When Williams released Sinistar in 1983, the game had an unprecedented and brutal pace. You were forced to simultaneously navigate an asteroid field, mine elusive crystals, and evade and destroy fast enemy fighters, while keeping track of drone ships as they labored to construct a doomsday machine. Trying to do all this while balancing a lit cigarette above the two-player start button proved to be too much for the gamers of the era, and, as a result, Sinistar wasn't a huge success. It's remembered today for one thing: The Sinistar itself, the most pissed-off boss monster in the history of gaming. The gigantic Sinistar's ultimate goal was unclear. Its immediate goal, eating your spaceship, was accompanied by a memorable anthology of hysterically shrieked catchphrases including "Beware, I live!" and "Run coward!" and "Run! Run! Run!" THQ's Sinistar: Unleashed attempts to bring Sinistar forward into 1999. Rather than significantly alter the structure of the original game, as Activision did with its Battlezone remake, the developers have stayed true to the game's arcade roots, somewhat to the detriment of the final product.
Sinistar has no plot. Or rather, like many pure arcade games, the plot is just a description of the gameplay itself: You're a spaceship pilot. Your spaceship is in an asteroid field. Enemy drones extract crystals from the asteroids and transport them to a huge, egg-shaped warp gate. When they've delivered enough crystals, the gate opens and Sinistar comes out. And he's angry. Like the drones, your ship can also mine crystals, which provide necessary energy for your shields and weapon systems. You can delay the appearance of Sinistar by attacking the gate with crystal-powered sinibombs. The longer you delay the opening of the gate, the weaker Sinistar is when he finally emerges and the fewer sinibombs you'll have to employ to destroy him. Impeding your attacks on the gate is an armada of heavily armed fighters. However, if you can delay the construction long enough, the gate blows apart, ending the level without your having to actually fight Sinistar. This routine is repeated over and over again at an escalating degree of difficulty.
Both the original and Sinistar: Unleashed share this "plot." GameFX Technology has added an assortment of new weapons and power-ups, elevated the graphics to modern standards, and replaced the two-dimensional top-down viewpoint of the original with a fully three-dimensional flight model. The Sinistar of 1983 used nothing more than a joystick and two buttons, while Sinistar: Unleashed features no fewer than 48 separate controls. Many of these can be safely ignored, but enough remain important to make playing the game with a standard gamepad effectively impossible. You'll either need to use a decent flightstick (at which point you'll still be reaching for the keyboard) or a combination of the mouse and keyboard. The control is overly complex for a mindless shooter and could benefit from some streamlining. For instance, there is no way to simply scroll through your available power-up items and choose one, as you can with weapons. Each of nine possible item slots is assigned a separate key with another set of keys used to access specific types of special items, of which there are seven. That's a total of 16 keys for choosing power-ups, making it impossible to assign this important function to the joystick. It's a simple oversight, but one that has a real effect on gameplay. If you're developing a fast-action arcade game, and the control scheme can't be stuffed into a ten-button joystick, it might be time to rethink your design.
Once you get past the control's built-in frustrations, Sinistar: Unleashed is fun for a while. Its problem is that it slavishly adheres to the repetitive nature of its predecessor. GameFX has tried to mix things up a little by making every fourth board of the game's 24 a "bonus level" in which you perform some task other than fend off the Sinistar. These levels are basically timed dogfights that involve either destroying or protecting a particular object. They're a nice break and a good test of the piloting skills you've been developing in the gate boards. There's also some variation with regard to the Sinistar itself. Instead of a single design, as seen in the original, each of the standard boards houses a unique Sinistar with its own attack style and weaknesses. However, this leads to another of the game's frustrations. Saving is only allowed between levels, yet beating each board is a time-consuming process that often takes as long as 20 or 30 minutes. To make matters worse, you're allotted only one ship with which to complete each level. Dying usually occurs late in the board while trying to discover a particular Sinistar's weakness, at which point you must restart the level and play it for ten minutes until the Sinistar reappears. Rather than the "just one more try" enthusiasm a great arcade game should cultivate, the length of each mission makes the requirement of replaying it often seem like an epic chore.
Where Sinistar: Unleashed succeeds is in its graphics, which are unquestionably beautiful. The asteroid field in which you play is dense and colorful. The game's well-rendered enemies die in impressive explosions that leave chunks of space debris streaming by your ship. Unfortunately, the game's aforementioned lack of variety proves to be a graphical liability as well. Once you've seen the first gorgeous board, you've seen all the gorgeous boards. The background bitmap and some characteristics of the lighting change from level to level, but after the first few you won't be expecting any surprises. The sound effects are serviceable but not spectacular. All of Sinistar's classic dialogue is intact and sounds great except for his death scream, which is oddly and inexcusably missing and makes killing him not nearly as satisfying as it once was.
Sinistar: Unleashed is too complex and frustrating for the casual gamer, yet not deep enough for today's hard-core player. With a little simplification, the game could have worked as a fun, mindless time waster. Instead, it's merely a fabulous-looking example of why they don't make games like Sinistar anymore.