The best physical attributes of the PlayStation Vita are the machine's big screen and twin analog sticks.
They are conveniently what Super Stardust Delta uses best to make one of the cheapest launch games for Sony's new gaming portable one of its best.
Super Stardust Delta is a twin-stick shooter of spaceship vs. aliens and asteroids. It's a descendant of everything from Spacewar and Space Invaders to the Xbox 360's own great launch game, Geometry Wars Retro Evolved.
It is, more specifically, the latest in a lineage of Stardust games from Finnish development studio Housemarque, who appear to operate with the twin mandates of producing games that make gaming hardware blaze and making sure their download-only games show up their physically-bought, more expensive counterparts.
Delta is dazzling. The $10 download-only game plays similarly to Housemarque's PlayStation 3 game Super Stardust HD. It places the player as a spaceship that can fly around a planet while using that ship to blast apart a cosmic bucket dump of meteors and aliens. The player can switch at any time from lashing its torrent of troubles with a fiery whip to blasting them with ice bullets. (The rock-crusher third option from the PS3 game is gone here.) Enemies tend to be weak only to one or the other, so much of your strategy involves flipping from one weapon the the other.
Delta's defining element is the nearly constant chaos of its battlefield. On the PS3, HD was as stunning a fireworks display as the machine has ever seen. On the Vita, Delta is just as remarkable. Massive meteors fracture into uncountable pieces. Dozens of enemies swarm toward your ship. Piles of score bonuses litter the surface, as do power-ups that frequently but gradually enhance the potency of your guns.
The developers get a minor demerit for mapping the game's new black-hole bombs to taps on the rear of the Vita. I accidentally triggered these things too many times, when all I thought I was doing was shifting my hands to comfortably hold the system. Touch-screen missiles are better. You don't accidentally touch the front screen. Thankfully, you can re-map all of these inputs to buttons. Hooray!
It's not as if the game's terrain is visually boring to compensate. While the planetary playing fields are smooth, they are simply a transparent spherical shell around extraordinary planetary cores that are detailed with massive cities and land formations. And if that's not enough, the playing field is frequently clouded with several hundred motes of green stardust that must be collected to trigger drops of super weapons and increase in the game's score multipliers.
You play the game for high scores, elevating the multiplier until you die and advancing through the planetary levels one increasingly frantic fight against the space blitz at a time. Bosses are tough and, as with the rest of this thing, happily not recycled from the PS3 game. The Vita effectively pulls in rival PlayStation friends' scores to give you new goals.
The bad parts of Super Stardust Delta are left to the margins as mini-games. There reside quick, timed mini-modes that make the twin-stick controls look all the better by forcing you to play via touch screen. In the first mode of the two I unlocked in time for review, you have to pinch meteors into oblivion by pinching the Vita's front and back touchscreen/panels where the meteors are. This is about as comfortable as using one hand to massaging the top and bottom of your foot at the same time. The second mini-game, which involves flicking discs on the touch screen, makes me uninterested in unlocking the next three.
There are other launch games more awkwardly designed to show off the Vita tech. Super Stardust Delta, by sticking to the most important Vita elements in its main mode, shows Sony's handheld off the best.