"Space Trooper USA" Review
To state that the flash game Space Trooper U.S.A. is “light on story” would be akin to observing that the Pacific Ocean “really isn’t that small, when you think about it”. It doesn’t so much lack a story as it does actively resist attempts to have one. Where other games might be content to give you a few text-only cutscenes, Space Trooper U.S.A. just sneers upon your pathetic human need for context or reason. Oh yes, you’ll get a story, but it’s comprised of one sentence, randomly generated, and usually has about as much to do with the game as the dictionary entry for “Aardvark”. Because that’s the way STUSA rolls: back in STUSA’s day, they didn’t have any of your nandy-pandy “cutscenes”. All they had for story was text and pain, and you had better well learn to like it too.
While I can glean little of the STUSA universe through the game, I can rest assured that it is not one with a kind and loving god. You start out on a tiny asteroid with a rifle and incoming waves of insectoid aliens, and it’s your job to combine the two in creative ways until you’ve died the most horrible death that you can come up with under the circumstances. It isn’t clear why this particular hunk of rock is so strategically important, or who hated the space marine enough to send him to guard it, or why the insects are so happy to oblige, or even which of the three is part of the titular U.S.A. Like I said, STUSA is primarily occupied with throwing chitinous exoskeletons at you until you until you can be properly described as “maimed”. If you manage to survive for longer than a few minutes, something the game takes as a personal offense, it will start producing a larger class of enemies that violently explode when shot. That may not sound all that horrible, considering explosions are to video games what the color green is to paintings, but in this case the explosions gradually destroy the surface of the planet, exposing the molten core (if you’re wondering why it doesn’t freeze when exposed to the vacuum of space, you obviously haven’t been paying attention) and eventually leaving you stranded on an island in an ocean of lava, casually wondering if you have enough time to roast a few marshmallows before the next wave (you don’t). You can try repairing the ground with a particular powerup, but only in the same sense that you can try to contain theThames with a sieve, since the game unloads exploders at you at a rate roughly comparable to the rain.
So you’re going to die. But at least it’ll be a fun death. STUSA is really the inevitable end result of what happens when somebody puts the greatest possible effort into the simplest possible concept. The graphics are good for a flash game, which is to be expected from a game running on the Unity engine, and the visual style is distinct enough that you can recognize what you’re supposed to shoot and what you aren’t (namely, everything and nothing, respectively).. Controls work well- you point in a general direction, horrible monsters die, etc. The bombastic musical score is clearly having the time of its life, and syncs up well with the metallic voice of the announcer, whom I suspect to be the unforgiving god I mentioned earlier. The powerups are distributed evenly enough for you to feel like an unstoppable engine of destruction just when the bigger enemies arrive to rob you of that notion, and your secondary weapon, the plasma gun, is obscenely powerful enough to produce a vast number of tearful insect widows when it’s used, but has enough drawbacks (i.e. destroying the ground you’re standing on) to keep from seeming obscenely powerful. There isn’t a lot to this game, but just about all of it is done right.
Now, conventional games criticism demands that I break down the points of the game like that, but it’s really doing the game a disservice. The experience of the game is the more important part. As the game starts, you’re immediately plunked down on a gray sphere and given a few seconds of peace before the carnage begins. The first few waves require a few shots to bring down an individual enemy, but that’s a circumstance that the game doesn’t tolerate for very long. At the five minute mark, you’ve collected enough powerups the individual enemy poses about as much threat as a hostile fruit fly does to an elephant. You’re mowing down wave after wave of vague shapes that have ceased to be threats and instead have become walking sacks full of points. The lava is beginning to become a minor annoyance, but easy enough to manage on your way to kamikaze one of the insect hives with the “Invincibility” powerup. Eventually the combat starts to get to your head, and you spontaneously begin shouting things like “I AM A COMBINE HARVESTER, AND YOU ARE ALL STALKS OF CORN!” Eventually, of course, you die, but only after leaving behind enough dead bugs to fill an entire building’s supply of windowsills. This is a game that is seriously undercut by that lack of a feature that allows you to stand atop the corpses of your foes. It’s pure cathartic violence, free of context or logic.
However, STUSA’s simplicity and glorious absence of plot winds up also being its main drawback. There’s no boss or other endgame content if you survive long enough: like I said, this game was programmed mainly with your demise in mind. Once you’ve played the game for twenty minutes, you’ve seen all it has to offer. The enemies, while gradually getting darker in color, and thus meaner by video game logic, never really show much variety throughout the game. You run out of places to stash your powerups after a while and the game just starts throwing “Invincibility” at you, which is fully necessary, because, you know, lava, but that doesn’t keep it from getting a bit tiresome. If you’re that sort of person, you can replay to top your high score, but every game plays out the exact same way, to the point where you might start to wonder if it’s really Bill Murray in that space marine armor. With the gameplay feeling the same and not even an excuse for a story gently reminding you that you aren’t done yet, there really isn’t a reason to keep going short of trying to figure out whether or not there’s actually some sort of deep sociological subtext that you missed the last time around.
Space Trooper U.S.A. is a well-crafted game with a single-minded focus on gameplay. It works brilliantly for a short while, but doesn’t have enough content to make it work for more than that long. What we have here is a game that has magnificently succeeded at making you feel like a god of death while still eventually reminding you that, no, you aren’t, and that’s a better foundation than a lot of other games that I’ve seen lately. If somebody can build a better house on that foundation, a house filled with a variety of weapons and enemies, with varying terrain, death traps, and maybe, god forbid, a plot, then I for one would certainly not want to live on the same street as that house. But I would probably love the game.