Most games try to appeal to two kinds of crowds: those who dig into mechanically rich experiences with tons of variation in how you play and those who dig into style, going after strange visuals and things you just can’t find anywhere else. FISSION SUPERSTAR X is decidedly for people in the second camp. This is a Ren and Stimpy-esque procedural space shooter with colorful graphics and tons of manic energy. You may tire of your runs before too long, but you’ll want to keep playing just to see what wacky character design the developers at Turbo Pelvis 3000 inc. have come up with next.
You play as a clone created by Dr. Leopold, a mad scientist with just one goal: to ensure that Celine, his latest creation, becomes a superstar. But Celine isn’t a person or a robot; she’s a nuclear bomb. Therefore, the good doctor wants to ensure that she makes a splash by delivering a payload that the galaxy won’t soon forget. You pilot a space bomber tasked with shooting down every denizen of free space as you make your way to the target locale.
Fission Superstar X Review | Entering hyperspace
Fission Superstar X is a roguelike, so you definitely won’t deliver Celine on your first run. You need to venture across the Milky Way, with each planet hiding a new breed of giant boss monster to shoot down. You’ll run into gun shops, recruit new staff to your ship, and dock for repairs. You may even find some accessories to boost Celine’s abilities if you look hard enough. There’s plenty of unique content in this sense. It’s possible to play dozens of runs without running into something that looks similar. Roguelikes need a good bit of variety, and Superstar X achieves that in its visuals.
But that doesn’t apply to the game’s combat design. Your starting weapons are piddly energy cannons that just aren’t fun to shoot. Normally this would be fine, but progression towards further guns is slow going. There’s a unique system where each of your four crew members mans a separate turret on your ship. If you don’t have a medical officer, you may not be covered on one of your flanks. Naturally, you’ll want to get fully staffed up, but going after recruits means you may be bypassing the weapon upgrades that are vital to giving your run a good sense of variety.
Fission Superstar X is really a game about exacting balance. Like FTL, you need to decide exactly where you’ll be landing and what upgrades you’ll need for the road ahead. It’s more action heavy than its inspiration, but that doesn’t mean its any less forgiving. You need a bit of luck and a lot of skill to survive long enough to take on bosses and progress your character. It will be a while before you’re able to do that even once, and the core gameplay you get at the start isn’t up to the task of repeatedly drawing players in for run after run. Without that drive, people won’t build up their progress and they’ll just be doing the same thing over and over until they turn off the game.
Fission Superstar X Review | Putting out engine fires
There are also a few small hitches that get in the way of your fun. When enemy ships blow up in a spectacular fashion, they drop money and ammo. However, unless a wreck happens in front of you, most of this currency will likely jettison into the void. Your bomber isn’t a nimble ship, so it’s mostly futile to try to grab what you need. Especially considering that there are no “treasure rooms” in a run. You’ll pay for any upgrade you get, which makes every dollar you lose that much more painful.
There’s also something off about the way the menus are designed. You’d think that someone who plays two to three new games a week would know how to navigate any menu you throw at them, but there’s something about these stylized screens that made me stop and think. It was a method of trial and error to figure out what buttons purchased new weapons and which ones switched out old ones when I first loaded into the shop. It almost feels like a touch interface, but this game isn’t a mobile port. It’s mostly just another case of style of substance, something that you have to learn to get over when playing Fission.
Fission Superstar X Review | Hitting the wormhole
If you’re patient enough, you eventually do get past these hurdles and into the good stuff. The boss designs are just plain wacky in the best possible ways. The first one is a giant sphere that looks to be a warship at first. Then, the sphere opens and it’s just an enormous mutant holding an equally huge revolver. There are giant space whales with dangerous flippers, hordes of space cows and even a rather large jetpacking monster who pukes venom.
The developers really capture the ’90s Genesis aesthetic without the system’s technical limitations as this is a gorgeous pixel game that features huge detailed sprites and colorful backgrounds. Damage to ships realistically renders as you dish it out, with parts and weapons that chip off during dogfights. Shop backgrounds are filled with interesting looking characters, and the pilots you can hire draw on all corners of pop culture for inspiration. The developers have a unique vision, and they deliver on it in spades, making each run a distinct visual treat.
Fission Superstar X Review | Docking back at base
Fission Superstar X is the type of game that would benefit greatly from iteration. There are so many unique ideas here, from the madcap story to the nostalgically original world. With a few tweaks and a bit more polish, the gameplay can catch up to that style and deliver something really special. Until then, the game stands as an interesting experiment that almost works as a video game. If you’re a grizzled Nicktoons fan willing to look past a pile of gameplay flaws, you might find that there’s a good time to be had with this good doctor. If you’re looking for your next roguelike addiction, you may want to wait for the next contender.
GameRevolution reviewed Fission Superstar X on Xbox One with a copy provided by the developer.