British game stores are really quite nice. The clean purple tinge of every Game breathes an air of sophistication into this lifestyle/hobby/passion which we carry, while the dank, dungeon-like interior of most Gamestation stores is reminiscent of the kind of conventional atmosphere you’d probably sit down with a pad and play in, complete with its scraggy sense of artistry, games misplaced on shelves, retro trinkets, and overall tat; there’s something for everyone. Occasionally though, you’ll come across a store in which the short-cut clerk decides to let out a snicker when someone over age decides to buy something which doesn’t have at least a 16+ age certificate attached. Such an experience happened upon me when I brought Astro Boy: Omega Factor, for the Game Boy Advance.
Well, the last laugh will always go to the one who gains the most enjoyment, and also the one who doesn’t have to go home at 5:30 and continue with the paperwork for a messy divorce in his underwear because the laundrette on the bottom floor had stolen most of his clothes due to failure to pay rent, which for the purpose of this blog, I will assume happened.
Omega Factor came round about the time that the Astro Boy animé was in the process of revival for this generation’s newer, younger audience. Give this game to quiet a child whose a fan of the TV show however, and he’ll probably pain your ears with tears of frustration before he’s managed to defeat the second wave of laser shooting robot hornets on the first stage; what we have here is pure, Treasure style bullet hell action, only diluted by the ability to save and continue mid-level (thank god!) and for that reason, holds the crown of being one of the two games by the developer I’ve actually managed to finish completely. No, this certainly isn’t the kids’ game that the box would suggest, but potentially, it could be used for a purpose much bigger. Astro Boy serves as both an expertly designed leeway into the worlds of the quick-paced shooter genre, and an educational introduction into the works of the ‘Godfather of Manga,’ Osamu Tezuka.
The Omega Factor of the game’s title is what crafts the game’s story, as well as its many diverging character arcs. A hexagonal grid, detailing a gallery of characters you’ve interacted with during your travels, also happens to be representative of a significant proportion of the beings formed in Tezuka’s mind as an artist. Favourites such as Phoenix and Dr. Black Jack somehow weave themselves into a story of inter-dimensional and time travel, which grabs bites of Tezuka’s entire legacy to fill any empty pockets it might have had. This certainly feels like a complete experience, and a celebration of the authors work at the same time. Even if you don’t know anything about the history packed into this game, that’s great! Neither did I at first, but you might come out of this game with a keen interest in discovering the back stories behind some of its characters, hunting down translations of their lengthy animé and manga serialisations. It’s a fantastic starting point for people who desire to learn this history but haven’t had the time, or, if you simply want to be exposed to a number of new and interesting worlds, catered here from a single, entertaining source. No I didn't caption that, but thanks Google images! This is a fraction of the Tezuka filled Omega Factor. Recognize anyone?
Of course, there’s also the actual game element to this being, which warrants some considering. If you’ve played anything along the lines of Gunstar Heroes, you’ll know what you’re up against. Little green or blue blobs of laser fall out of enemies palms filling the majority of the screen, and it’s your job to avoid them. This time, instead of being restricted to jumping and dodging, you have many moves and manoeuvres to make in order to release yourself from a quick trip to the scrap heap; most importantly, your super sweet jet boots. Activated with a double jump, these allow you to travel across the entire screen, invincible from danger, and will be your main release from the torrents of robot hellfire you’d otherwise embrace. On the offence are a surprisingly large number of robot assaulting attacks – more than you’d expect to see squeezed out of two face buttons, two shoulder buttons and a D-pad. Astro Boy can punch, kick, fly, smash, fire a mini screen crossing laser, fire a fat quarter-screen crossing laser, and finally, slightly disturbingly, he can release a gun from the depths of his own anus and blast everything in sight. A large selection of moves doesn’t mean this isn’t a tricky game to cross however, as you’ll often be restricted to regular punches, kicks and dodges until you manage to fill up a special meter. And in the least, the boss fights can be insanely difficult, sometimes filling up the space of about three miniature Game Boy Micro display's, and requiring some serious forward planning as to when the best times to attack and move into an empty space will become apparent. Others will merely cane your sorry self a few dozen times until their attack patterns and subtle tells are memorised, so that you can wear them down just that little bit more with each successive attempt. To say the save system is welcome would be an understatement.
On his own, Astro doesn't pack much power, but that in no way says that the simple ream of combat isn't gratifying enough. The key to quality brawling can be equated to how it comes across to the player, and here, there is certainly a satisfactory weight between each robotic punch dealt. Standard fists aren't up to much, but soften an enemy enough and you can deal a powerful kick which can send them flying backward into several others, accompanied by a tuneful clunk
with each sucessive hit. Often, a large number of enemies will also create a non-intentional bullet time like slow down, which as far as glitches go, really assists in creating a nice combat pace for the game. Preventing spreads of bullets from making contact isn't the only reason you'll constantly be attempting to rack up enemy combos, when the feedback is this delightful. Realising this has also managed to inadvertently bring to my attention one of the Game Boy Micro's biggest design flaws, that is, constant mashing of attack buttons can often cause larger thumbs to fix themselves over its single, tiny speaker, suppressing any attempt at conveying a decent quality of sound. Its really quite a shame, because most of the music tracks in this game are an absolute blast to be hearing, whilst smashing your foes to pieces. Its catchy, and regardless of the focus being on staying not dead, you'll remember them far after you've stopped playing. Sort of in the 'try to recall the first few beats dropping into a level, then the whole track will play itself through your head' kind of way. Best played with headphones, or on an SP. Jet Boots. Lasers. Robots. Explosions. Arse Guns. This has it all.
Released alongside a fairly guff looking, shiny coated PS2 title, Omega Factor harks back to the beauty of 2D gaming at its finest. Sprite artwork echoes from Treasure's best, showing around fifty classic characters rendered with utmost care. And not just characters themselves, but character. In a most impressive feat, each individual pixel of Astro's retracting gun arm can be clearly noted as he readies his super weapons for an attack. Its touches like this which display the kind of elegance and charms which high powered, 3D games can never attain. Moving cars constantly making their way across the background of the first level shows your classic parallax scrolling in practice, made increasingly more apparent by the inclusion of Gradius style stages in which Astro's jets are constantly on full, and his laser requires no reloads. Clouds will zoom past, daylight will fade to sunset, to night, and you will constantly be amazed at what you're witnessing on screen. Its stunning to see in motion; a true retro revival for the modern (well, in 2004) day. The kind of game that will be sorely missed, with the non-focus on the Game Boy, and a move to 3D and HD on every consoles part.
Its the same part of me that would rather see a new Minish Cap released than a Phantom Hourglass, who desires to see a revival of that classic, sharp standard definition sprite work.
Behind its many wonders, Astro Boy's biggest secret may be the force that splits opinions. Do you remember being incredibly frustrated, having to traverse through every previous level a second time in The Subspace Emissary? Yeah, Astro Boy makes the player tread its old ground once again at the half point, for better or worse. However, while this commonly used, heavily stigmatized mode isn't the most popular choice in expanding a games length, the execution of the feature this time around could be seen as a spark of genius. I miss colour. If only all games had purples and blues and gold stars when you're blowing something up.
Essentially, the game doesn't begin until you've played through all the main levels and finally unlocked stage select, by which time it probably didn't even enter your mind that there was something other than a linear action game in your hands. And that's where the brilliance unfolds. Now, can you recall from before, about there being a time travel aspect to the plot? The reason for having a stage select in the first place is not just to pick out your favourite parts after completion, but due to it being an integral device toward the narrative. Stage Select is your time machine. And as you travel to previous stages, you're actually playing them in an alternate time line for the purposes of saving your own. Its an amazing revelation upon discovering this deep plot structure. Maybe you can go back to the beginning and meet someone you've missed interacting with, who might possibly be able to help you with events in the future. With other time travelling quirks to uncover though, its completely plausible to suggest that someone's past meddling has altered the course of history, changing what you thought you knew, into something else entirely. Its like a whole new game opens up, just when you think its all over. And even after putting that back together, there's still a heart wrenching final stage to play. Astro Boy just keeps on giving.
Remember playing through the same levels of The Subspace Emissary a second time, with little to no change in your fighting stance or experience; just tediously hacking away at generic enemies in search of little reward? The power up system, which activates each time Astro finds a new character for the Omega Factor, really makes those old levels worth playing again. There's nothing like heading to the start and decimating those old, troublesome bad guys with a fully enhanced laser. Not to say the game is exactly the same on the re-play: enemies get stronger just as you do, but your new abilities should be more than enough to take on and take out whatever armies of evil are sent your way.
Astro Boy: Omega Factor, is a game of twos. Twice the times you play it to reach the end, twice the plot to follow, and doubling from a shooter to an introduction to all things Tezuka; if you're interested in any of these, its certainly a game that you should have in your collection. And who knows, maybe as a newcomer, you will come out with a desire to seek out the fabled creator's classic works too. Its double the experience, both of which should not be passed up.
And if you don't like any of that, there's always the arse gun you might find interesting...