Sunday, December 31, 2006

Astro Boy: Omega Factor - Review

Many have lamented the lack of original properties for the Game Boy Advance, but when you come upon a gem like this, the sheer amount of sequels, ports, and rehashes don't seem to matter. Astro Boy: Omega factor is a near-perection of the side-scrolling action genre. Of course, the game is made by Treasure who is known for their excellence in 2D action games, and it really comes through here.

This game is based on the character created by Osamu Tezuka. More specifically, it is based on the new Astro Boy anime that came out in Japan in 2003. I was not familiar with the character at all before playing this game, but the story in the game gives a good sense of it. It seems that a robotics expert, Dr. Tenma, created Astro Boy after losing his son. Tenma rejected Astro Boy after realizing he couldn't replace his son and Astro Boy eventually found himself under the care of Dr. O'Shay in the ministry of science. Astro Boy is different from other robots because he has the Omega Factor - something that allows him to experience emotions and understand people better. Astro Boy decides to dedicate himself to helping everyone out, saving people, and bridging the differences between humans and robots.

Astro Boy has quite of lot of abilities at his disposal. He has a punch which turns into a four hit combo that ends with a kick. He can also go straight to the kick which sends most smaller enemies flying across the screen. Another standard attack option is his finger laser which fires horizontally across the screen damaging any enemy in its path. Learning when and how to use each attack is crucial. Most enemies are stunned by punching, and once kicked across the screen, they will collide with other enemies also sending them flying. Using punches and kicks strategically will give you a breather from enemies' attacks. Sometimes though you need to damage enemies as much as possible and the finger laser is key.

Astro Boy also has two super-weapons. One is a spray of bullets that shoots from your butt. This damages all enemies on screen, often stuns them a bit, and wipes out all projectiles on screen. The other is a super-laser that shoots out like the finger-laser, is wider, and does massive damage but it still leaves you susceptible to enemies and projectiles. You have a limited number of these weapons, but you can earn them back by scoring enough points (basically beating up on enemies).

Besides weapons, you have several maneuvers at your disposal. You have the ability to jump, of course. You also have the ability to fire your rocket boots. You can do this either to extend your jump and move upwards or to dash across the screen. While your rockets boots are firing, you are invulnerable and using your rocket boots to avoid enemies and especially bosses is again key.

Most levels are rather simply designed. You certainly wouldn't call this game a platformer. Generally you just move to the right some until the enemies appear on screen. Then you need to figure out how to defeat them all while taking minimal damage. The enemies are typically robots of various designs, although occasionally they are humans or aliens. They follow a Treasure tradition of using the same sprite at several different sizes. At first, beating standard enemies during the level is easy as you can just kick them around. After a few levels, the enemies get better projectiles or more resilient to your attacks. There are some levels that involve a little more exploration and a little more moving up and down, but generally the move, fight, move paradigm holds up. Besides the side-scrolling action levels, there are also levels where you have your rocket boots permanently attached and can only fire your finger laser. These levels play like a shoot 'em up and are very well designed.

This being a Treasure game, the boss battles are what it is all about. While figuring out the enemies during the regular parts is fun and challenging, figuring out the bosses is a pure joy. The bosses are huge, often taking up most of the screen. They can do all sorts of different things from jumping to growing to transforming. Their patterns aren't always easy to figure out, but they all make sense and you want to keep trying until you can finally defeat them. They aren't just at the end of the level either, there are several mid-bosses that are usually just as good as any others you might face. The sequence of fighting the best robots in the world is just sublime.

One other unique aspect this game adds is the Omega Factor. Astro Boy's ability to experience emotions and understand people is represented as a grid that is filled in with each special person (or robot) that you meet. Often times you meet these people in the normal course of the game. They are the friends or enemies you encounter in your way. At other times, the special characters are hidden. You either have to go to an out-of-the-way place to find them or break some piece of the level to find their hiding place.

What does adding these people to your grid get you? Well, the game has an aspect of customization. When you start, you have four points to assign to your attributes of punch strength, laser strength, health, rocket strength, bullet strength, and another whose name I'm blanking on, but it helps you detect hidden people. You get additional points to add to these attributes when you meet certain people and add them to your grid. Thus, it is in your interest to find all the people you can to make you stronger.

This game has yet another cool feature that once you beat the game the first time, you get a very sad ending and the timeline is changed so you get to go through the game again, but the story is a little different and there are some slightly different enemies and levels. You also get the ability to go back to any level part that you have beaten and you need to do this to talk to different characters in a specific order to get information to find new characters and levels.

Another way this harkens back to most Treasure games is that it is challenging. I started playing the game on Hard mode and eventually had to just give up because I was finding it impossible. Frankly, I was also finding it unfun because it seemed I just had no chance against the enemies. Once I decided to restart the game at Normal difficulty, I realized this was the perfect way for me to play it. The game gives you unlimited continues and you need them. Most levels are broken down into four parts and you get to continue at the beginning of each part. This gives you a chance to master the patterns of the enemies at each part and gain a good amount of satisfaction. While the level portions often only took one to three tries to get through (though the shoot 'em up sections were a bit more tough), the bosses took no less than three tries. Still, it is an enjoyable difficulty because you get a little bit further or learn from your mistakes each time.

The graphics are crisp, clear, and what you would expect for a well-crafted game. The original Astro Boy had a profound impact on Japanese art (often credited with starting the anime aesthetic) and this game has colorful anime colors, characters, and great backgrounds. The music is also cheery and appropriate for a game like this and the sounds are catchy pop, pow, bam, and other explosions.

This game grew on me. I got frustrated with it when I was playing it on hard mode, but once I switched to normal I found it fairly great. The sheer amount of options and attacks you have makes the fighting in this game feel very strategic. The boss battles are some of the best you can get. The story integrates well into the game and helps increase the interest. I almost felt like I was playing through an Astro Boy movie. I highly recommend this game to anyone who has the ability to play Game Boy Advance games (that means anyone with a Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, or Game Boy Player for their Gamecube).

Rating: 9 / 10

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