It’s easy to get caught up in the push for more realistic-looking games. With the power of The Cloud™, 4K visuals, and dazzling HDR lighting, developers can bring people into photorealistic recreations of the deserts surrounding ancient Egypt, Manhattan’s crowded skyline, or sun-soaked Los Angeles. “But games weren’t always like this!”, he says as he grabs his cane and dentures. The console games of yore didn’t need fancy graphics as long as the gameplay was great, which is why Sonic Mania exists and why Castlevania: Symphony of the Night endures. Team Asobi, the creative minds behind The Playroom and The Playroom VR, have worked their creative magic to create an unlikely spiritual successor to great games, like Sonic The Hedgehog and the 3D Mario games Sunshine (fight me) and Galaxy. ASTRO BOT: Rescue Mission is a wonderful throwback to classic platformer games that makes better use of the PSVR headset than most other titles available for the platform.
Rescue Mission expands on the painfully brief platformer mini-game that was included with The Playroom VR. In it, you helped a small, cape-wearing robot find his other robot friends after they were scared away by the appearance of robot monsters. Team Asobi returns with a full game built around this bit of gameplay in a really big way. It’s probably a cliche, but not since the days of Katamari Damacy has a video game surprised me so much and made me smile with its overflowing charm and unflappable gameplay.
The story is a bit similar to the original mini-game where a gaggle of AR Bots are scattered to the four winds after an alien swings by and steals a PSVR-styled headset from Captain Astro’s sentient mothership. You'll guide the little robot hero to find his friends across five worlds and fight bosses that carry a piece of the mothership. This setup has all the gravitas of a Super Mario Brothers game and is largely window dressing for the call to adventure. Rescue Mission isn’t a serious game by any means. This is a colorful, vibrant, and fanciful game where tiny expressive robots pick flowers, try to eat giant grapes, and dance as they wait to be rescued. The comparisons to Nintendo’s flagship series is apt because it really does have the look, feel, and smart design as some of the best Mario adventures on the market. Oh heck, I’ll come out and say it: Rescue Mission is the closest PlayStation owners will get to a game like Super Mario Odyssey. Designed around different environments like desert canyons, spooky underground caves, and neon lit amusement parks, the playable stages sport a level of polish and personality almost rarely seen outside of Nintendo. Each feels meticulously crafted to incorporate Captain Astro’s ability to move, jump, and glide over colorful hazards, punch out angry robots, and leap over deadly pitfalls to grab those sweet, sweet coins.
The goal of each stage is to simply reach the end while hunting down the lost AR Bots. Some are easy to spot as they’re goofing around or hanging onto dear life from atop tall cliffs and trees. Others are a bit trickier to find because they are tucked away behind hidden walls and out of the way nooks and crannies that have you physically peeking over ledges and tunnels while Astro busts down weak walls. In a nod to Ubisoft’s Rayman Origins, the bots emit a squeaky and sad “Help me!” cry whenever Astro is in range, giving you a clue as to where they might be hiding. Hidden bots are easy to miss since you, Captain Astro’s handler, can only move forward, and leaving anyone behind means replaying that stage to try again (although bots you already found will show up as collectible coins). As for the coins, they are used to play a claw game inside Astro’s ship that unlocks dioramas based on the game’s different environments. They don’t do anything special other creating a fun little playground to mess around in. Here’s hoping a sequel will go further down the Odyssey road and let you purchase cosmetics for yourself, Astro, and his robot buddies.
Rescue Mission does a great job of incorporating the game controller as something other than a means to move Astro around. I’m speaking primarily of its functionality with the fun in-game gadgets. At some point, you’ll be asked to put the controller inside a virtual treasure chest so it can add a hook shot, ninja star launcher, machine gun, and water hose gadget. While Astro usually doesn’t have problems navigating platforms and taking out enemies, he still needs help getting past particular hazards and enemy types by shooting them with ninja stars or popping their hot air balloons by shooting it with the grapple hook. Even the boss stages find creative ways to use the gadgets. A giant octopus uses its tentacles to smash away segments of the only floor separating Astro and searing hot lava, spitting fireballs that need to be quenched. In another, a bird flaps its wings to tip the the surface you’re standing on and hurl smaller birds in your direction, forcing you to think on your feet as you dodge the attack will staying on the platform, waiting for a chance to grapple its goggles and open him up for an attack. Don’t let the cute, child-friendly elements fool you because stages and bosses can get pretty challenging later in the game!
Rescue Mission’s level design is straight out of the Nintendo playbook but the presentation -the aesthetic, the textures, and the music (oh, the music!) - has that same fanciful vibe that made Rayman Origins and Legends an utter delight. Even though the game has a one major theme, it changes to fit the mood of any given stage. While exploring catacombs, it takes on a somber and spooky tone whereas the beach and ocean levels are more dreamy and laid-back. As for the robots, they have so much personality despite having no facial features except for a pair of LED eyes that convey emotion. It’s impossible not to fall in love with them. And the best part? They have a little dance party at the end of a stage! Anyone who doesn’t feel the slightest bit of joy over these robotic darlings must have a heart of ice and probably punches puppies. Furthermore, if anyone from Sony Japan and Team Asobi are reading this, I can provide a mailing address where you can send me a Captain Astro Bot.
The game’s phenomenal presentation goes beyond emoting robots and gorgeous environments. The virtual reality used in Rescue Mission is some of the best I’ve experienced to date. It’s certainly the first that lets me move a full 360 degrees without freaking out. You do a lot of looking around and leaning about to find bots and special chameleons that unlock time-based challenge levels. There are also moments you use the headset to do fun things, like knock back soccer balls, head butt robot bees, and bust down weakened barriers. And I did all this without ever seeing an “Out of Play Area” warning. Even the “screen door” visual effect so prevalent in PSVR games (especially those ported from PC) is largely unnoticeable. Like Naughty Dog’s work with the PlayStation 3, Team Asobi found a way to get the most out of the PSVR technology better than other developers in the business.
The only bad thing to be said about ASTRO BOT Rescue Mission is that it ends. With only twenty stages and challenges, the game doesn’t take long to beat, even after going back to pick up stragglers. I wanted this to last forever like Super Mario Odyssey. And I know I’ve been referring to the Mario games so much but that’s really the best way to convey how much of a fantastic platformer Rescue Mission is. Cute robots, great music, and fantastic throwback gameplay brought out my inner child who laughed, and laughed, and laughed as the Bots dance, the bosses stumble, and Captain Astro emotes. Gamers of any age group will find something to love about Rescue Mission. Kids will have fun with the goofy and silly behavior of the robots while teens and older adults will appreciate the challenges and cool levels. I feel comfortable in saying that this is a PSVR killer app and there’s no reason to sit on this.
Again, Sony, please send me a Captain Astro.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.