In Depth Review: Astro Boy: The Omega Factor [GBA]
Don't confuse this game with the Playstation 2 version of Astro Boy, which I've heard is about as good as poop although I myself haven't experienced it yet. Astro Boy: The Omega Factor is a traditionally laid out side-scrolling action platform/shooting game, which means you navigate our hero through levels from left to right or right to left, battling minions with his fists until you encounter a big boss character. I added the "/shooting" part because in a few levels and boss scenes, Astro is flying or hovering through the air attacking only with his finger laser. Treasure and Hitmaker (one of Sega's formerly-named AM Studios) have spruced this basic blueprint up with a few things: special moves, a combo system and a character-building system directly tied to meeting people throughout the various stages in the game.
The platforming gameplay in Astro Boy is mildly reminiscent of Viewtiful Joe's addictively fun gameplay, making Astro Boy a real treat to play as you try to find the most stylish and point-accumulating way to defeat enemies. Astro runs a bit, then the screen stops scrolling and a whole bunch of enemies jump on the screen. This makes it possible for you to concentrate on trying to string together hits. Each major level is broken up into anywhere between four and six mini-stages, and although you're only granted one life, your unlimited continues put you back at the beginning of the mini-stage, not the entire stage.
The flying shmup stages are reminiscent of your basic Gradius game or Gradius clone, without the powerups. You fly left to right (or right to left in one instance) as the screen scrolls for you. All your moves are available to you except for your punch, so with your finger laser (described below) as the basic means of attack, you're left combo-less during these stages (save for a two-hitter by following up the finger laser with a super attack).
Some boss stages are fought in action platform style, but others are fought in aerial combat. Formatted somewhat like a fighting game, Astro turns to face his opponent automatically no matter what direction he's flying in. Thus it's possible to fly backwards while firing forwards at the enemy, a very welcome mechanic.
Both the platforming stages and the shmup stages proved to be very fun to me simply due to the sheer amount of activity I had to pull off. However, many of the stages (both varieties, especially the shmup stages) ended up being a straightforward horizontal setting with no frills, more like an excuse to fill the screen with enemies than actual well-designed levels. You won't find any cool things that Treasure has done in the past such as hanging off of rockets while attacking a ship or climbing a wall while trapped by the extended legs of an alien machine like in Contra III: The Alien Wars, or the chase scene in Radiant Silvergun where you've got to follow the ship that "switches lanes" in attempts to foil your aim. I'm all about games that are easy to pick up and learn, but I also appreciate being able to apply what I've learned in drastic situations created by vicious level design. Astro Boy's level design is less than vicious. It's perhaps the one gaming gripe I have with this otherwise great game.
Pull My Finger Laser
If you take into consideration that Astro Boy, in my opinion, lacks ingenius level design, a game without any special attacks or powerups would seem drab (which is why I respect Ikaruga so much for deriving all of its quality gameplay from viciously good game design, not wacky powerups). Astro, thankfully, has some special moves to spice up controlling the little ba$tard.
For basic special moves, Astro can fire a horizontal laser shot from his finger (Up + B). It travels through enemies and walls, so dispensing the laser on a row of enemies will affect the entire row regardless of whether or not the first enemy is destroyed after one hit. Astro can also perform a dashing move similar to the one found in Alien Soldier, a Japanese game for the Sega Genesis, where Astro is invulnerable during the actual dash. He can perform this move in any of the eight core directions. This is not only important for getting Astro past some obstacles safely, but also to build up combos as well (discussed later).
Astro also has three super moves. The first one is his arm cannon which, in-game, is basically the same as his finger laser but on cocaine. It reaches all the way across the screen in a continuous beam and can be as vertically as large as Astro himself, resembling Ryu's Shinkuu-Hadoken beam super move from Capcom's Vs. series. The second one is -- get this -- a butt cannon. Ok, so the cannons may come out of his hips, but it sure as hell looks like they're coming outta his a$$. The cannons fire bullets that hit everything currently on the screen, doing less damage but having more range than the arm cannon. The third one is a dash super, which lets Astro damage enemies as he dashes through them.
All of these moves can be combined into combos as well as strengthened during character development, as explained later.
Combos: Cheddar Cheese & Cracker
Ever the high-score oriented developer, Treasure has included combo multipliers in Astro Boy to encourage people to attack using combos rather than just hitting B randomly and fiercely. Astro's basic combo, when his fists come in contact with an enemy, is a simple four-hit punch combo that ends in a kick. The kick sends enemies flying, and while reeling from the kick these baddies can collide with other enemies on screen to cause them damage. But Astro can also append a finger laser attack after the kick, then one of his super movies, effectively giving you a six-hit combo. The score from each hit is multiplied by the number of your combo multiplier, of course, so higher combos exponentially net you higher points.
Using the dash is integral to getting higher level combos. Instead of completing a full four hitter, Astro can instead dash out to another nearby enemy and start the combo sequence over on that guy, but if you're fast enough the combo counter doesn't revert to zero. If you're good enough, you can get a little 3-punch-dash-3-punch-dash quasi-infinite combo going, then end it off with a bang using the arm cannon or some other super move to really finish the poor s.o.b's off in style.
Astro, You Must Evolve! Talk to Everyone!
So the story goes, Astro Boy is a robot that is capable of learning and feeling human emotions. He accomplishes this (as far as the game is concerned, at least) through his interactions with other people in the Astro Boy world. As you run through the worlds, you'll meet several characters from the anime. Some of them are right out in the open, and are unavoidable. Others are hidden behind breakable objects in the level, and it's up to you, experimentation, and dumb luck to find them. In order to truly finish the game (i.e. get the real ending) there are certain hidden characters that you absolutely must find. Some of them you've found, and you have to re-visit them and talk to them again. This is possible because SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!
at some point in the game, a Stage Select screen opens up where you can revisit any stage you please to find and revisit people. What they say changes depending on who you've talked to already and what you've talked about, so the game quickly becomes a test of your memory in terms of talking to a character, having them tell you that so-and-so can help you out, and then seeking out that so-and-so who you just know you've see somewhere else. It could be the most seemingly minor character who you saw hiding in a trash can or something, but s/he holds a vital clue to completing the game, so it's your job to find out where you saw that person.
END SPOILER ALERT! END SPOILER ALERT! END SPOILER ALERT! This dynamic added a little bit of sleuthing fun that grew on me despite being slightly annoying at first. However, getting the full ending and a fully fleshed out storyline isn't the only motivator for finding characters to talk to. As said before, Astro Boy is given the chance to build character with many of the characters he meets. Considering I was dealing with a Final Fantasy Tactics Advance addiction prior to starting Astro Boy, the urge to build up characters was still strong in my blood. Needless to say, I appreciated this portion of the game (among others, of course) even more. After he meets someone, a screen pops up where you can allocate an attribute point to one of many categories: health, your finger laser (which also affects your arm cannon), your punching power, your butt-cannon, among other attributes. It's not just to make you into a walking tank, either -- you'll really need to be powered up to survive the game. Some characters you meet are only found by utilizing a leveled-up dash move, as you start out the game only being able to dash once in the air. In other instances you simply won't have enough life to withstand enemy fire unless you're really, really, really good (looking).
Mr. Sparkle no Charrenji ni Ojimasu!
To say that Treasure likes its fans to be skilled players would be an understatement. Astro Boy is not as hard as Radiant Silvergun or Ikaruga, but if you want to talk about an Astro Boy game catered to the wrong audience (the little kids who like cartoons and licensed games) then here it is. I'm not sure how many times I've had to choose "Continue" (of which there are unlimited) over the course of my gameplay, but I know it was quite a bit. Basic enemies can hit you very hard, sometimes taking up to a quarter of your life meter per hit -- on a fully powered up life bar, the damage is still more than enough to make you wince.
The flying shmup stages are no better, pitting you in the familiar space-shooter environment of having to dodge many little enemies which shoot many little bullets followed by many big enemies that shoot out big lasers. Don't forget the chunks of debris and airborne mines that litter the skyways, either. With all of that onscreen stuff to worry about, you'll be thanking the game for giving you a lifebar instead of a one-hit kill.
And then there are the huge bosses that all have some trick to them. Be it crazy attacks to dodge, specific weak spots that aren't immediately obvious, or different attack "phases", there's always something to think about and test your reflexes on with the bosses in this game. In all, while eight year old Joey might be able to understand how to play this just fine, I'd imagine he'd have fits trying to pass boards. Ninja Gaiden? No, but it ain't no Prince of Persia either.
Colorful Violence in Slo-Mo, and the Sound of Music
Not set on just giving gamers good gameplay, Hitmaker and Treasure blessed Astro Boy with what is, in my opinion, nice colorful graphics. Rarely was I wowed during the game, but everything was crisp, distinguishable, and colored with enough style to remain faithful to its comic-book roots. Colored hit bursts are delivered liberally whenever Astro makes combative contact with an enemy, and the game takes a stylish, darkened pause whenever Astro pulls out his arm cannon, butt cannon or super-dash move in what could be an ode to fighting game super moves.
Enemy variety is so-so, and in general they almost all have the same attack set. But the game makes up for it by throwing differently sized enemies of the same type at you. Enemies can come at you at either half your height, your size, double your size, or ones that take up nearly half of the GBA screen's real estate. It gets pretty messy and fun when three each of the same enemy sprite in three different sizes start to charge after you. It is during those instances perhaps that one might be wowed, with Treasure's trademark desire to take sprites and warp them every which way.
The bad news is that for some reason, there's a bunch of slowdown in some parts of the game. The situation I detailed above, with oodles of enemies coming after you, is one that I can understand. However, there are other instances where there are a mere two enemies on the screen, and combat slows to a crawl. It happens in the same places all the time, so at least you can expect when to have to deal with it. And honestly it's not incredibly annoying. It would be, however, if it happened more often.
Aurally, Astro Boy is more unremarkable than the visuals. But that doesn't mean "bad." I'm not familiar with the anime's music so perhaps I'm not a qualified judge. I will say that the sound quality of the music is good -- it doesn't descend Gameboy style bleeps and bloops that games like Rayman and the Mega Man Battle Network series seem to be content with. There are plenty of Astro Boy's girly combat grunts and laser beam sounds to go around as far as sound effects go, but as I said, it's all just plain jane. Not like it really matters in the grand scheme of things.
And when all is said and done, the game is never really done. Astro Boy is kind enough to keep track of both your score and your time records so that you can go back and beat levels faster or accrue more points in a given board. But you won't even want to get to this point until you've fully completed the game, as alluded to in the Character Building section. With all the anime characters that you'll want to find hidden throughout the levels, both mandatory and optional, I'd bet that Astro Boy will keep you interested far past the initial hour or so it'll take to get to the credits the first time around. That's all I'm saying without truly spoiling what lies beneath the surface. Whoops, said too much. Play it and you'll find out.
Bottom line, Astro Boy is a finely crafted action romp that makes up for its somewhat lackluster level design with its amusing moves, high level of challenge and sheer amount of activity on screen. The slowdown glitches and ho-hum audio really do very little, if at all, to detract from the combat. With a little bit more effort in the level design space, Astro Boy could have been one of the top five GBA games I've ever played. But what we're given is still leagues beyond much else.