Content of the article: "As this gen winds down, a PS4 exclusive can lay claim to “Game of the Generation”. But it’s probably not the one you think. *LONG*"
Sony has blessed us with an all-time generation of first-party games with the PS4. Even by historical standards, the sheer quantity of elite caliber first party games over a single generation is perhaps rivaled only by Nintendo at their peak.
Obviously, the "Game of the Generation" is subjective by any standard, but games that are given the "GotG" label often garner a higher number of the usual adjectives than most. Sure, a lot of games are "fun", "engaging", and have "nice visuals", but how many of those are also "polished", "deep", and "rewarding"?? And how many of those are "transformative", "groundbreaking", or "awe inspiring"? Even fewer still.
Well Sony released a game this gen that garners all the buzzwords and praise-phrases that are fit to bestow a videogame, and that game is ASTRO BOT: Rescue Mission for the PSVR on PS4. Now I know that for most of you, your immediate reaction is that "VR = *" as far as warranting Game of the Generation consideration (even if it IS a great game), but that's precisely why I'm writing this. I aim to convince you that ASTRO BOT's greatness as a VR title is both not a limitation on its candidacy while also being a non-trivial element as to why it is not only great, but historically so.
But first, to cover all the bases that would apply to any "flat" GotG candidate, let's look at why ASTRO BOT deserves recognition on quality alone. ASTRO BOT (and yes, it is stylized in all caps) is a fully actualized product in every facet of its design. 3D platforming isn't everyone's cup of tea, but the game does the genre proud by offering a worthy and delightful protagonist on a charmingly simple quest to rescue his comrades. His rogue's gallery of foes strikes that wonderful balance of goofy, menacing, and creative that only the great platformers consistently get right. The animations are fantastic and personality and thoughtful design ooze from every interaction in the game. This quality trickles down to the controls, hit detection, and encounter design. All of ASTRO BOT's peers that also aspire to this level of quality in execution can all be found on lists whose titles contain the words "Best", "Classic", and "..of the Year" -that's how dead-solid and refined it is. But it goes on…
The sound, dazzles. The music marches to its own drum, spanning a quirky and broad fusion of sounds that blends hip-hop rhythms with mariachi-styled trumpets on one track, before transitioning to disco funk and power metal numbers down the line. The music is often punctuated by unique vocal snippets that give them an even more distinct flavor, and in all, while the style doesn't exactly evoke David Wise (at least, not too often), I could easily see the famed gaming composer applauding the soundtrack for its energy and creativity. Sound effects are also bright and layered, mirroring both the energy of the visual presentation and its level of polish. ASTRO BOT "sounds" unique, energetic, and memorable.
But these bones aren't just shiny and loud….there's meat on them, too. ASTRO BOT has 20 levels of gameplay, with 6 unique boss encounters, supplemented by 26 additional challenge stages and an interactive collection room. There's ample incentive to revisit stages for uncollected robot buddies, giving the main quest plenty of heft on it's own, but with all of the additional content (including some insanely creative and fun challenges) ASTRO BOT has substantial depth and replay value to go with its boatloads of charm.
For those immune to charm, luckily ASTRO BOT has brought gameplay in droves -gameplay that is at once both comfortingly familiar and disarmingly unique. Platforming staples form the core experience; running, swimming, and jumping, bonking minions and nabbing checkpoints along the way. It's solid…rock solid, but these core fundamentals are elevated to incredible heights by your first-person duty as the games camera. As you glide along the levels, your role in gaining the proper perspective literally become's essential to ASTRO BOT's path to victory. While camera placement has always been a vital part of 3D platformers since their inception, the duality of acting as both the protagonist and the watchful overseer of his quest elevates ASTRO BOT to new heights (again, often literally). And this breakthrough doesn't require some entirely new skillset from the player, rather only that they embrace their natural intuition to see and engage the world around them. This is where the transformative nature of the ASTRO BOT experience takes shape.
The developers explore this new dynamic to its fullest, often wrapping the action over and around you, pulling your view below and above a water line, or hiding collectibles in obstructed places that can only be seen "just so". Enemy projectiles stick like gum to your screen, shatter it's glass, and bounce off for return-fire header attacks. Occasionally, ASTRO BOT's attacks can be aimed based on your gaze, and walls and debris are shattered as your VR head bashes through them. The variety is dizzying and delightful.
But SIE Japan isn't done there. ASTRO BOT unloads the kitchen sink of gameplay ideas and creativity, right in your PSVR-wearing face. Gyro aim your water-cannon to fill a pool and get ASTRO BOT swimming ahead, then blow bubbles with your microphone as you duck below the water. Throw ninja stars with a flick of the touch pad, first to kill enemies, and then to serve as platforms for your hero to ascend. While you idle at the summit, he turns and waves gleefully when he senses your gaze. Seemingly every technology that makes a PS4 a PS4 is taken advantage of by ASTRO BOT in order to keep a perpetual smile on your face. And while the set-pieces of the individual levels (and there are plenty) do their share to captivate you, the boss battles send things straight over the top. Bundling all the tricks learned in your journey into giant-sized cartoon conflicts, your towering foes will awe you with their scale, test your reflexes, and enchant you with their hilarious animations.
If there's a singular word that springs to mind when I think of ASTRO BOT, that word is "JOY". In all my years, I can't think of a game that's made me laugh as consistently, but likely not in the way that you might think. While the game is layered with slapstick animations and goofy characters galore, ASTRO BOT has made me laugh as much in wonderment and sheer delight as it has in amusement. That's a rare quality in gaming, and ASTRO BOT has it in spades.
Now, in taking measure of its qualities, all of this clearly amounts to something. Is Astro Bot one of the best PSVR games? Undoubtedly. Was it an award winning game upon its release? It certainly was, although less than was merited, IMO. Game of the Year? Should have been. Game of the….Generation? Yes, and I'll tell you why. Though every generation of gaming ends with a stack of classic-caliber games, those in the GotG discussion often exhibit transformative qualities of a technical, gameplay, or storytelling nature. Mario 64 brought three dimensions and analog movement to platforming, while Final Fantasy 7 took cinematic storytelling to new heights. Halo and GTA brought sandbox gameplay to the burgeoning FPS and open-world-action genres. The Last of Us took rendering emotion in gaming to new depths, while Mario Galaxy blended motion controls with genre-defining creativity. And on and on.
ASTRO BOT not only aspires to the artistry, craftsmanship, and quality of those legendary games of yesteryear, but it also carries forward their legacy of breaking new ground and pushing the medium of gaming forward. While Mario 64 would likely still be a great game without polygonal graphics and an analog stick, but it probably wouldn't be the generational landmark that we remember it as. The same applies to ASTRO BOT; its quality transcends its chosen design implementation, but its (impeccable) integration of the cutting edge tech of its day (VR, motion tracking, touchpad etc) is what makes it truly a landmark title of this era.
Though growing steadily, at the moment VR still lies outside of the gaming mainstream. The additional hardware, complexity, and sometimes off-putting side effects leave it out of reach for many, or undesirable to others. But with a little bit of foresight, we can imagine a day where VR and AR gaming would be far more usable and transparent to the average gamer. Lighter and less clunky and intrusive hardware could eliminate most of the barriers between VR and flat games, meaning that gameplay experiences like those found in ASTRO BOT would be far more readily on offer to the gaming masses.
When this day arrives, a rare, lucky few of us will have the privilege to look back on ASTRO BOT's greatness to acknowledge and recall how it marked both an important evolution in the nature of gaming, and a high mark in its quality. If I've achieved anything in writing all of this, I hope that I've done my part in expanding that number, because for me, ASTRO BOT is one of the greatest gaming experiences I've ever had, and it is without a doubt my Game of the Generation. Thanks for reading…you made it! 🙂
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