When it comes to enjoying a circus show, one has to take the good with the bad. Pluses: Human cannonballs, trapeze artists, and clowns. Minuses: Elephant poop, falling trapeze artists, and lions on the loose (well, maybe only at the poorly run shows). Given that logic, it's no surprise that the futuristic circus-themed Starshot follows this trend: For every thrill it offers in innovative gameplay, it stinks up the fun with graphics and control glitches.
In a nutshell, Starshot is a free-exploration 3D platformer in the same vein as Super Mario 64. The protagonists are the members of a circus troupe deep in debt and facing an evil rival - Virtua Circus, which aims to run all other circuses out of business. Starshot, a rambunctious juggler in the struggling troupe, is sent to visit various planets and find unique acts that'll make his circus profitable again. Each planet Starshot visits is essentially a huge level, with multiple missions to accomplish in each. Starshot comes equipped with the tools of most platform heroes: jump, shoot, and fly for limited periods. Along the way, he collects ammo, lives, flight fuel, and red bonus fuel. (He needs this fuel to travel to certain planets.)
However, Starshot's gameplay is hardly cookie-cutter. Granted, there are plenty of standard jumping and bad-guy fighting sequences. But despite its kid-ike, cutesy graphics, this game's littered with surprisingly challenging puzzles. First off, not all enemies can be killed, so brute force isn't always the answer. In those cases, a player must usually lead one enemy to destroy other enemies - such as a shark to robots guarding a force field. The game also has puzzles that are almost like minigames, such as one in which you "attract" homing missiles so they hit living targets, or another where you kill forces on one side in a model wargame to get help from the other side to pass the level. The examples go on and on, and this game's rating benefits from this collection of puzzles.
As far as the storyline goes, this game gets a thumbs-up for its spunk and personality. All the characters seem to have smart mouths, which gives the game a rather offbeat, tongue-in-cheek feel to it - a refreshing change of pace from the always-on-Prozac characters found in other kiddy platformers.
Unfortunately, every 3D adventure title lives and dies by two factors: camera and control. While the game's level graphics are colorful and eye-pleasing (if a tad plain in some spots), the camera control often spoils the fun. Although no Nintendo 3D platformer has perfect camera control, Starshot seems subpar compared with other games in the genre. The camera especially wigs out in close quarters or walled-in areas. During some conversation sequences, the camera malfunctions as it follows what each character is saying. In cases when enemies are flying in from different angles, the camera can't pick up all the action, so the player is forced to take cheap hits. The game also has the nasty tendency to slow down or freeze in spots. You have the ability to move and zoom the camera on the fly, but it seems a poor consolation when you spend too much time adjusting the camera rather than playing.
Partly because of that camera control, jumping is a chore for Starshot, since many of the levels have instant fall-to-your-death spots. Although Starshot has unlimited lives, he's forced to start at the last checkpoint - which results in a lot of frustrating backtracking. The other problem with jumping is that it's very finicky. For example, Starshot can sometimes jump out of water near the shore, but in other instances, he can't - and it makes little sense why. Although players can get accustomed to Starshot's jumping quirks, it won't ever feel as natural or as fluid compared with other platformers.
As for extras, the game incorporates some nice ideas future titles should mimic, such as a level map that shows Starshot's location, where he must go next, and his current mission objective. Those who'd rather search on their own never need to look at the map, while those who are stuck can get a clue. The quest to find all the red bonus fuel also gives levels some exploration replay value.
The game's audio effects are decidedly average given the Nintendo 64's limits: All characters make the standard "wah-wah" droning sound as they speak, while the rest of the game's levels have OK music and effects that will neither disappoint nor amaze players.
Overall, folks who take Starshot for a trial run will fall into one of two camps. Patient, puzzle-oriented gamers will accept the game's camera and control flaws, and forge ahead just to experience the many gameplay innovations this game offers. Impatient, twitch-oriented gamers will complain it doesn't control as well as Mario or Banjo-Kazooie, then trash it after getting stuck on the first truly hard puzzle. If you're like this reviewer and fall into the former camp, then the circus-fun Starshot is worth checking out - just be prepared for a little elephant-scented doo-doo along the way.