a review of Sigma Star Saga
a videogame developed by wayforward technologies
and published by namco
for the nintendo gameboy advance
text by Andrew Toups
The box art for Sigma Star Saga brazenly informs you of the game’s “Gamespot E3 2005 Editors’ Choice Finalist” status. This makes sense, I reckon, because Sigma Star Saga is a perfect E3 game. It’s got a wonderful little concept (action RPG + shoot-em-up hybrid!) which fits perfectly into a 10 minute E3 demo. I had the good fortune to attend E3 in 2005, but since I had my finger on pulse of the industry-crucial korean sex-MMO market, I was too busy to play the demo of this particular title. But if I had to guess, the demo probably showcased the game’s introduction, which plays a bit like R-Type and rocks the heck out like most of Contra: Hard Corps. Over the course of the first introductory stage, your little space craft will crash out of the window of a building, fly through a city that strongly calls to mind Megaman Zero’s Neo Arcadia, and take out an enormous enemy mothership, all while intergalactic conflict and struggle rage on in the background. You’re dodging bullets and shooting down enemy fighters, and for those glorious few minutes, before even introducing any RPG elements, the game is wonderful and exciting. Why, based on that short segment, I’d probably award it my own personal Gamestop E3 2005 Editor’s Choice Finalist: Andrew Fucking Toups Edition badge.
Shame that the rest of the game is such stuff.
Well, that’s not entirely fair. Here’s a nice bullet-pointed list of the game’s post intro-sequence virtues:
*There’s some nice artwork
*The plot is fairly clever
*It’s got heart, goddamnit
And that about sums it up! Now onto the criticism!
(Well, okay. The music ain’t bad, either.)
The great, hilarious innovation of Sigma Star Saga — which is rated “E for everyone” despite featuring a female protagonist who has clearly been infected with a genitalia-eating parasite — is that it combines a top-down action RPG with a 2D horizontal scrolling shooter. I guess this isn’t such a bad idea. I mean, I can imagine some starry-eyed, baseball cap-wearing young man over at Wayforward thinking “Gee. I sure like old school top-down action RPG’s like Secret of Mana and Blaster Master. I also sure like 2D scrolling shooters like R-Type and Life Force. Why, I know, I’ll make a game that combines the two!” This aww-shucks, pie-in-the-sky idealism must have been what saw the game’s development through some of the most ill-advised design decisions I’ve ever come across in my long, illustrious career as a games journalist.
Of course, that’s the risk that innovation entails. Pursuing big ideas means more than just having the skill to fulfill them — it also means having the vision to make it all fit together.
The crux of the problem is that the game takes one of the most annoying abstractions of JRPG’s — random battles — as the means for combining the two genres in question here. So you’re wandering about in action RPG mode, bopping enemies with your little stungun, and then you’re magically zapped up to a pseudo-randomly generated shooting stage. There are about a half-dozen ships which you may find yourself piloting through about a half dozen repeating stage templates for each planet, both of which are chosen at random for every encounter. At the beginning of each stage, a number appears on the right side of the screen which denotes how many enemies must be defeated before you “win”.
Unlike most RPG’s, this game actually goes to great lengths to explain away how bizarre and incongruous these random encounters are, but really, what’s the point? I mean, it’s nice, yes — and to be honest I’d probably have enjoyed Final Fantasy VIII even more if they had thought of some ludicrous explanation involving alternate realities and DIMENSIONAL COMPRESSION to explain why, when you’re moving your little correctly-proportioned party across the disproportionately rendered overworld, you’re suddenly teleported into a different space to do battle (although, really, Final Fantasy VIII is one of those games which is more enjoyable for what it does wrong than what it does right… well that’s a whole other article) — yet the entire idea of random battles is really a jerry-rigged solution to a problem which this game shouldn’t even have, and it feels even more unnatural and tacked-on as a result, regardless of how well it fits into the game universe. This being said, if the designers of this game had been just a bit smarter about how they implemented the shooter stages, they probably could’ve gotten away with it.
Shooter stage design relies on precision — planning enemy patterns and obstacle placement means that you have to have a pretty clear idea of a few crucial variables, including (but not limited to) the size of the player’s hitbox, the strength of his shots, the movement speed. Sigma Star Saga‘s great, crucial error, is that it lacks the sensitivity of stage design to accommodate randomizing these factors. The randomly-chosen ships vary greatly in size: one is a small, nimble scout-like ship, another looks to be the equivalent of the Spaceball One from Spaceballs. The stage designs, in an effort to be consistently challenging, I suppose, regularly feature passages which are impossible to navigate if you’ve been given an inappropriately-sized craft. Likewise, because shot power is a function of your craft’s level, there are also situations in which nearly every enemy you encounter will take more shots to destroy than it is possible for your underleveled craft to fire before they disappear off screen, meaning you’re stuck looping through the same goddamned unimaginative and cookie-cutter shooter segment, over and over and over again, taking out the same set of 4 weak enemies that you’re actually capable of killing. This is, of course, assuming that you aren’t stuck in the former unenviable scenario to began with. The end result of all this is that you will quite often find yourself in unwinnable situations, even if you’ve spent the last half hour level-grinding and can destroy every enemy with one hit.
It’s not as if you can’t make a shooting game that can handle a wide variety of ships without being “broken”. R-Type Final, for instance, admirably handles this task. That game, however, was made by people who have probably spent the better part of their adult lives making shoot-em-ups; Sigma Star Saga, by contrast, comes across as being made by a guy who played Life Force way back in the day on his NES, using the 30 lives code, and vaguely remembers that it had this totally sweet fire level.
The game has other problems too — during the RPG sections, character sprites take up so much of the screen that you never get any sense of layout to the dungeonsplanets, and the absence of any recognizable landmarks means not only that you will frequently get lost, but that there aren’t any interesting sights around the next corner to motivate you to continue exploring.
In conclusion, looking at Wayforward’s website, their recent offerings have been limited almost entirely to licensed shovelware for portable titles. I’d like to say that the moral of the story is that if you’re going to make an experimental game which combines space combat and RPG elements, be sure to do it right or else be damned to a career of finding ways to graft the Spongebob Squarepants license into the popular genre-du-jour. However, Star Control 2 developers Toys for Bob have found themselves in a similarly unenviable position, so I guess you’re hecked either way. Still if you want to play a good hybrid shooter/RPG, avoid this well-intentioned but ill-fortuned trainwreck and play Star Control 2 or maybe Compile’s excellent, underrated Guardian Legend.