Among anime and manga enthusiasts, Astro Boy is legendary. Osamu Tezuka's story about a robotic boy living in a world where technology has advanced to the point of humans and robots coexisting was accepted by the Japanese people with open arms, and it also became one of the first anime series to become a hit in the 1960s with U.S. audiences. It has since been remade several times, always to a positive reception. The video games based on the character, however, have not been able to achieve that same level of success. The last good version was the Game Boy Advance iteration of Astro Boy: Omega Factor from 2004. Another version of Astro Boy has appeared, this time in the form of a CG animated movie, and with the movie come the inevitable video game tie-ins. Unfortunately, the Nintendo DS version of Astro Boy: The Video Game turns out to be just as lacking as the versions presented on other consoles.
Like most movie tie-ins, the game follows the plot of the movie very closely. You play the role of Astro Boy, a robotic doppelganger of Dr. Tenma's son, Toby, who had died in an accident months before. After finding out that he is a robot instead of a human boy, he discovers his powers as well as his father's dismay that he is no longer considered a suitable replacement for the lost son. Hurt by these words, he goes off into Metro City to find his purpose in the world and stop President Stone from using his robot forces to take away his power source, which would shut him off forever.
The game is split up into two different gameplay types. Most of the game is played as a side-scrolling beat-'em-up platformer. Players use punches and kicks to jump over the bottomless pits and defeat the walking and flying robotic drones. This arsenal can be expanded by collecting energy orbs, which give him temporary benefits such as a laser cannon arm, an extra boost when jumping, machine gun fire, or a full repair to his systems. A few levels in the game transform into side-scrolling shooting sequences where Astro fires at enemies with a less powerful laser gun, though he still has access to his full arsenal when necessary.
As the game is structured, the instances of fun happen too few and far between. The shooting portions are the most fun due to their simplicity and reference to the shooters of old before "bullet-hell" became the current style to emulate. Unfortunately, the sections are short, and there aren't too many of them in the game. The bulk of the game is comprised of platforming sequences, and it ends up being boring due to a few design decisions that don't go over very well in the final product. For starters, the melee fighting favors the enemies more than the hero. Players will have to get very close to punch or kick the enemy, and since they don't all go down with one hit or stagger back from any hits, the player almost always takes damage from any fight. Second, there is no sense of checkpoint use through levels; once Astro Boy dies and the player chooses to continue in the game, they will always be sent back to the very beginning of the level no matter where they died. For example, dying at a boss fight will guarantee that the player starts at the beginning and must go through the same enemies and obstacles just to get another shot at defeating the boss. For a portable game, this practice gets tedious and really decreases interest. Finally, there isn't very much enemy variety. Aside from bosses, you'll always fight against the same walking and flying drone types in addition to stationary spikes. Without different enemy types to fight against, every level tends to feel the same, so the game starts to feel like one large level instead of several smaller ones.
The controls become a big factor in the lack of enjoyment in the title. At first, the controls seem fine, with the d-pad moving the character and the Y and X buttons initiating punch and kick attacks, respectively. The B button makes Astro jump, while the A button selects a special ability as the L and R buttons highlight which ability gets used. The touch-screen only mimics the functions of the special ability buttons, so one could effectively play the game without having to ever use the touch-screen. The controls really begin to falter when you start moving your character. For some unknown reason, he seems to slide anytime he walks and comes to a stop. This makes the platforming sections difficult since you don't have any control over where he should stop and leap over the bottomless pit. Considering that a majority of the game is spent in these platforming stages, the controls affect the game poorly because of this one fatal flaw.
The graphics aren't as bad as you think when you first see screenshots of the game. The sprite-based graphics do a good job of depicting both the city and the newly redesigned Astro Boy. The animations also end up looking good and are reminiscent of what a 32-bit rendition would have looked like back in the day. While the appearance and the effects of explosions and laser blasts look and animate well, it's the camera that makes the game a chore to play. Unlike other side-scrolling games where the main character is at the center of the screen, Astro Boy: The Video Game places Astro Boy at the edge of the screen. This would have been acceptable if enemies were only coming from one side of the screen, but with enemies attacking on both the left and right sides, you have a situation where the screen will shift abruptly depending on where Astro is facing. The disorienting nature not only makes platforming much harder than normal, but combat becomes infuriating since the screen shifts make you lose focus of the action. Like the controls, this little gaffe ends up rendering all of the other praises in this category useless.
The sound is fine for what it is. When enemies are destroyed, the explosions come out nicely, as do the shots fired in the flying and shooting sequences. The punches and kicks, though, become misleading, as they make the same sound when hitting an enemy as they do when no enemy is in sight. It makes it rather difficult to tell if you actually hit an enemy or not, particularly during boss battles since they don't have the added flicker effect when contact is made. There's nothing particularly wrong with the music, which is light fare and isn't as forgettable as most games, but it does tend to repeat a bit too much. You'll find several levels repeating the same tunes over and over again, and the repetition is enough to make you want to turn down the volume when playing.
It's a shame that Astro Boy: The Video Game for the Nintendo DS turned out the way it did. The sprite-based look, partnered with the gameplay mix of platforming and shooting, could have made this a close match to the now-classic GBA version. A bad camera and bad controls, however, quickly shoot down this game with little to no hope of it getting better as you progress. For fans of the movie and the character, it would be best to hunt down the GBA game to get their fix. If you don't have a system that can play that, however, your best bet would be to hold off on this and hope that someone will come along and do justice to this revered character.
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