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Astro Boy: the Video Game

(D3 Publisher; US: 20 Oct 2009)

I’ve always found Astro Boy to be kind of creepy.  I mean it’s a robot kid who wears underpants and boots.  His hair is sort of creepy too.


I do have vague recollections of Astro Boy as a comic book hero, since I have read some of the Americanized comic book versions of the character.  While I am only vaguely aware of anime, he also sparks parallel memories of early Sunday morning presentations of Starblazers and Battle of the Planets.  I know that Astro Boy is a considerably older intellectual property than those, nevertheless, he is connected in some unclear way to my first encounters with Japanese media. 


Thus, it came as little surprise to me on booting up Astro Boy: The Video Game that (despite some cutscenes borrowed directly from the new film that serve as a means of creating a background narrative for the game) Astro Boy immediately brought me back to the 1980s.  This was not merely due to the associations that I had with anime from that era, but it was chiefly because of the very basic gameplay that I was presented with.


Astro Boy is a 2-D scrolling platformer and shooter that features sequences playing as Astro Boy (now clad—to my great relief—in pants and a shirt) on the ground and in the air.  The ground sequences are what you would expect . . . if you were playing the game in 1985: you run and jump and punch and shoot at stuff.  This was a vaguely pleasant experience for me initially.  The gameplay reminded both my brain and reflexes of Mega Man as I settled into a retro 2-D groove.  These sequences are broken up by some 2-D shooter elements as Astro Boy takes to the skies and turns into something like the ship from Lifeforce, a side scrolling laser beam wielding glider of sorts (not literally).  Again, this was initially pleasant as it suggested a very retro vibe and made me nostalgic for a simpler form of gaming sacrificed on the alter of 3-D isometric views.


The other element that evoked similarly nostalgic emotions in me was the ability to add a partner to fight alongside Astro Boy (curiously, an exact replica of the Astro Boy that I was controlling but with a slightly different color palette—y’know like green overalls instead of red).  My 10-year-old jumped right in and soon we were blasting away at bad robots and bad flying thingies just as my brother and I used to do in front of my 12-inch screen and Nintendo Entertainment System.


Indeed, she enjoyed the simplicity of Astro Boy as much as I did.  Finding the mechanics simple and the ability to drop in in the midst of play (and even after dying) made playing with each other easy and less frustrating than an older school game might normally be. 


Unfortunately, aside from having a bit of fun with a game that my daughter could easily adjust to, the good feelings and nostalgia rapidly gave way to the reality of a retro playstyle.  Sometimes retro can suggest a quaint charm, but sometimes retro just means old.


Astro Boy: The Video Game plays a little like Mega Man and a little like Lifeforce, but it lacks the charm and innovative design of either one. Frankly, if this were 1985, this would still be a subpar rendering of either genre that it emulates, the 2-D platformer or the 2-D shooter.  Movement is less than precise, levels are redundant, and the enemies and backgrounds are dull. 


I tired of it after about 15 minutes.  My partner, the 10-year-old, and her younger sister, found themselves more captivated by it.  Having allowed Dad to play through it, they absconded with the disk and played through the adventure on their own. This experience lasted for all of about an afternoon.  They played, beat it, and then returned to Penguin Club and PopTropica, games that both girls have been playing for over a year whose simple graphics and design have caused the surrender of hours and hours of after school playtime.  I don’t expect that Astro Boy will be receiving so much love.


In a nutshell, Astro Boy is a briefly diverting experience but hard to recommend beyond the nostalgic sense that it might initially evoke in an older gamer or its slightly longer diversionary qualities for younger ones.  The term “retro” literally means “backwards,” and while Astro Boy might briefly cause a bit of retrospection, it more often simply feels retrograde.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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