Starr Mazer is a passion project. The team at Imagos Softworks calls Starr Mazer a "retro-sexy Point-and-Click Adventure Shoot 'em Up." That's a fancy way of saying it's part point-and-click adventure, part side-scrolling shoot-em-up, and part 80's cartoon. I've never seen anything quite like Starr Mazer before, which is why I'm talking with designer Don Thacker about the concept. Thacker is a man who loves what's he's selling; the words tumble out of his mouth as he thinks them. His answers are animated and fast, full of a unique enthusiasm.
"Shoot-em-ups are really cool; when I was 9, I used to play TurboGrafx-16 a bunch and I really liked it," explains Thacker when I ask where the concept came from. "Turbo chips are mostly shoot-em-ups because the system pretended to be a 16-bit system, but it really wasn't. It was two 8-bit processors: a regular processor and a graphics processor. It was crap at doing complicated things, but it was really good at doing lots of things at once. So scrolling shooters found a good home on the system."
"I used to be a big fan of those, but there's no story," he continues. "Eventually I got a computer and had point-and-click adventure games. Gabriel Knight, Space Quest, the SCUMM VM stuff, all of that. I was super into them, but they weren't super actiony! It was just a lot of clicking and a lot of listening to people talk. Which is really cool for 40 minutes. When I was a young little pup, I imagined both together, so I'm building it now."
Starr Mazer drops you in the flight suit of Brick M. Stonewood (the 'M' stands for 'metal'), a hotshot pilot who finds himself frozen in a space pod for 130 years. He wakes up in the future and heads off to adventure. The premise reminds me of Buck Rogers in the 25th century, an old pulp adventure series that inspired an 80's TV show, but Thacker tells me he's never seen it before.
"People keep saying that," he shrugs. "I've never actually seen Buck Rogers. People are saying it's like Space Dandy and Cowboy Bebop; I've never seen any of those. This is like Silverhawks and Thundercats to me. I love that weird hybrid; taking a bunch of Japanese animators and making them draw cowboys."
Thacker calls Brick "Han Solo, only prettier." Brick's home base is the Holloway-Exeter space station, which was nothing but a seedy dive in his original time. The station is where your supporting cast - like Bunny Bitshift, a waitress with a secret past - lives. It's also where you pick up new missions, talk to NPCs (the game will be fully-voiced, according to Thacker), and upgrade your ship. Where you're ready to ride off in your ship, the Starr Wolf, you just hop in the cockpit and go.
"Getting into your ship is entirely seamless," says Thacker. "You walk from the bay to your ship and pilot the ship out into space. The camera zooms out into the SHMUP and back in for the point-and-click adventure. It's an integrated and infinitely replayable experience."
Starr Mazer is "infinitely replayable" because it doesn't tell a straight-forward story. Instead the point-and-click and shoot-em-up elements are remixed and changed each time you play. The adventure game is based on modular story elements and the shooter randomly glues chunks of hand-crafted gameplay sections together.
"The point-and-click elements are modular," he tells me. "Everytime I drop a new module in it exponentially changes the target of the story. The main character plays through similar story elements, but they're always different. The SHMUP sections are also procedurally generated. They're not random. They're procedurally chunked and it matches what you've done in the PNC section."
If you insult and kill a pirate in the adventure game, his buddies will be out for your blood in the shooter. Take down a mega-sized starship in the SHMUP? The survivors may find you later in the adventure. Don't worry, just because there's some action-packed shooter segments doesn't mean the adventure will be dry and boring. Brick is still an action hero.
"I want to keep it fun and actiony," says Thacker. "I never want to get bored playing the point-and-click adventure. It's not a pixel hunt. It's very clear what you can do in the game. Brick can shoot anything. The arc of your story will change dramatically, but you can shoot anything. It doesn't spawn new dudes; you kill 'em, they're gone. Although, we don't want you to shoot a bunch of people."
The game will also make allowances if you're better at one half of the game. If you're horrible in the SHMUP, there will be ship upgrades you can find in the adventure section. If you're great at the shooter side, you'll get more ore and the game's other consumables: Guts, Bucks, and Smokes. You can then use the consumables to customize Brick and the Starr Wolf to your liking.
What's a good retro shooter without some kickin' tunes? Starr Mazer's soundtrack is a collaborative effort led by Alex Mauer, a chip-tune artist who released Vegavox, an album on an NES game cartridge. Other guest composers include Virt (Shovel Knight), Manami Matsumae (Mega Man), the Protomen, and Danimal Cannon.
There's a lot of the studio's own skin going into this game. As I said in the beginning, Starr Mazer is a passion project for Thacker. The Kickstarter goal is $160,000, less than half of what it'll cost to make the game; the team at Imagos is kicking in the rest. (This is actually rather normal for Kickstarter games.) Right now, the game is within spitting distance of the goal with $152,000 on Kickstarter. Thacker is hoping these last few days push it over the top.
"This is my passion," he says. "This is the dream game. I've finally gotten to the point where I'm good enough at cinema to tell a story and I'm good enough at making games to make the game."
I wish him luck, because Starr Mazer looks like something else.