Pixel Platform Panic!

What looks soft and casual-friendly on the outside, but is so crunchy on the inside that only the teeth of a hardcore challenge buff will be able to chew all the way through? Why, that would be Stardash (Out Now, $1.99), the most unforgiving platformer on iOS! I still have no clue why the little dude in OrangePixel’s latest is dashing around, but it’s clear he does not fear to walk in the valley of the shadow of death. Good thing, too, because he’ll need many, many more lives than a cat to make it through his adventure.

Mario may be the first thing that springs to mind when you lay eyes on Stardash, but despite all the coin collecting and enemy squashing, the experience feels very different in practice. Mario’s appeal extended to the casual crowd partly because it let the player slip up on occasion; in Stardash, your prayers for life-extending mushrooms and fire flowers will go unanswered. Couple that with perfect controls and Miyamoto-worthy level and enemy design, however, and you’ve got a dream come true for hardboiled platforming vets who thought the 8-bit classics all went a little too easy on the player.

Like an eternally mini-fied Mario, the protagonist of Stardash has only right and left movement and a basic jump at his disposal. Any number of things will boot him off his mortal coil at a moment’s notice; his only chance at self defense is to bop vulnerable enemies on his way down once he’s airborne. Even the jumping physics are far tighter than in your average Mario platformer, demanding stellar precision for leaps that would have been simple on an NES. Every imaginable and unimaginable trap lies between Stardash’s hero and the set of balloons waiting to hoist him out of each level. Long stretches of blocks give way beneath his feet; turtles explode moments after they’re squashed; flying guns and carnivorous plants pop out with the express purpose of foiling the player’s expertly calibrated jumps. And remember, the current level must be re-started from the beginning if any of these things happens to claim the hero’s life.

Just making it to the end of a level in one piece is challenge enough, but Stardash has more tricks up its sleeve just in case you aren’t feeling the burn yet. Players will notice a timer at the top-right screen corner, offering a number of seconds that’s entirely too few to make it through any of the obstacle courses OrangePixel has cooked up — unless you could run straight through without the slightest hesitation, timing your jumps perfectly to avoid everything the game throws at you. Even if you’ve gone through a level enough times to memorize every threat, your chances of pulling it off are about zero. That’s no reason not to try, though, right? No doubt your Game Center and OpenFeint leaderboard scores would thank you for it on the off chance you make it through!

Earning points is nice, but I’m always far more enthused with goals that have gameplay payoffs.  Stardash succeeds in this regard, tasking the player with finding a key hidden in each level. Once all nine keys in a world are collected, its bonus Temple level opens up — and if you thought the regular levels were challenging, you’ve got another thing coming! I was put off at first by the fact that these keys are literally hidden in walls and thus invisible to the eye, but the developer offers subtle clues more often than not: platforms might seem out of place or enemies might sneak right into these hidden alcoves if left alone long enough. More worthy of complaint is the fact that the player starts out with no idea the keys are even hidden; I found my first completely by accident, and then realized I’d have to backtrack and complete all the other levels up to that point if I wanted to try out the Temples.

Stardash sports a pixelated, sepia aesthetic that’s sure to trigger nostalgia in anyone who used to carry a Nintendo Game Boy around. I would love to hear a greater variety of chiptunes in updates, especially since I’m still humming the second world’s theme as I write this. If you can stand this level of intensity in a platformer, count on Stardash for a good three to four hours of hair-raising, side-scrolling challenge.

iFanzine Verdict: Stardash has all the ingredients needed for platforming excellence: a tight and responsive interface, brilliant level design, and a wide variety of creative enemies and traps for the player to contend with. Because it goes beyond full throttle on the challenge, however, casual players drawn to its simplicity will find themselves in much hotter water than they bargained for.

[xrr rating=4/5]