Precious Star is outright one of the best shmups I have ever played and if you have any love for bullet hells at all you should click one of the links above this paragraph right now so you can download it and start playing it as soon as possible. Difficulty balance, ship weaponry, bosses, stages, scoring systems, graphics, and sound design – this game does them all exceptionally well. If you’re still reading this (or if you’ve come back after having played Precious Star for yourself), I’ll go ahead and dive right in to talking about just why this game works so well.
Nothing here is out of the ordinary, at least at first glance. You have three ships to choose from (along with at least one unlockable ship) with different movement speeds, firepower, and attack ranges, two difficulty settings, six stages, a few continues, and plenty of bullets. Even upon making a closer inspection you won’t find anything overly unusual here. Each ship has access to a unique bomb attack which temporarily grants it invincibility and causes plenty of damage either in a specific area or across the entire screen and more bombs are earned through killing enemies to fill a meter. There’s also a power meter which also fills as you kill enemies and, as you can probably guess, it makes your ship stronger. Despite all of these common, though by no means bad, elements, the gameplay is significantly changed up by the inclusion of the all-important Weapon Meter and the ships themselves.
You have access to the standard bullet hell combination of a wide normal attack and a focused mode where your ship slows down and directs its firepower straight ahead, but this time around you also have a third form of attack through the Weapon Meter. This third way of attacking is tied directly to the Weapon Meter and you’ll be relying on it constantly. Coming in the form of a single burst attack, this ability can be used by releasing the focus fire button when the Weapon Meter is mostly full for a weak variant or used at full strength when the Weapon Meter is entirely full, but in either case the meter is completely drained after use. Thankfully, the Weapon Meter itself refills within about three seconds and makes a very useful chiming noise when it is completely full so you don’t need to constantly keep an eye on it. More than anything else, these attacks define each of the ships, but to better understand the attacks it’s time we took a look at the ships themselves.
You start the game with access to a red ship, a yellow ship, and a green ship and completing the game grants access to a blue ship; there may very well be at least one more ship to unlock, but if it exists I have not discovered it as of this time. The red ship is the most ‘traditional’ of the lot with a fast movement speed, high attack power, a wide normal shot, a completely straight focused shot, and a bomb in the form of a large laser. However, its weapon attack shoots out a spread of large shots which leave behind circles which in turn stay fixed in their relative position on the screen, damaging anything they touch until they eventually fade away. With the inclusion of this ability, the red ship is transformed from being a generic all-rounder to being the ship most capable of focusing its fire on a specific part of the screen at the cost of not having any real way of dealing with threats on its sides or behind it.
Meanwhile, the yellow ship is all about homing attacks, even its special weapon attack comes in the form of a series of homing lasers, making it capable of taking out hordes of weak enemies before they even appear on the screen. However, this ship is surprisingly well-balanced because it is by far the slowest ship in the game and its individual shots are extremely weak; the yellow ship can blaze through the early stages, but it runs into trouble with just about every boss in the second half of the game because many of these bosses have smaller main bodies and many breakable parts, which results in the homing attacks dealing a little bit of damage to everything and destroying nothing until after a significant amount of time after the start of the fight.
Of the initial ships, the red ship may be the one I’m best with, but the green ship is certainly my favorite. Unlike the other ships, this ship doesn’t have a difference between its normal and focused attacks, though you can still hold the focus fire button to slow it down if you need to perform some precise dodging. To make up for this, the green ship has four pods which shoot alongside the ship itself and double tapping the fire button changes their position from shooting at spread angles, to focused in front of the ship, to shooting to either side of the ship, or to circling the ship to shoot in every direction. Swapping between the positions of the pods while under heavy fire can definitely take some time to get used to, but it grants the green ship an incredible degree of versatility. Even the weapon attack depends upon these pods as it trans forms them into giant spinning disks which fly outward from the ship in the direction they are facing and then rush back like enormous yoyos and the circling formation makes them home in on enemies.
Lastly, the blue ship is the strangest of them all much more difficult to use than the other three. This ship always shoots straight forward and it gains a laser pod after it increases in power to further boost its damage output. The big difference with this ship comes from the fact that it gets a close-range sword around its body when the Weapon Meter is full; the sword spins around based on the ship’s movement with your normal attack and becomes locked in place while focusing. The weapon attack swings the sword around the ship in a full circle, but this makes the sword immediately disappear afterward because it drains the weapon bar. As the sword deals the majority of this ship’s damage, you are encouraged to constantly fight at close range, swinging and repositioning the sword as needed. The ship’s bomb is just as strange as its weapon attack as the bomb hits the entire screen in addition to shooting an enormous laser straight ahead, but the bomb also drains away the Power Meter until nothing is left, so this attack can last quite a while if you are at full power at the cost of becoming as weak as possible once it ends (though the blue ship seems to charge the Power Meter faster than the others). Which ship you choose radically alters how you will need to play the game and with their weapon attacks and sometimes strange mechanics they are all remarkably fun to use.
There are quite a few different factors in play when it comes to scoring, so expect to replay this game a lot if you want to aim for as high of a score as possible. Enemies drop ‘Items’ after they explode, which are generally your main source of points and which grant more points when picked up in large amounts. Items will automatically magnetize to your ship if they are relatively close to it, but you can expect to miss a few of them while using one of the slower ships. Objects are also hidden in each stage which appear after being shot and spew forth large quantities of high-value Items which automatically become collected by your ship, so discovering their locations is particularly important. There is also a point multiplier which factors in to how much the enemies themselves are worth; this multiplier resets at the start of every stage and it’s somewhat unclear as exactly what makes it increase in the first place, but it seems to be tied to the amount of points you’ve gained by defeating enemies as it increases faster once it gets going and goes up especially quickly if you use bombs, which turn all enemy bullets into Items and double the multiplier value for any enemies they kill. There are also various bonuses awarded at the end of every stage based on your remaining lives and a few other factors, but the biggest factor of all may be the bosses themselves.
Every boss and just about every miniboss in the game has multiple phases alongside an indicator showing how many phases remain. Each boss has multiple optional parts to break off which can make the fight much easier, but, unlike most games with destructible bosses, taking the time to break off every optional piece may hurt your score. Each phase of a boss has an often-strict bonus timer relentlessly counting down until the moment you drain away the last drop of the health bar for that phase. The more quickly you complete a phase the more points the bonus timer awards you, granting you millions of points in the later fights, but there’s a catch. Failing to finish a phase within the time limit doesn’t stop the bonus timer from ticking. Instead, it continues to tick even after reaching zero, but it now begins to dive down into the negatives. Yes, playing overly cautiously against a boss won’t just prevent you from getting more points, it will take away the points you’ve already obtained. This boss-focused system of both reward and punishment adds a new element of excitement to the already intense fights on top of helping to keep the balance between ships which are great at rushing down bosses and ships which can obliterate swarms of weak enemies in the stages.
There are all sorts of bits of polish to speak of in regards to Precious Star. The soundtrack is phenomenal with an energetic pace and memorable songs, the track for Stage 4 being my favorite of the lot. Sound effects don’t fall far behind the music with crisp clinks, frantic chimes, and wonderfully ‘crunchy’ sounds when enemies explode reminiscent of Life Force. The interface itself is clean and doesn’t get in the way, each stage has a unique look, and bosses are always impressively massive with plenty of moving parts. Backgrounds do a fantastic job of giving a sense of scale, place, and speed and often contribute to the action; my favorite moment is probably when a huge section of the moon in the background turns into a giant hangar door and opens to reveal the boss of Stage 2.
Polish isn’t just in the aesthetics though. Bosses are rarely content to simply stick around at the top of the screen and many of them will fly around offscreen, rush up against the sides, or even attack from behind your ship, which can be very troublesome when playing as the forward-focused red ship despite its ability to otherwise dish out large amounts of damage. Even the smallest of enemies within the stages can pose a threat and multiple waves of different types of enemies are frequently used alongside each other or with stronger single enemies. Though there are only two difficulty modes, there is a significant difference between the two and you can expect an uphill battle from the very start of Hard Mode even if you can clear Normal. Continues are limited, but it’s still easy enough to reach the end of the game because you can choose to start from any level you have reached, as long as you have reached it on your selected difficulty with your selected ship and there’s no penalty for choosing to start from a later stage beyond the inevitable loss of points you would have otherwise obtained from skipped stages. Lastly, the attacks the final boss of the game uses seem to differ based on which ship you are using; I haven’t noticed any other ship-based differences in my time with Precious Star, though it is possible that they may exist.
Precious Star is simply an all-around excellent bullet hell shmup through and through. It looks and sounds great and the ships are all fun to use on top of being remarkably well-balanced both in terms of scoring and fighting capabilities. This game further elevates itself above much of the competition through the fact that it manages to create exciting stages alongside equally-exciting boss fights rather than focusing on one or the other and this evenly distributed focus is even reflected in the scoring system as stages and bosses alike contribute heavily towards your final score. This is simply a fantastic game which belongs in any shmup fan’s library and the fact that it’s freeware means shmup lovers have no excuse not to rush out and play it if they have not done so already.