ASTRO BOY : OMEGA FACTOR / Sega w/ Treasure / GBA

Even though Osamu Tezuka's groundbreaking manga seems to always enjoy a solid level of popularity, Astro Boy was still kind of a head-scratching property to see made into a game in 2003. Even more surprising is that it was Sega making a push for it, with Treasure as its development team making it into one of their trademark flashy action-packed side scrollers. Someone at Treasure apparently had a vision, and was a big Astro Boy fan, because what came out of all this is one of the best (if not THE best) action games released for the GBA.

The story is done like most Hollywood movie adaptations of comics are - sort of a hodgepodge of elements from the entire history of the character, with a few new elements tossed in to make it all work. My familiarity with Astro Boy prior to playing this game was virtually nil, so I can't comment on how authentic or true to the source material everything is. But I can say that the story has surprising depth and maturity for what appears on the surface to be a "kid's game". The fundamental overtone of the story is prejudice and fear of what's different, in a world where robots have advanced to the point where they are just as capable and intelligent as humans. Astro is the most powerful robot yet created, and his "Omega Factor" allows him to grow and evolve by meeting people and gaining an understanding of why they behave the way they do.

The game offers seven levels initially, broken up into subsets of four to six stages. Picture Mega Man X with the ability to do punch combos, roundhouse kick, fire a continuous laser beam, use a variety of special moves and fly, and you're halfway to the style of play in this game (interesting full circle sort of thing here - Mega Man, which in many ways was a homage to Astro Boy, now influences Astro's first game years later). The game is standard Treasure - somewhat complex but versatile controls that require some practice, scads of enemies, and a lot of graphically impressive levels and boss battles. Everything is very smooth and generally pleasing, and the difficulty is more balanced (and fair) than some of Treasure's other titles. The only real knock against the gameplay is that when there are more than five or so characters on the screen, or a lot of animated background elements, the game tends to lag ... and these two things occur pretty much continuously, so the game frequently feels like it's dropping into slow-mo mode. The tradeoff to this is that the visuals are fantastic, and really push the Gameboy Advance to its limits. There's also a few points here and there where you fight maybe a few too many of the same enemies in a row, but that's really a minor blip in an otherwise very well-designed game.

It also has a surprising amount of depth and replayability. Finishing the game once gets you "Sad End", but opens up a level select mode which must be used to replay all the game's levels in order to solve a mystery and open up the "real" set of final levels along with the true ending - a sort of "second quest", if you will. The levels play mostly the same as they did the first time around, but in some cases enemies have been switched up, and a good deal of the plot elements change. You must also search the levels for hidden characters, and there are a few new boss battles the second time around. It's actually a very creative use of "time travel" elements to add replayability to the game's content.

The game is a bit less hardcore than Treasure's usual fare. There's an adjustable difficulty from Easy to Hard, for starters. The controls are a shade on the complicated side (simply due to the breadth of moves that Astro has available), but once you have everything down you may actually find that Normal difficulty is just a bit too easy. It also has more of a "pick up and play" quality than usual, as the game saves after every completed sub-stage, and allows you to retry each infinite times (and once level select is unlocked after finishing the game once, each level can be played as often as desired and exited at any point). Not to say that it's not challenging, but it's got few moments of serious frustration as compared to other Treasure games and seems generally pretty forgiving.

Overall, this is pretty excellent, and may even inspire you to check out more of Tezuka's work. Definitely worth checking out.

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