Super Stardust HD drew the dual joystick short straw last generation. Released at a time when the PlayStation 3 was really unpopular, Geometry Wars and its Xbox Live Arcade successor tended to lap up all of the downloadable shoot-'em-up plaudits – despite it never, in this author's opinion, hitting the same highs as Housemarque's spherical affair. Fortunately for the Finnish developer, Resogun has earned it the respect that it so richly deserves – but what of the Amiga reboot that kickstarted its long running relationship with Sony?
Not quite a port or a sequel, Super Stardust Ultra is a bit of a strange game. Helmed by Runcorn-based dev-for-hire d3t – who previously worked on the likeable Lemmings Touch – this is essentially an updated version of the original PS3 affair. You'll find all of the expansion packs from the inaugural outing present and correct here – including the controller crushing Survival and strangely satisfying Impact – alongside a couple of bonus modes and some fresh visual flourishes. The arcade option also boasts five new planets, but these aren't as meaningful as they may initially seem.
A return to the original 2007 release confirms our suspicions, as enemy patterns and asteroid formations remain more or less identical. The renamed rocks that you'll be orbiting primarily offer artistic tweaks, then, with much more elaborate structures at the centre of the action. At first sight, the game will look exactly how you remember it – but hook up your last-gen format and you'll find flatter textures and geometry. In all, it's a step forward for the franchise – even if you'll need a side-by-side to see it.
The same is true of the added effects and minor interface improvements, which, again, serve to enhance the experience – but only slightly. Fortunately, the core gameplay loop is as enjoyable as ever. For those unfamiliar, you'll control a spacecraft armed with three unique armaments. Each of these can be upgraded by collecting tokens, and have a specific purpose. The rock splitter, for example, excels against earthy boulders, while the gold melter and ice crusher have unique advantages, too. Each behaves differently, so you'll need to learn how to use them all.
While it doesn't sound like much on the surface, the game possesses two assets that elevate it above its peers: outrageously tight controls and cleverly implemented physics. The former is crucial, because it gives you the ability to navigate in and out of debris with ease – but it's the latter that makes it truly special. Unlike most other titles in the genre, you'll rarely find yourself subjected to an overwhelming barrage of projectiles here; instead, it's your own actions that'll cause that. Cut up a rock poorly, for example, and you'll fill the screen with niggly stones – a natural kind of bullet hell.
It's as fun as ever in this PS4 edition, and the implementation of DualShock 4 features – such as the light bar and on-board speaker – actually help to provide feedback that isn't present in the original release. The problem is that there isn't much else to get existing fans excited. Blockade, a mode which fuses the title's core evasion rules with Snake, is nifty, but it's probably the worst option in the roster. And while we're big fans of the Twitch features in Interactive – allowing viewers to vote on whether they'd like to help or hinder the person in control – it's a novelty at best.
Meanwhile, the couch co-op and competitive modes have also made the jump, but while these will be welcomed by local multiplayer stalwarts, it's a shame that an online option hasn't been introduced. The closest thing to this is a challenges system, which allows you to send your best scores to your buddies, but it's clumsily integrated at best. Worse still, the developer appears to have prevented more than 1,000 scores from appearing on the leaderboards at once, meaning that, unless you're an expert, you're never going to see where you rank against the rest of the world.
It's hard to describe Super Stardust Ultra as a disappointment, because the core gameplay loop – almost eight years after its original introduction – is still as enjoyable as ever. That said, this doesn't feel like the next frontier for Housemarque's revered shooter series – more like a stopgap along the way. Veterans should know that, outside of some visual enhancements and extra modes, this is pretty much Super Stardust HD. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course; newcomers are encouraged to take aim at this right away.