Developed by Astro Port, Satazius is the first of several planned indie games that Capcom is localizing and digitally distributing in North America. The game is proof that horizontal shooters don't require huge development teams and a massive budget to provide an intense experience. They don't need to reinvent the wheel, either. Smart design goes a long way for those with a fondness for side-scrolling shoot-em-ups who are looking for an excuse to give their fingers another workout
Satazius presents you with a single ship that you can customize between each level or when you continue after meeting an untimely end. There are four slots; a primary projectile (which can be adjusted), as well as a charge beam and two secondary peripheral weapons. Only one of those peripheral weapons can be active at a time (you can switch between them on the fly), so it pays to think carefully about your play style and the specific threats that you will face in a coming area.
The weapon system works nicely and serves as the game's primary hook. Stages are full of enemies and bullets, but don't expect the bullet hell you might get from a developer like Cave or Treasure. There is a wider variety of ways to die, including numerous environmental hazards like erupting volcanoes and stone columns. It's critical that you clean up any alien opposition the moment it appears, particularly in later stages where you also deal with larger vessels that can withstand more abuse while peppering you with shots. If you're having an especially rough time, it probably means you aren't playing offensively enough or you aren't using your secondary weapons to their full advantage.
The third stage provides an excellent example of how you must use your varied weapons to their fullest potential. Here, you need to clear a lengthy horizontal shaft as you battle a monstrous mechanical worm. The wall of bullets that emanates from your primary weapon is ideal for this situation, but a short time later, you find yourself descending through a vertical chamber while avoiding lava and enemies positioned along the ceiling. If you have the option, it's best to switch to a weapon that fires shots directly overhead so that you're not stuck dodging bullets and possibly ramming into a rock wall in the process. Shortly thereafter, you need to switch things up again. You always have access to your chosen weapons, which is good news because it means you're still capably equipped if you die and are returned to the last cleared checkpoint.
There are no screen-clearing bombs in Satazius--only a charge shot. Initially, you can choose from two powerful configurations. As you blast your way through a given area, a meter fills. You can only unleash your special attack once that meter is full, which gives you an incentive to think carefully about when to deploy it. You can wipe out an exposed boss in no time flat if you arrive with a full meter, but there are times when just reaching that encounter proves difficult and it's better to let your charge shot help you out of a tight fix. Some bosses won't even expose a weak point until you've grappled with them for a time, so saving your blast until the end of the stage isn't always the ideal approach.
There are other issues to consider when tackling a level as well. Though Satazius looks like nearly any other horizontal shooter at first glance, every level leaves you free to explore multiple routes. Often, you can head up or down to find entirely unexpected areas. If your equipped gear isn't good for one route, an alternate route might prove simpler. There's room to experiment as you try to find the best way through a familiar stage in pursuit of a higher score.
Though Satazius features multiple routes, you face certain challenges every time you play, such as when you're stuck flying ahead of a battleship in a narrow cavern or when you must descend through a volcanic shaft while avoiding lava eruptions. Unfortunately, some stages have cheap surprises in store. When you arrive at the base of the aforementioned volcano, for instance, the screen will begin scrolling slowly to the right. Then, lava fills most of the screen in an instant and your ship is totally cooked if you haven't moved to the far right portion of your viewing area. There's only a faint glow along the top of the screen to suggest that you need to get out of the way of an attack you can't see coming.
Making progress is always exciting because you're forced to stay on your toes while discovering new challenges and because your arsenal improves as you go. Each time you complete a stage, you unlock new equipment that you can then use in subsequent areas. The expanded options make it still more difficult to decide how to best approach each stage, but it's a good sort of difficult. A limited supply of continues also means that you'll likely have to take several runs at the game before you gain an intimate knowledge of the later areas and the more advanced weapons. However, a Practice mode is also available that lets you choose a starting stage from among those you have previously completed.
If the game's default Normal mode gives you too much trouble even after you've practiced a bit, you may wish to switch to the easy setting. Enemies move much more slowly and fire fewer shots, but you're still limited to 10 credits and won't unlock more extreme difficulty settings upon clearing the game. Later stages feature fewer checkpoints and enough environmental hazards that you'll probably exhaust your supply of credits faster than you might like, no matter which difficulty setting you've chosen. Plus, you may eventually find yourself going up against groups of bosses that provide you with no chance to recover between encounters. You definitely need to hone your skills if you want to reach the adventure's end.
Metallic visual design and a techno soundtrack suit the intense stages perfectly. They also ensure that everything looks and sounds as you'd expect, but there's not much beyond the weapon customization to set the game apart from older shooters. Even that hook feels like it was borrowed from Gradius, but at least here, there's none of the notorious slowdown that you may remember from Konami's classic efforts. Unfortunately, the full-screen mode doesn't let you see all of the action on some widescreen monitors, but there's a smaller window mode set as a default that works quite nicely. The smaller viewing area actually works to your advantage because hazards have an easier time sneaking up on you on a larger screen. Controls are responsive whether you use a keyboard or a gamepad, so there's no awkward initiation period regardless of your background. Given how many things Satazius does well and the intense experience that it provides, the game's derivative nature is an easy flaw to overlook.