Upon first glance, Satazius looks like a Gradius tribute. The ship looks a lot like Vic Viper, the weapon select screen’s weapon icons imitate those of Konami’s classic, the font used for the title brings to mind an arcade in the early 90s, and the title ends in “ius” (okay, so it could be a Darius tribute, but bear with me).
The game also uses a checkpoint system and will kill you if you touch any part of the environment. However, Satazius’s similarities to Gradius end on the surface level.
Basically, Satazius is built around its heavy artillery. As you start a game, you’re given the chance to choose your weaponry. You can choose a main weapon, two swappable sub-weapons, and a bomb-like charge weapon. Unlike Gradius, in which your Vic Viper starts out ludicrously ill-equipped for battle, Satazius starts your ship off firing in about 20 different directions, spewing ground-running missiles all over the place, and is capable of swapping secondary weapons at will.
This weapon-swapping is part of what gives Satazius its character. As enemies fly in (there are generally a ton to balance out your firepower), you have to judge which of your secondary weapons is more effective for your situation. My personal favorites were a homing shot and a set of missiles that fire vertically and turn themselves 90 degrees and fire towards enemies, but I have a feeling that everyone will have their own preferences. Regardless, tearing through tons of enemies with guns blazing while dodging bullets is a primal joy, and having multiple sub-weapons only serves to make it more chaotic, especially when the shooting bits are rewards for careful area traversal.
I mentioned earlier that touching the environment is instant death in Satazius. The game seems to take some sadistic pleasure in this. For instance, before the boss fight in the first level, the boss chases you through a branching cave, where certain routes will require you to dodge stalactites and stalagmites while avoiding enemy fire. In stage three, you descend vertically into a pit in which giant rocks will be blasted from one side of the screen and lock in place on the other. These rocks are launched in threes, so you must be very careful to slide in between two of them to survive.
Just when you think you’re safe, fire starts blasting from the holes the rocks left, killing you if you’re not in one of the places you’d have been safe from the rocks. While these areas can be annoying (especially with the game’s checkpoint system), clearing one always feels fantastic, and generally rewards the player with more room to shoot things.
As you progress through a stage, a “charge” gauge slowly fills. This is essentially Satazius’s take on bombs. When the gauge is full, you can clear most of the screen with one of these attacks, tearing through enemies and bullets like paper. Curiously, I found that these charge attacks were a little unbalanced, as I could kill a number of bosses with just one charge attack. While it was nice to eliminate them so quickly, it definitely reduced the tension that generally accompanies shmup boss battles.
These customizable weapons are swappable after each stage (and at each continue), and the completion of each stage nets an extra weapon or two. There’s also a weapon upgrading mechanic in place, where you find little capsules that level up your weapon bit by bit until you hit MAX level, which gives you a more powerful version of the attack. MAX level is governed by a bar that constantly drops as you have the weapon equipped, but can be replenished with each additional upgrade you pick up. I didn’t see a huge benefit to reaching MAX level, as my weapons were already arcing through enemies as I leveled up normally. This extraneous feature aside, though, I liked being able to upgrade my weapons, as the progress felt more permanent than in other shmups.
In Satazius, your upgrades carry through each level and tie specifically to the weapon you picked them up with, so if you’ve been getting a lot of main weapon upgrades with one weapon, switching main weapons will start you with a completely non-upgraded one. At the end of a stage or after using a continue, you could always switch over to your previously upgraded weapon. I liked the fact that if experimentation proved fatal, I could always revert to the powered-up weapons I knew worked. Death would drop the upgrade level a little bit, but it never felt like a terrible loss, since upgrades are spread liberally around each level.
What Satazius lacks is its own identity. The art looks like it was creatively inspired by Gradius, bosses are structured like Gradius, there’s no story to speak of, and the music is enjoyable, but not very catchy. Ultimately, even though Satazius is a very different game from Gradius in terms of how it plays, it doesn’t “feel” different, aesthetically.
You can grab Satazius for $6 off of Steam, GamersGate, GameTap, Direct2Drive, Impulse and the Capcom Store. The game is free of SecuROM DRM.