Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Astro Boy Omega Factor

Tetsuwan Atom: Atom Heart no Himitsu / Astro Boy Omega Factor
Action - Gameboy Advance
Battery Backup - 3 saves
1 player

When it comes to Astro Boy GBA, the critics are unanimous about its praise. Developed by Treasure, it's hard to imagine they'd drop the ball. Most companies try to sell on the license itself. Astro Boy oozes with personality in that department. Not satisfied to simply use the title character, Treasure sought to incorporate characters from all of Osamu Tezuka's works. Maybe they were trying to do a tribute to the late Tezuka. Or maybe they got their chance to do a megacrossover. Whatever the case, they show that even when they're dealing with licensed material, they can make a good game.

This one's all action. You'll punch, kick, dash and laserbeam your way through the entire game. Along the way, you'll meet characters that will allow you to upgrade your stats. Not all of these characters are easily accessible, so a little exploration is required. On top of this, for each attack you land, your special meter will charge. Once it's full, you're able to perform one of three special attacks. You can store up to 3, 10 or 99 specials depending on what difficulty you play. Much of the game is played like a beat 'em up. You'll be able to combo-punch enemies, and kick them into others, even shoot their falling bodies with a laser beam if you'd like. Simple but effective. Other parts of the game play out like a space shooter. You'll be flying around a forced horizontal scrolling screen, shooting enemies, and dodging like mad. It's in this mix of game styles that keeps Astro Boy fresh. Both styles are very well done, and I especially had fun with the shooter bosses.

But in the end, I'm really ho-hum about it.

I've played and finished the game. I've played most of the game on Hard difficulty. And although the game is entertaining, it's not exactly thrilling. I have no doubt in my mind that Astro Boy is well-made. The problem is it's just that. It seems like it strives for little other than being a decent Tezuka tribute. The actual game is nothing special. It's fun, but for beat 'em ups, Treasure has done better. For shooters, they've done better as well. It lacks the creativity and cleverness that Treasure is usually known for. It just seems like they simply wanted to make it playable instead of phenomenal. It's in that, where I find Astro Boy to be a big let down. All in all, I don't think it's a bad game at all. I simply find it... unnecessary.

* Note: I played the Japanese version of the game that only has "Easy" and "Hard" difficulties. I understand the US version is improved not only in adding a "Normal" difficulty, but adds some enemies as well. If the US version is THAT much better, I'd like to play it someday. But I doubt it would change my overall opinion.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Ninja Five-0

Ninja Five-0
Action - Gameboy Advance
Battery Backup - 1 save
1 player

Also known as Ninja Cop in Europe, although this Hudson-developed Konami-published game was made in Japan, it was never released there and is available only in the West. Strange how that works. But it does work, because Ninja Five-0 is without a doubt one of the crown jewels of the GBA library.

As the name suggests, you control a ninja that's also a cop. That means that in addition to killing bad guys, you'll also be rescuing hostages. Some missions have people you must save before you can clear them. Luckily, that doesn't slow down the pace at all. Armed with a sword and upgradeable shurikens, you'll make quick work of the enemy. But the coolest part of the game is the grappling hook. A mix of Bionic Commando and Umihara Kawase, your grappling hook can grab any wall. You can pull yourself up toward the wall with it, extend it to drop you down further, or swing on it 360 degrees to reach higher ground. Mastering the grappling hook is an absolute necessity, and transforms a standard action game into an awesome one.

The difficulty is also well balanced. It is a challenging game, but not to the point where it's frustrating. A stage might take several tries before you clear it, but that's exactly what I love about it. You'll learn to see the patterns. You'll learn to use the layout of the stage to assist you. It's pure old school feel, and I'm loving it.

But perhaps it's in that old school feel, that I wonder if Ninja Five-0 could be more. Don't get me wrong. It's a very well made game and is a blast to play through. Yet, it doesn't pioneer any new territory and that's where I feel it falls short. The grappling hook is certainly fun and contributes a lot to game design. But it's something we have seen before. What's worse is that level design follows a cookie cutter formula that reminds me of DOOM: kill enemy, get the yellow key, backtrack, open yellow door, break box, get the the red key, backtrack, go through red door, stage clear. It got a bit repetitive and predictable. It's also not very long, with only about 15 or so stages.

Still, despite its shortcomings (which probably sound worse than they actually are), Ninja Five-0 is an excellent game. It's got tons of polish all around, and it's pretty fun to play. For pure 2d action games, it doesn't get much better than this. There's still one thing that confuses me though. Why was this never released in Japan?