There's something about one-button games that's really appealing to some people, myself included. It's not that I'm so lazy that I enjoy playing an entire game pushing only one button, or that games like this are intrinsically simple. In fact, I believe it's the opposite. A game that's designed around just one button to control all the elements and variables of that game is one that the designers really had to put some thought into (dreadfully simple games excluded). And that's exactly what the folks at Orb Games did in their quietly-released new download, Stardrone. It's a multi-genre game, featuring a mix of arcade action, pinball, breakout, gravitational physics and collect-the-objects. Might sound a little confusing, but the game simply boils down to you (a ball) lighting up stars to reach an objective.
Simple? Yes. Boring? Surprisingly, not at all. In fact, Stardrone is a game that has the unique ability to appeal to both action junkies and puzzle-lovers alike. Within just the first few levels, you'll be met with a barrage of visual stimuli while a spacey-techno track thumps along. Some might find the graphics stunning, or at the very least, impressive. Effects like particle blur, shimmering and bursting effects really bring the playing field to life. Levels are painted with bright, vibrant colors set against the backdrop of deep space. You control the ball solely with the mouse button, albeit indirectly. Once the ball is launched from its starting position, it shoots through a maze scattered with "gravitational nodes" placed in key locations. When the mouse button is pushed, the nodes are activated, and the ball is attracted to the nearest node using a watered-down gravitational physics mechanic. This allows you to control the ball by a series of well-timed mouse click-and-releases, causing the ball to change course, orbit a node or slingshot off in a different direction. You "catch" the ball by attracting it into orbit, then wait until its trajectory is lined up with where you want to send it, firing it away towards stars or objects. Catch it in orbit again with another node and repeat, eventually finding a nice rhythm so that you can keep the ball moving from node to node without keeping it orbit for more than one cycle or so. The reason the physics are "watered down" is for the benefit of the player; if it were as realistic as some of those planetary web-toys out there, you'd have a much harder time manipulating the trajectory of the ball.
The overall objective of the game is to light up a certain number of stars (and sometimes collect gems) in each level and get to the exit portal. Missions vary from level to level, sometimes requiring you to light every single star on the level, gather gems and make it back to the portal, while other times you'll just need to target your ball through a series of obstacles to make it to the goal, lighting stars along the way to raise your score. In other levels, you won't even need to make it to a goal; you'll just need to light the stars without being destroyed. A handy map in the lower-left corner displays helpful info like star positions, your location, nodes and more. Once you're down to just a few stars left to light, a circle pulses around their location on the map to help you find them. Obstacles in the game can be as simple as the walls of the maze you bounce off of, or as deadly as a layer of spikes that destroy your ball on contact. Enemies in Stardrone range from stationary satellites to the moving variety, all of which can destroy you if you don't destroy them first. Power-ups allow you to transform into a spiked wrecking ball, letting you rip through enemies and destructible objects like tissue paper. There's a bunch of other environmental elements as well, like turbo-booster lanes, pinball-style bumpers, rails that catch your ball and shoot it spiraling down the course, and more.
Watching your ball blast through enemies, light up stars and dizzyingly zoom through spirals is a bit reminiscent of the classic Sonic the Hedgehog games. Many gamers fondly remember Sonic as a turbo-charged, enjoyable distraction from the majority of games—even today—that move at a snail's pace (comparatively speaking). On the last title screen, there's a game speed slider that allows you to control how fast the action is. To get the full experience, I recommend you set it to the max after you've played a few levels to get your bearings. Half the fun of Stardrone is the speed factor; getting "in the zone" as the background becomes almost a blur, knowing that just one slip up at that speed and you'll hit an obstacle like a brick wall, destroying your ball. There's plenty more elements to the game; too many to mention without spoiling. Just a few examples are things like traps, angle-shifters, gate passes that need to be opened...more than enough to hold the average gamer's attention.
Analysis: Stardrone is a solid game, through and through. The graphics are well above par for such a conceptually basic game, even featuring some nice emulated depth backgrounds that give you a feeling of spatial relativity. More importantly, beyond the graphics lie a fresh new game idea, one that's executed almost flawlessly, giving you the impression that the developers spent a suitable amount of time in beta testing before releasing the product to the public. It's a game that can be played and enjoyed by virtually all age groups and most importantly, the novelty doesn't wear off after a dozen or so levels. As difficulty increases, so do new game elements, so you'll always be discovering new elements throughout the game's 50+ levels. The designers were also nice enough to implement a targeting overlay that constantly displays the trajectory the ball will follow whenever it's attracted to or released from a node. It seems like just a minor enhancement, but without it, players might have become frustrated too quickly to give the game an honest chance.
It's difficult to pigeon-hole this game into a genre so that it can be suggested to a particular fan base. Most of the time, that attribute is a shining example of a game that's just plain fun, instead of merely being enjoyable for a particular type of player. It also lends itself well to periodic play; just a level or two a day when you need your tactile action fix. The best I can do is recommend that unless you only play point-and-click or escape-room games, you'll want to give Stardrone a try, if for no other reason than you haven't seen anything like it yet!