Astro Port, the guys behind shooters like Gigantic Army, Armed Seven and Supercharged Robot Vulkaiser, must really want a job at Konami. Satazius, a side-scrolling shooter, may as well be an interactive resume in hopes to create the next Gradius game. And yet even though its homages are instantly recognizale to anyone familiar with Konami's series, it draws widely from the canon of other shooters to create something that's only slightly like the games it derives from.
The weapon selection screen looks an awful lot like Gradius, even though the actual upgrade system really isn't. You select a main weapon (including standard bullets, lasers and explosive shots), two secondary weapons (which generally fire in multiple directions, including Darius-type missiles and a Thunder Force-style homing weapon, and which can be switched between at any time), and a "charge" weapon that's extremely powerful but, as expected, comes in limited quanities and must be charged for a period of time before it can be used. Similar to Axelay, another Konami series, about half the weapons are locked from the outset - you can requip your ship after each stage (or each Game Over), where you'll find that a new weapon has opened up. There are no options in the traditional Gradius sense, although one of the secondary weapons causes a handful of orbs to rotate around your ship and fire continuously.
The power-up system draws more from Darius than anything. Each of your three weapons, as well as your shield and your speed, is powered by grabbing a colored orb. As you continue to grab orbs, you'll further strengthen each of the systems and carry throughout the game, though they each drop a few levels every time you die. Power-ups are common, however, and unlike Gradius you'll rarely find yourself in an underpowered position. Each level also has bonus stars, which are totaled up at the end of each stage for bonus points. Naturally, you lose all of these if you're killed, although they do reappear to collect upon respawning.
Most level types should seem familiar to Gradius players. There's a level filled with rock formations, which turn into volcanos and spew bits of magma. There's a high speed zone, although it's less cruel than they usually are, one area has bits of the ceiling and floor tiles flying towards you, there's a boss rush near the end, and the final stage has bits of the floors and ceilings that shift around. Most enemies are reminiscent, right down to the two-legged walkers and orbs that apparate in great numbers out of thin air, and the bosses come complete with a guarded core that must be destroyed, although strangely they don't change color as they're damaged. Near the end of the first stage, you're also changed through a cave by a much larger starship, most likely a homage to the opening stage of Gradius: Interstellar Assault for the Game Boy, although handled much better here. The final boss looks suspiciously like the one in Axelay. There are even a few tiny rings of rotating satellites, similar to the one featured in the first stage of R-Type.
Satazius is in a weird spot, because it looks like Gradius and was obviously inspired by it, but it doesn't really feel a lot like Gradius. Your ship is way more powerful, both from an offensive and defensive position - your Charge weapon can kill most bosses in one or two shots - and the pacing is much faster, with quicker scrolling and generally more bullets on screen. Although the Normal difficulty mode is relatively easy compared to other shooters, especially with the nine continues you're given, it's also balanced well enough so it's rarely boring, and the higher unlockable difficulties prove to be quite brutal.
While it plays well, Satazius suffers from the same malaise as any fan game - it duplicates its inspirations pretty well, and even manages to not feel like a complete clone, instead attempting to fix the elements that the developers didn't care for. But in retooling the gameplay, it doesn't feel like much of an improvement. Gradius V, for example, changed a lot of core Gradius mechanics, but replaced with the option manipulation - Satazius makes no such interesting additions. The 640x480 pixel graphics are a just a bit too clean, although the backgrounds are nicer than the usual black "outer space" background that tend to permeate the average Gradius games. It's not without creativity though - Astro Port's take on the "giant multi-legged walker thing", a monstrosity with parts that spread into the background and has a huge human eye in the middle, is easily as cool as anything Konami has ever done. And the thumping techno soundtrack is a nice accompaniment, although it ultimately it lacks the personality of Konami's games. While not quite a top-tier classic, it's a nice alternative to the deluge of cutesy moe bullet hell shooters, and is still a very recommended diversion.
Astro Port Includes a link to a trial, and a patch for the full game.
Steam - Satazius Digital download for a cheap price, courtesy of Capcom.