Pictures courtesy of Mobygames. I was unable to capture my own footage.
I was born too late to experience the height of the arcade hype. Arcade halls have always had a mystique to them for me and the only time I’d experience something remotely similar was at holiday resorts which had mediocre arcade halls filled with gambling machines and like one obligatory House of the Dead cabinet for the teens. The only arcade game I ever got to play as a kid was Sinistar and it left a big impact on me. I have used the game’s catchphrases for years. I don’t intend to review too many arcade games, but for this one I make an exception. It got ported to the Atari 5200 anyway.
This is a high-speed space action game in which you control a lone spaceship up against impossible odds. An army of drones is constructing a mechanical super-villain called Sinistar, who wishes to destroy the universe. Sinistar is immune to all conventional weapons (unlike his drones) so you need to gather minerals contained within asteroids to create powerful Sinibombs that can destroy him.
The goal of the game is to fly around and harvest these minerals by shooting the asteroids, but this is complicated to an admittedly unfair degree by the game’s speed and the AI of the drones. Red drones collect these same minerals to build Sinistar, so while you are shooting up rocks, these little bastards endlessly respawn to steal your harvest. The minerals themselves are also miniscule sprites, easily missed amidst the game’s ludicrously high speed, but also very difficult to actually grab with the floaty controls and inertia of your spaceship.
The biggest challenge is not defeating Sinistar itself, it’s trying to actually grab some minerals while his lackeys steal them away at every turn.
While mining, you also have to deal with armed drones that fire at you, which can either turn out to be curiously passive or relentlessly violent. Many a run would end even before Sinistar appeared, just because his gun drones would ambush me while I try to mine some rocks and instantly unleash a barrage of projectiles. While I do like the game, it really should have slowed these guys down a bit and given your spaceship some tighter controls. Perhaps also a better graphic for the enemy projectiles and minerals, which are too easy to overlook in a game this busy.
Despite all these shortcomings, the game has its payoff when the enemy finished building Sinistar. He is such an amazing antagonist, as you hear his robotic speech across all of space. His taunts are legitimately intimidating and he has this screech as he charges at you that’s sure to startle you a few times.
This is the point where the game’s speed suddenly makes sense, as you absolutely need to haul ass when Sinistar comes looking for you. He is incredibly fast and aggressive, he’ll fly straight at you and try to capture you in his gravitational pull for an instant game over. As impossible as it seems, there are ways to maneuver around him and stave off your death a little longer, making this a tense boss-fight that requires you to be at your absolute best.
Sinibombs have the fortunate effect that they home in on Sinistar, but you need to hit him several times to break each of his many pieces. His drones also like to throw themselves into the Sinibombs to protect their master, adding to the difficulty and making it a bit annoying that they respawn almost as soon as they are killed. However, if you don’t have enough Sinibombs to complete the job, harvesting new ones while Sinistar is active is a harrowing extra layer of challenge on an already tedious part of the game.
It’s as much about the battle against Sinistar as it is about preparing for it. You can delay his appearance by bombing him to bits while he’s still under construction, but the game only counts your victory if you defeat him after he is finished. Even if you completely destroy him, they’ll just rebuild him elsewhere the moment they steal one of your precious minerals.
Sinistar is still fun and it’s amazing to see how intimidating the nemesis of an arcade game can be just through presentation. The sound-bytes and design for Sinistar are amazing feats, and it feels great to battle him and chip away at this robotic monstrosity. Still, the build-up towards that moment is an obnoxious one and something worth revising. Too much of the game hinges on how lucky you get with these minerals for the controls to be this floaty and the enemies this obnoxious.
Unlike other games I have reviewed recently, Sinistar was granted a remake for the PC in the late-90s. I am not familiar with it myself, but do look forward to giving it a try.