For a series as storied as Astro Boy there are remarkably few video games. If you’re unfamiliar with Astro Boy, it’s a decidedly ancient manga (and later an anime inevitably followed) about the titular Astro, an android with human emotions. Thought he is abandoned by his creator, a kindly old professor takes him in and raises him to become a superhero who battles both robots and humans who oppose them.
Astro Boy: Omega Factor (GBA)
Released Dec 2003 | Developed: Treasure/Hitmaker | Published: SEGA
Genre: Beat-em-up | HLTB: 3 hours
Omega Factor begins with the blurb above. Dr Tenma’s son Tobio dies and Astro is built in his image though Tenma casts him off and disappears; Astro is taken in by Dr O’Shay who trains him as a crime fighter and ambassador for peace between robots and humans. Though Astro begins the game by saving Dr O’Shay’s assistant from some rogue robots he soon finds himself embroiled in a far wider and darker plot involving a villainous and powerful android, anti-robot political conspiracy and even time-travel.
Every level in the game plays out like an arc, each dealing with a specific villain and event though they do all tie into one cohesive narrative. Interestingly the story apparently doesn’t just draw from Astro Boy but from a number of different Osamu Tezuka works, blending them into one. Perhaps that might be more obvious to fans of either Tezuka’s canon or Astro Boy in general but I only knew the basics of the character going into the game; regardless, it all fits together convincingly and you’d never know it wasn’t just Astro Boy material.
In general Astro Boy is a side-scrolling beat-em-up. In most levels you take control of Astro as he punches, kicks, dashes and lasers his way through waves of enemies. The combat is very simple but thanks to some chunky sound effects and bits of visual flair it feels very gratifying, particularly as enemies are flung wildly offscreen at the end of Astro’s combos. Though the screen can get absolutely filled with enemies, Astro has a decent enough chance to come out unscathed; you can take advantage of the dash’s invincibility frames to dodge attacks if it’s timed right and Astro also has access to an array of super moves to help clear out opponents. The super moves themselves work on a stock system; by attacking Astro fills up a bar and once it’s filled he stocks another super. On Normal it’s very easy to breeze through the early levels and build up a huge store of them but the game isn’t broken by doing so and later enemies and bosses feel like they’re made to have these attacks spammed at them.
On occasion the game changes pace and drops Astro into a shmup-style level. Again, these aren’t terribly tough and are mostly approached by simply blasting away with the laser or the super moves but they do make for a pleasant switch. I do have a little bugbear with them however; Astro’s hitbox during these sections is a touch unclear. It seems to be a bit bigger than it ought to be; like regular levels the flying stages can get quite crowded and dodging the projectiles is made harder than necessary because of the unpredictable hitbox.
As Astro travels through the game he runs into a whole host of different characters, each of which helps to expand the titular Omega Factor. The Omega Factor is Astro’s android soul and is explained in game as representing his growth as a person. This manifests as upgrade points for the player to spend on a small selection of stats, such as improving the strength of Astro’s punches or lasers, increasing the number of consecutive dashes he can make and allowing him to sense immediately if a stage has any hidden characters waiting to be found.
I mentioned the visual flair up above but in general the presentation is lovely, especially for a GBA game. The character sprites are very well designed, with particular of course having been paid to Astro, who also has some rather fluid animation. Most of the stage backgrounds are positively lush and even the less interesting ones at least have some solid colour to catch the eye. There could stand to be a larger enemy variety in my opinion, as many enemies are re-coloured and resized throughout the game but again, it’s another little grumble and nothing more.
The soundtrack is another shining area of quality as well. The main theme is expertly arranged, full of bright synths and tasty drum sampling. Even something as simple as dialogue can come along with upbeat synthy funk numbers; in fact the synths on this soundtrack are gorgeous all the way through, with tracks like Dr. Tenma’s featuring some wonderful slightly tape-delayed 80s-infused sounds to the pulsing triumphant beats of Pacific Ocean.
With all this Astro Boy: Omega Factor could already stand up among the better beat-em-ups on the GBA, which makes the fact that it manages to improve upon itself midway through playing a remarkable act. Part-way through the game the story takes a superb twist that not only turns the plot on its head but also subverts the expectations of the medium, justifying a feature as common as the level select function within the bounds of the game’s narrative. To explain how or why would be a spoiler but suffice it to say that it caught me completely by surprise and elevated my experience with Astro Boy from contented to really rather impressed.
Even if you’re only in it for the solid beat-em-up gameplay, Astro Boy: Omega Factor is well worth your time but with the tightly constructed writing backing it up Astro Boy ends up an unexpectedly engrossing experience. Though it lasts for only a few hours it’s a brief but striking game that far outstrips its modest expectations and for that reason it’s definitely worth anybody’s consideration.
5/7 – GREAT. Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.