Astro Bot could be PSVR’s Mario 64 moment

Not only is Astro Bot: Rescue Mission a platformer on par with anything you’d expect from Nintendo’s moustachioed plumber, it’s also the first ‘killer app’ for PlayStation VR. Lee Henaghan grabs his helmet for the latest game of the year contender.

Just as actors’ careers inevitably end up being defined by a particularly memorable role or breakthrough performance, consoles will always be associated with those once-in-a-generation games which smash sales records or raise the bar for interactive entertainment.

The ‘killer app’ is the holy grail for game developers. Killer apps don’t just shift software – they shift hardware. In the 80s, the Super Mario Bros trilogy helped the Nintendo Entertainment System conquer America. In the 90s, games such as Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII heralded the rise of the PlayStation and more recently, the likes of Halo and Wii Sports became standard bearers for the platforms that spawned them.

When it comes to genuinely revolutionary games, Mario 64 stands out from the crowd as the greatest killer app of all time. Not only did it single-handedly sell tens of millions of Nintendo 64 consoles, it also transformed the industry like no other game before or since. As the first truly 3D platformer, it took gaming to new levels and set the standard for everything that followed.

I can still vividly remember the first time I played Mario 64. The jaw-dropping sequence of increasingly impressive “wow” moments, the semi-permanent grin that set in as I explored Miyamoto’s masterpiece and realised just how far the envelope had been pushed. In the 22 years that followed, I’ve only ever come close to experiencing that sense of wonder on a few fleeting occasions. Grand Theft Auto III and Portal 2 blew my mind, The Last of Us moved me to tears. Astro Bot: Rescue Mission is right up there in the goosebump stakes.

Before I played this game I would have classed myself as a VR agnostic. Nothing had ever convinced me it was anything more than a mildly entertaining distraction. After five minutes with Astro Bot I became an evangelical convert. As a VR experience it’s a world away from everything else out there and like Mario 64 before it, this is a game that demonstrates the power and the potential of its platform more effectively than any advertising campaign ever could.

On the surface, Astro Bot seems like your standard cutesy platformer: polished presentation, catchy soundtrack, beautiful graphics and animation. What serves for a story is predictably basic – a search and rescue mission for pieces of your spacecraft and hundreds of its robotic crew after an alien attack scatters them to them to the furthest reaches of the galaxy.

What makes it so fundamentally different to the hundreds of other Mario clones on the market is its impeccably implemented sense of immersion – this isn’t just a game built for VR; it feels like the game the VR was built for.

Ostensibly, you control the game from a third person perspective, following at a distance slightly above and behind Captain Astro. It’s only when you look down towards your feet that you realise you’re actually viewing things from the perspective of a much larger robot who serves as a puppeteer, manipulating the protagonist using an on-screen PlayStation Dualshock controller.

Not only does this limit the dissociative dizziness other VR games can induce, it also gives you a helpful life-size representation of the same controller you are holding. If you lift or tilt the pad, you see it move. If you press a button or move an analogue stick, it happens in real time.

The controller also serves as a makeshift lifeboat for your stranded buddies. As you explore each level, you’ll find some out in the open, a few hidden in plain sight and others which require some serious exploration to locate. A swift kick up the backside activates each crewmate’s jetpack – sending them soaring overhead before descending into the sanctuary of your Dualshock pad as it flips open to reveal a robotic welcoming party. This happens hundreds of times but somehow never gets old.

While most of the game can be comfortably played from a sitting position, you’ll often find yourself arching your neck or even getting out of your seat to get a better perspective to locate your last few missing mates. The PSVR’s 3D audio is put to perfect use as you listen intently for their high pitched shrieks – tilting your head gives you a rough idea of where the cries are coming from.

As you watch the action unfold from a semi-fixed viewpoint, you’ll find Captain Astro exploring overhead platforms one minute before descending rapidly to the nether reaches of the screen and then bouncing back up above your head on a trampoline – it’s a clever subversion of the traditional 3D platformer camera which follows the hero from a set distance. You’re constantly conscious of space and perspective, sometimes even losing sight of the protagonist altogether.

Another aspect I really loved about Astro Bot was the way it happily takes tired tropes that would ordinarily be cliched and somehow makes them feel fresh again. Another platformer with an underwater level or forced-scrolling minecart section? These are features that felt played out in the 90s but when you’re riding on the back of a whale or literally ducking your head to avoid hanging rails, you’re reminded why they’re such mainstays of the genre.

While there were dozens of sections that made me laugh out loud, grin like a loon or shake my head at the sheer beauty of it all, it’s difficult to go into much detail without revealing spoilers. Although there’s not much in the way of narrative, this is a game that’s built around magical moments of discovery that need to be seen to be believed – one level involving a beanstalk which gradually grows as you progress through the level is particularly impressive.

It wouldn’t be a platformer without boss fights and again, Astro Bot plays with the traditional tropes just enough to make them feel familiar but fresh. Most of the battles follow the standard pattern of big baddies with obvious weak spots whose attacks grow increasingly dangerous as you inflict damage but it’s the sheer scope and scale of them that makes them so exciting.

The first boss you face is a King Kong-sized gorilla with a toothache – flicking a grappling rope gadget from your Dualshock controller (this is a game that takes full advantage of the woefully underused touchpad) attaches a hook to its tooth which you then repeatedly yank back and remove until you’ve achieved a full dental extraction. It’s utterly thrilling and arguably better than any boss battle in Mario Odyssey.

Comparisons with last year’s Mario masterpiece are impossible to ignore and while Astro Bot might not boast Odyssey’s depth or diversity – not to mention the huge, sprawling open world levels to explore – it more than holds up in terms of ingenious level design, charm and joie de vivre. I couldn’t help thinking what the reaction to this game would have been like if you’d simply replaced Captain Astro with Mario and the generic enemies with goombas and koopa troopas.

It’s also a game that serves as a testament to just how far PSVR has progressed as a platform. Although Sony have sold 3 million PSVR units and 22 million games since its 2016 launch, it’s fair to say that it hasn’t exactly set the world alight and releases have been inconsistent in both quality and quantity.

Compared to early PSVR titles which sacrificed graphical resolution for immersion, it seems developers are slowly starting to get to grips with the hardware. Astro Bot is by far the best looking PSVR game to date – with intricately detailed textures and gorgeous lighting effects that feel much more like playing a PS4 game as opposed to a PS3 one.

With other recent releases such as Firewall: Zero Hour receiving rave reviews and other AAA titles like Deracine and Blood and Truth on the horizon, the future looks bright for virtual reality on PlayStation.

The main stumbling block for VR to date has been the relatively steep setup costs. PSVR’s $460 entry point is far more appealing than the $1000+ you’ll be looking at if you go down the Oculus or Vive route via a high-end PC but it’s still a significant investment for anyone who’s yet to be convinced by the format.

Games sell consoles, and Astro Bot might just be the kind of killer app that helps Sony finally bring virtual reality to the mainstream market.

Review copy supplied by PlayStation NZ.


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