Astro Boy: Omega Factor
Based on: Adorable robots beating the stuffing out of each other in the name of peace and understanding.
By MCBanjoMike | December 8, 2008
Companion Article: Tezuka Star System
Astro Boy: Omega Factor could have been a good game. The recipe was basically idiot-proof: you take a beloved manga icon and stick him in a 2D, side-scrolling brawler. Add in some recycled plot elements and a smattering of characters from across Osamu Tezuka's many works, slap the thing onto the popular GBA, and wait for the profits to roll in. Actually, on second thought, Astro Boy could just as easily have been a terrible game, a pointless pile of licensed drivel designed with nothing but the bottom line in mind.
Through some act of divine providence, however, it turned out to be one of the strongest original creations on the GameBoy Advance. So what saved it from being another quick and dirty cash-in à la Surf's Up or Shrek the Third?
To start with, the game was developed in part by Treasure?, masters of the precision action game. Treasure's games are made with both love and attention to detail, and The Omega Factor is no exception. At the game's heart lies a 2D combat engine that, while seemingly straightforward, has been honed to a razor edge. Taking a cue from previous works like Ikaruga? and Gunstar Heroes?, Treasure crafted a game that allows the player a fairly limited number of moves yet demands that they master the use of each. It all works together perfectly.
Astro Boy is three parts beat 'em up, one part space shooter and two parts giant bosses in need of pulverization.
Astro Boy's bread-and-butter attacks consist of punching and kicking; the former is more powerful, but the latter has the added effect of knocking enemies away. His basic ranged attack is a finger laser that passes through enemies to allow him to damage multiple baddies at once -- and during the flying stages that make up about 25% of the game, it is also your main means of offense. Rounding out his basic power set is a dash that sends him flying in any direction and renders him invulnerable until he stops moving.
This set of four basic abilities seems modest, but learning to use each of them at the right time separates the Astro-boys from the Astro-men and is absolutely essential to survive the challenges that the game throws at you. Crowd control requires players to alternate damage-dealing with kicking and dashing, lest they be overwhelmed by the hordes of lesser enemies that assail them in most stages. During the numerous boss encounters -- another Treasure hallmark -- it behooves you to make good use of the jets to dodge powerful attacks, some of which can take off half of Astro's health or more.
Thankfully, when it comes time to respond in kind, Astro is well equipped. The second half of his ability set is composed of three Super attacks: the ultra-powerful arm cannon, an upgraded EX dash and a (butt-mounted) machine gun that stuns all enemies on the screen. Unlike most games, where special moves basically amount to a limited-use panic button for the player to jam on in times of distress, these moves are meant to be an integral part of your arsenal. Each of them is balanced by its own weakness: the machine gun gives you breathing room but does little damage, the arm cannon is powerful but leaves you vulverable to attack and the EX dash is a bit too specialized to use very frequently. What's more, the Super meter can stock up to 5 of these attacks and recharges very quickly as you perform regular attacks, encouraging you to bust out the big moves all the time. And you should, since the stages are generally designed around giving the player more to deal with than they can handle.
No, Astro! You have to lead by example!
Taken together, these elements add up to create the capable combat engine that forms the core of Omega Factor. Wrapped around this core is a somewhat disjointed story, and tying the two together is the titular Omega Factor -- the soul that sets Astro apart from other, lesser robots. Astro was designed to learn and grow from his experiences; the more people he meets, the more his Omega Factor develops and the stronger he becomes. In principle, this becomes the game's upgrade mechanic, where each new character that you meet grants you a point to upgrade one of Astro's abilities. In practice, it gives the developers a license to pile the cameos on thick and deep. Favorite characters from across the Tezuka canon (often with no connection whatsoever to the Astro Boy series) are sprinkled throughout the stages, basically serving as hidden powerups. It's a brilliant idea: replacing the generic robo-widgets that might otherwise have served as Astro's upgrades with gooey fanservice.
The story itself is a bit of an odd duck, a mishmash of seemingly unrelated adventures that sees Astro fighting to unify robots and humans despite the mutual distrust shared by both races. Astro employs a unique system of mediation, wherein he attempts to reconcile the two factions by beating the prejudice out of them with a flurry of adorable robot punches and kicks. He technique apparently doesn't work very well, since, after a brief stint as a time-traveler, Astro returns home to find that the robots have nearly annihilated all of mankind in a devastating war. The icing on the cake then arrives in the form of Death Mask, a mysterious and powerful being that proceeds to destroy all of robot-kind for their transgressions.
This all seems pretty bleak for a game about a cutesy robot boy, and it is -- but hope springs eternal thanks to another Tezuka character that makes an appearance at the 11th hour. Astro is revived by The Phoenix, who offers him a chance to go back and change history in an attempt to prevent the war between humans and robots from ever occurring. To be precise, Astro is offered many chances -- as many as it takes -- to find the source of the hatred between the two races and snuff it out. And this is where things get interesting. You see, The Omega Factor isn't simply a brawler but rather an adventure game that plays out using the mechanics of a 2D action game. It's an unlikely combination, but the pairing works in the game's favor, adding a touch of depth and elevating it past the simple (if excellent) brawler that it would have been otherwise.
Legions of Tezuka's "stars" are hidden in away in Omega Factor for the inquisitive player to discover.
The Phoenix initially returns Astro to the beginning of the game, where he starts to play the stages over again. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that things aren't playing out in quite the same way this time. Story elements change and some, though not all, of the stages feature new enemies or entirely different layouts. Once each stage has been replayed, it may then be accessed freely at any time. The player deconstructs the game's timeline, leaping back and forth between stages based on hints offered up by hidden characters. Going to the right place at the right time triggers scenes that further the story and occasionally opens up new stages to explore that weren't present the first time around. And amazingly, as Astro bounces around the timeline, the disparate plot elements that once seemed completely unrelated at first begin to come together. With each tiny enigma that the player unravels, the story comes further into focus and new stages are unlocked. It's a system that compels you to keep hunting, to keep playing. The quality of the underlying gameplay makes it rewarding to do so, even if it's occasionally unclear where Astro should look for his next clue.
There simply aren't many games like Astro Boy: Omega Factor. Between the tight gameplay, intriguing adventure elements and the obvious love that Treasure and Hitmaker had for the source material, the result is a game that exceeds almost everything on the GameBoy Advance platform. It's a shame that so many people missed out on this game when it was first released; in an era where we often criticize games for being derivative, Astro Boy stands out as an excellent, original title. Not a sequel, not a spinoff, not like anything else you've played. Astro Boy could have been a good game; instead, it was a great one.