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Games, technology, music, silliness. Oh and ninjas. Lots of ninjas.

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Location: Oslo, Norway

I am Andreas. Day time programmer and technical consultant. Night time musician and game developer.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Astro boy broke my heart

Ever since i read the GS review of Astro Boy Omega Factor for GBA and learned that not only was it apparently badass, but produced by Treasure (a developer i've had an almost ridiculous level of trust in in the past) i knew i needed to get this game.
Took forever to come out in norway, as with most things i want, but as soon as i found a copy i picked it up with no regard paid to the status of my economy; i needed a portable Treasure game for my upcoming 8hour flight to NYC.

It's a damn shame then that i'm as disappointed by the game as i am. Not only am i disappointed, but i am actually heartbroken and i feel ever so slightly betrayed. Sometimes things happen in my life that shake my foundation and force me to reconsider things that in the past have been black and white, and now since playing Astro boy i don't feel so safe trusting Treasure anymore.

These guys aren't just like.. I dunno.. Konami or Capcom. They dont push games out the door every week on every platform, they don't have massive multimillion dollar advertising campaigns: They're a tiny developer studio that just so happens to have an incredible amount of experience in the 2d action field. A quick recap:

Gunstar heroes
Radiant silvergun
Gradius V

Consider those titles for a moment. If you're anywhere near a fan of purist gameplay, you'll remember certain trademark Treasure "features" such as dramatic use of slowdown. For Ikaruga on the dreamcast, Treasure didn't allow one frame to go amiss during the gameplay, but as soon as a boss bit the dust, they would throw in everything and five kitche sinks to ensure that the explosion be as violent as possible. The slowdown was monstrous but gave the explosion a certain weight. Bangai-O applied this technique to its super weapons, where you'd pretty much fill the screen with homing missiles. Crazy slowdown, but no problem because it let you see the spectacle of it all and you were invulnerable for its duration.

Treasure know purist gameplay like no other. They produce stunningly polished titles that play by the rules, can be hard as nails but ar never unfair; I played ikaruga on hard every day before going to work for a whole summer and i never once felt cheated, regardless of how many times i died.

Astro boy breaks with a number of these conventions and the results are painful to watch.
Artistically, the game is pure class. Gorgeous use of parallax, endearing character use that really does Tezukas work justice. Great blipbloppy sounds and music that match the sights beautifully. Smooth animations and obvious mastery of the format.

However, Astro boy omega factor commits not one not two but no less than *three* mortal sins: It prioritizes slick presentation over slick gameplay, and uses cheap tricks to ramp up the challenge, and it incorporates horizontal shooting stages where the player character has an incredibly obscure hitbox that cannot be made out easily.

First up, there is the slowdown. This is the first game i have ever played in my 18 years of active gaming from the c64 days and on in which i have encountered midgame slowdown so frequent and so strong that it actually breaks the gameplay. Back in the dizzle you would find yourself welcoming slowdown, because the times it occured would sometimes be helpful, letting you make dodges or such that you would otherwise have had trouble with. In Astro boy the slowdown occurs at moments such as "punching an enemy" and "enemy walks onto screen". It is obvious when it occurs that it could have been avoided: An abundance of stars and sprites erupt violently from enemies when struck, and this is obviously the source of the problem. I am told the japanese version had even worse slowdown, but that the us/euro port was "cleaned up". If this is true, i feel true pity for our japanese friends, because the amount of slowdown this game throws at you is nothing short of crippling. Not only does it slow the game to a crawl, but the gameplay necessitates clean timing to chain attacks and moves; you can't hit the jump button in slowdown and expect your character to start jumping. You may miss the frame and find yourself mashing on the button to reach the desired effect, which turns the focus away from pure skill and onto sheer luck, and this problem is further compounded by the following

Cheap tricks. There is an incredible amount of fighting in Astro Boy. The boss battles are truly great and enjoyable, because they give you a true challenge but don't screw with your head to such a degree asto make it frustrating. Where the game falters though is with the numerous gang fights that erupt inbetween the boss encounters. Frequently you find yourself fighting 8+ copies of the same enemy, and none of them have any form of intelligence or pattern to their attacks. They simply charge and punch, jump and punch or jump and shoot, each and every one of them. Considering that any one hit will send Astro boy flying through the air into whatever unfavourable position available, and that the screen can become a random mess of lasers, punching enemies and no real way of escape, the level of frustration is beyond belief. I love a challenge. I completed Ninja gaiden on hard, i completed battle toads for nes when i was a kid, i am still addicted to F zero GX and i've completed Mars Matrix on one credit (a feat i'm very proud of). There is nothing more noble in gaming than a fair challenge, and the random warble of slowdown, flashing sprites against flashing backgrounds obscuring enemy gunfire, spasmodic and unpredictable enemy behavior and lack of an effective means of defense make the beat 'em up stages of Astro boy the exact antithesis of this nobility. I never thought i'd angrily shut down a Treasure game with the exclamation "This is bulls**t!" twice in one day.

The shooting stages are mostly enjoyable, if short, and have a saddening variety of weaponry and techniques. Astro boy has access to 3 basic attacks in the shooter stages, and they are either a weak smart bomb or two variations of a screenwide laser, neither of which is particularly fun to use. The enemy patterns are far more fun to combat in these stages and there's a real element of greatness to some of the midair bossfights. However the game is hampered by its protagonist and ironically how well he is animated. There is no logical way of judging the hitbox size or location. The entire character isn't vulnerable so there IS a hitbox, though where it is and what size it is is anyone's guess. This places an unfair amount of guesswork in the hands of the player that really makes dodging bullet storms more of a test of faith than a test of skill.

I am sorely disappointed by this game. When there isnt slowdown there is some fun to be had, but i can't for the love of god imagine why this game would earn such high scores from reviewers. It is a mediocre fighting game with a very limited set of moves coupled with a mediocre side scroller, utterly crippled by slowdown and poor level planning.

Astro boy omega factor doesn't play fair, and it broke my heart to watch it fall apart as the game went on. Yes i've completed it on normal. I know you can upgrade stats and whatnot. It was a painful, frustrating experience that started out being simply emasculating (which is okay, mars matrix has my masculinity worn down rather well already anyway), but wound up becoming saddening and finally heartbreaking.

Hopefully Treasure will make more GBA games and get more experience with the platform. I'm still waiting for a GBA Treasure game i want to play.


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