Soon after turning the power on, I'm bombarded by trademarks. Licensed by Nintendo. Sony Pictures Consumer Products. Sony Pictures Television. Tezuka Productions. Presented by SEGA. Created by Hitmaker. In cooperation with Treasure Video Games. Now, as a critic, it's sometimes difficult to ascertain precisely who is responsible for the quality (or otherwise) of a videogame, and it's often irrelevant anyway. However, one of the keys to appreciating this title is to recognise that it is really Treasure's baby, and once the company logos have faded and the game begins, it's their trademarks that loom the strongest: namely, tight controls, big boss set-pieces, score multipliers and plenty of lovely slowdown. As far as gameplay is concerned, Treasure copyrighted Astro Boy a long time ago.
Another thing that's tough for a critic to do is to review a game that they complete within a single evening's play. Without a break to gather your thoughts in the sprite-less sobriety of the real world, evaluating such a fleeting experience in any meaningful way is pretty tricky. It's refreshing to play a game in which none of the levels outstay their welcome, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a little cheated by the way Astro Boy's infinite continues, bite sized level segments, and practically limitless special attacks ensured that a fun game was robbed of its potential by cake-walk game design.
There is, however, a game-saving twist to this seemingly flimsy robot tale. Upon completion (and I'm pretty sure this isn't a major spoiler) Astro Boy returns the player to the beginning of the game. This time around, it conjures up a revised and neatly subversive narrative that undermines and plays with our existing knowledge of the story-or what little we could attain from our breathless first play through. Far from being a lazy trick, blasting through the game is even more fun on a second play (Astro's power enhancements are all carried over), and the narrative (to which I was pretty indifferent at first) grows an added layer of depth and meaning by introducing new characters and narrative links, and by tying up any loose narrative ends in the story. It adds up to a notably different experience-even if the core game itself remains practically identical.
Towards the climax of the game, Astro Boy even asks the player to turn detective and hop between individual stages in order to encounter certain characters repeatedly, thus triggering new dialogue with them once fresh information has been gained elsewhere. It's an engrossing system that shifts knowingly between familiarity and repetition, and renders the game more and more impressive and multi-layered as it winds towards its true conclusion.
The story is still convoluted (you'll notice I've not even bothered to explain the plot), and the clever ways in which recycling the same gameplay has been validated will be lost on many gamers unless they study the equally confusing "Event Test" option in the main menu-an unlockable that allows the player to view every bit of dialogue in the game (catalogued via. a ridiculous code system.) But it's rare to find a handheld game with this much emphasis on narrative (and narrative logic) and Osamu Tezuka's colorful roster of characters are ultimately crowbarred in to good effect. Even the titular Astro Boy, who would be a sickening goody-two-shoes in any lesser game, manages to come across as a rather likeable, old-fashioned hero.
And he's a hero all right. Astro yields some awesome special powers ("EX Attacks") that can eliminate entire screens in one swift explosion of light. However, the real challenge, the real high scores and the real sense of satisfaction comes from resisting the special attack temptation and going toe-to-toe with the enemies using his standard moves. Only then do the hidden depths of the fighting system come to the fore: such as a combo system that allows for moves to be skilfully chained for a bonus multiplier (up to x10) and the ability to knock enemies into each other for further, Viewtiful Joe-inspired score bonuses. Nicely, button-bashing soon becomes a risk-reward hardcore virtue (rather than an easy way out for the unskilled gamer) as the player learns to feel bad about resorting to cheap 'n' easy special attacks, no matter how perfect they would be to deploy at hectic moments.
The level designs may lack the intricacy, and consequently the intensity, of the studio's high watermark titles (Ikaruga; Gunstar Heroes) and the constant left-to-right blandness is a possible criticism, but, primarily because of the narrative ingenuity injected into a typically 'action-at-all-costs' genre, Astro Boy still feels like something of a landmark title for the GBA, and for side-scrolling games in general. Thanks to the collaboration (or perhaps the tension) between the various producers, the license has been used to layer Treasure's involving core dynamic with a charm and structural integrity that makes the game as enjoyable, accessible and balanced for an 8-year old Astro Boy fan as it is for this 21-year old reviewer. So whilst the likes of Ikaruga and Gradius V may elicit more attention from Treasure's trusty devotees, it's this short, licensed handheld treat that represents the company's most progressive and confidant step in recent years. A superb game, and a timely reminder that there's always room for the little guy.
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