into a short-lived Konami arcade series of boards. Powerwise I'd say its equivalent to playstation and a half, with graphic capability to suit. Nothing spectacular really, but probably reasonably impressive for 1997.

It comes as a pcb in a metal cage, with a cdrom drive - and the actual game is run directly off cdrom - requiring some slightly annoying load times between levels. Even if you get different cd games to play, there were differences between the boardsets - Polystars has several more chips than other games on the system.

Next thing that's usually asked about is the graphics. Playstation and a half again, I'd say. But it's quite hard to tell from Polystars, which has intentionally blocky graphics throughout. Your characters are little block men, and even the biggest enemies are made up out of boxes. But there's a lot going on, slowdown is quite rare, and texture quality is better and smoother than playstation usually is. I do however get the feeling that the system wasn't anywhere near pushed to its limit.

Polystars graphics themselves are colourful, intense, inventive and seriously wacko. A strong sense of humour runs throughout, a high level of cuteness is evident, probably the best way to imagine it is starting with Parodius or Twinbee stylings, and converting them into polygons. Even the smallest enemies exude personality, and theres loads of little details in the backgrounds, wee cars on roads, small men arguing, and richly dense backgrounds. A happy looking game indeed! You'd be hard pushed to find an enemy not wearing a huge smile. Polystars has masses of character that western shmups can only dream of. It even includes a very funny attract sequence with tiny box men dancing in the windows of a building with a flashing light on top, I haven't a clue what's going on, but watching it while tripping is probably best.

The sound also screams happily at the player - plinklyplonky sound effects, screams, unintelligible speech (the way it should be), roars and tinkling explosions. Perfect. Musicwise the game blasts sickly sweet classic Konami tunes at the player, fitting in with the action and graphics just brilliantly. Technical quality of the system aside, Konami's audiovisuals in Polystar are simply great fun, that's all there is to say!

Enough of aesthetics. How does the blasted thing play? Initially, it's slightly confusing, as the camera does tend to roll and swing about on its own - definitely an on-rails experience. This is no bad thing though, as it takes you through lots of fantastic set pieces you just wouldn't get if it was anywhere near free roaming. What's this obsession with free-roaming anyway? Did anyone think Starfox would have been better with it? No it wouldn't. And just before you ask - the gameplay is on a pure 2-dimensional plane, like Rayforce or Xevious 3DG, so we're talking proper shmupping here. Be careful though of going to far "into" the screen, as it can become difficult to see what you're doing, and dodge attacks. I tend to stay back as much as I can, unless the game forces me to move forwards and avoid backtracking bosses.

Once you get used to the control, and get to grips with the nippy speed of the characters, any deaths that result are always the player's fault. Oh, ok, maybe a couple of exceptions with some memorisation of boss patterns required, but generally control is tight and flawless. Characters? Yep - you are a wee white box man, whose race seem to be having an argument with some slightly different shaped box men, and you ride what seems to be a penguin, or a dolphin of sorts. Not quite sure really.

Taking control of one of these wee guys, and choosing whether to apply both shoot and missile to one button, or leaving them on two, you'll find some fairly limited but efficient weapons to blast the enemy cuteness with. Air attacks are either a straight firing piercing Vulcan Shot, a Homing Shot which isn't very powerful, or a wider 3-way all-rounder Shot. And you can pick up wingmen which help a little bit in firepower as well as look cool riding alongside.

Missiles are the only ground attack, kind of slow firing, but the only way to rid yourself of ground enemies, tanks, boats, dump trucks, barges, submarines and the occasional innocent car. You can add to your missile capability by picking up icons too. No bombs here, sorry!!

Approach the game as a skewed, cute and likeable vertical scroller with classic aimed bullets, variety in attacks like lasers, firey blasts, it should be played as a straight blaster with no real onus on scoring methods or fancy bullet patterns. It couldn't really handle much more mayhem anyway, as there is a LOT going on in the air and ground attack planes, and what with the colourful backgrounds it could have easily become an unnavigable and hidden-death filled mess. Gladly, it doesn't, and offers quite a pure shmupping experience with the focus on fun and simple dodging and shooting skills. Bosses in particular are a real hilight, and unlike some other games you really look forward to their arrival. Most of them are extremely inventive and novel, especially the track-swapping train and the octopus with its waving arms. It can be so compulsive that its VERY hard not to continue, just to see what the next level will bring. I've tried hard not to spoil the game and pump credits in, and still have to really see what the last few levels have to offer, and work out how to effectively kill the last few bosses.

Polystars is one of those games that REALLY comes into its own when you have a second player who's just as good (or bad) as yourself. One can concentrate on ground fire while the other attacks large floating ships, and at times there are often two midbosses or more onscreen, leaving the player with obvious clues how to play effectively with a friend. Very co-operative play, and not at all intrusive.

I'm torn between giving it an 8 or a 9, I think I'd have to go for 8, because it's not going to last forever, once beaten there isn't much reason to come back as it does have a lot of focus on set pieces and doesn't offer anything but a purely linear experience. Simple hi-scoring is all it has to present to the player who can complete it, and I can imagine how the novelty could wear off after running through it many times. So, although I love it lots, an 8 it is.

Enough words from me and on with the pics! Ready?

Nice tight typically japanese launch sequence - its over in 5 seconds as your little block people on animal rockets blast off....



The first things that really hit you are the sheer colour and obscene brightness of Polystars' world, unless you're unlucky enough to collide with a bullet right away. Which isn't that unlikely actually, considering you will need to get to grips with the viewpoint and the swirling sweeping camera angles.

Your path is predetermined, taking you over rooftops, through streets and over parks and gardens, the whole level serving as a fairly simple introduction to the weapons and the kind of enemies you'll meet all through the game - nasty little cute buggers all.


Listen, I'm really sorry about some of these shots, they were taken my me with a digital camera whilst actually playing the game too. Luckily, that nice man in Japan, Neogeoman did something techy and fancy and grabbed a lot of decent shots for me too, like the one above. Basically if they are blurry, yucky and bendy, they're mine.

Anyway, if you squint closely you can see a Missile and a 3 way powerup - I like the 3 way as it is fairly powerful yet covers a wide spread and with nasties coming at you from all angles you really need it.




After a stroll down a street bashing some cute dumptrucks you'll come across Polystar's first proper Boss. The graphics begin to look rather smart here, with some translucent round attacks like you see here. Look how the player has now got a couple of little fishy multiples, beefing up the attack power nicely.

All the bosses are pretty fair with their attacks, varied too - and always have a predictable pattern to them. They're lots of fun to suss out!


Level two now, and the view changes a little, the camera becoming much more fixed and set lower. Quite difficult really as enemy attacks seem to speed up as they become close because of this. Lots of fog evident as well, I suppose if you're going to have fog this is an appropriate level for it.

I really really like this level, tons of fishes and submarines jumping in and out the water, ships coasting by with lots of missile and laser attacks.




I thought this was the Boss when I got here, but it's not - just another ship getting in the way. Its about here the first life will be lost if you aren't careful, as the laser streams from some of the ships come thick and fast and require pre-positioning before they come close or consider your dolphin ship skewered.

I think it's a dolphin anyway. The polygon count is intentionally low on the graphics, maybe out of necessity, but also because the whole visual style is meant to be angular and boxy.


Damn this guy - I find him hugely difficult! Mostly because he will wave his arms at you REALLY quickly and spinning round at the same time, leaving you to dodge in and out of them and most likely dying trying. He's a lot of fun to beat though, and I usually giggle with glee at the thought of coming here.

If you weren't convinced by this games greatness, get to this boss and you'll understand its something pretty special!




Could a Playstation do this? Yes, well it probably could - but there's a level of colour, smoothness in textures, and not an awful lot of jagginess - possibly because its softened by an arcade monitor, but it does feel distinctly different from some PS based pcbs I have. Not however the level of graphic whizzery you probably would expect from M2's hype. Anyway this is Level three, and it's beautiful, with lots of little box men running about, little dinosaurs, a volcano, fireballs and these segmented centipede style enemies. Just stunning to play and look at!


Better stop with the Polygon whatever titles now, annoying aren't they? Tricky boss, a dinosaur made up of boxes, plenty varied attacks including a really unwelcome flame breath, boxing gloves which home in unerringly, and during all this he just loves to roam around the whole screen intent on bashing you in.




Yes, Polystars is an on-rails shmup. Sorry. Utterly brilliant level - four - which twists and snakes and zooms along the gulleys following the train tracks at high speed.

Completely exhilarating stuff!


It was really hard to take pics here as I was getting dizzy and the sheer speed of movement made capturing screens a nightmare.

Here we've escaped a bunch of flying dragon thingies (maybe escaped Pterodactyls from level 3) and are chasing a cute little steam train. Again, I thought he was the boss, but nope, he's just a wee guy again.




A long ride up a canyon with many laser attacks brings on an impending sense of doom as it gets clear that the boss is near!

Mind and grab as many weapons as you can here, being fully tooled is an absolutely necessity for this end of level guardian. I prefer to go for full Vulcan Power for him.


Ahahah I love this guy! He's got 5 rails to ride on, and can switch tracks by stepping on each with his wheeled legs.

This is normally about as far as I get on a credit, even with lots of practice. His weapons include a large spread of yellow blasts which always finish me off.




One attack thats great, but easy to out-manoeuvre is when he rushes in from the side, and you have to escape round the top of the screen as he clunks his way over the foreground. Watch out for missiles as he does this though!


Probably the most normal level in the game, a very high and fairly fixed viewpoint now. Use your missile attacks to scoot down and blast through the cargo barges. Nice dual level gameplay here, as you take out the flying enemies above. Ok, all levels feature this but some more so than others.




This is just wonderful stuff - the sense of scale and depth is outstanding. About the least cute and most realistic you will get in Polystars, a nice change from the sickly cuteness of previous levels. Reminds me a lot of Raystorm this level!


Fierce and NASTY! This giant attack chopper/plane thing really will test the best - it just comes in so fast and so thickly weaponed that dodging is a matter of luck sometimes. Must master him someday!!




Thanks again to Neo for some decent pics of this really dark level - which features some brilliant lighting effects and intense, claustrophobic gameplay. Tight spaces don't help survival!


Watch out for this barrier appearing because if you don't shoot it early enough, you'll end up bashing right into it.

Swarms of insanely cute flying enemies do their utmost to stop you reaching...



<< ... BLOCK MAN!

How basic can we get? Ghostly heads pop up from a circle of blocks, and Block Man (for that is what I call him) throws sparkly fizzing bombs your way. Felt slightly disappointing this, not really a patch on earlier bosses in the fun stakes.


I think I've lost track here - six or seven maybe... Not sure how many levels it has, as I have yet to see the end. Trying not to spoil it you see, so when I got here I stopped throwing in the credits for reviewing purposes and left it at that!

Looks to be a cool level, way above the clouds with lots of tiny buildings far far below, and huge hexagonal platforms floating in the air. One thing I did notice is that slowdown isn't very evident even when it gets massively busy. Lovely!


All in all, Polystars is a rare lost gem really. It kind of sunk without trace after coming out in the arcades in 1997, Japan only too I think. No conversions were made that I know of, and neither is it emulated yet. So if you do want to play it, you're going to have to hunt pretty hard for the pcb set.

It's just normal jamma kit, so you don't need a fancy med-res monitor or anything, but the pcb itself is pretty large and chunky and housed in a metal cage. The game itself runs off a cdrom drive too, adding to the size and weight and dare I say it - unreliability! Hope mine lasts for a while! If you even think you'd like it, you probably would! Get it!

Have I got anything totally wrong in this review, or want to add something I have missed? Email me please! - Bye - Malc


shmups!   © 1997 - 2007  Malcolm Laurie