Unless you have delved into anime (or manga- as it is colloquially known, thanks to its most successful distributor to the UK), you may never have heard of Astro Boy, Ultraman or Akira. These fundamental successes have influenced comics, movies and pop-culture for generations. The Astro Boy story follows the popular futurist sci-fi theme of a robot replacement for human loss. As with Fritz Laing's Metropolis, its anime successor by the same name, and later Spielberg's controversial AI, the hero is a robotic replacement for a lost son, the only child of a well-meaning professor- his boy lost to him in a car crash. The professor creates a robot in his son's image, but something superhuman and super moral, as a response to the unjust world that took his son so early in life.
What drew an audience of all ages to Astro Boy in Japan, (perhaps less so in the west, although he has his imitations), was the mix of superhuman technology (flying boots, cannon arm) and the superhuman morality. Astro Boy was born with a pure soul, free from selfish thought, keeping him focused on the righteous mission that lay ahead. Back in 1951, when Tezuka's character made his debut, the date of Astro's birth, April 7 2003, was considered the distant future and no doubt a 3D action game a distant reality. How well then, does the world of Astro Boy transfer to the PS2, and how does the game impact on an audience new to this loveable robot boy?
Graphically, the game looks great. A faithful recreation of Metro City provides a linear playing area for the game's narrative- find the clue, complete the level by walking round the (often tiny) playing area and take to the skies for an impressive flying battle with the end of level boss. In addition to Metro City, play unfolds from Astro's home and the scenery changes from time to time; yet the proffered ten levels seem to be short on depth and the gameplay stifled.
The introduction of Astro's seven abilities is staggered over the 10 levels and complemented by the introduction of new characters- Zoran, Dr O'Shay, Atlas- if these hold a special place with you. The abilities are more interesting as these dominate the end battles; 1,000,000-horsepower Strength, X-Ray Vision, Ray Vision, Supersonic Hearing, the Power to Analyse, against the likes of Acheron and the Blue Knight.
Although there are 50 cards to collect, the game is so pre-determined, its hard to wander round Astro's world and get in deep- certainly this is no Zelda. Nonetheless, collecting the cards fill in some blanks regarding the story and its history, as well as adding an extra feather in the cap for a game that frankly, is all to easy for adults to complete.
In its defence, the character to environment interaction is good, both in the walking based stage play and end of level boss battles. The Havok2 physics engine, used in recent PC and Xbox titles, (Half-Life 2, Max Payne 2) serves the game well, aside from a few moments of dodgy camera angles.
The game is slick- it's the first time Japanese developers have used Havok2, and they use it well. The graphics and sound are great, taken direct from the animated series. Bold primary colours and crisp 3D rendering of Astro, his colleagues and the villains are sure to please young and old, although the difficult controls do not sit well with the straightforward approach to levels and the short-lived duration of the game as a whole. The flying elements require dual stick control, something frustratingly difficult to master, and once you get to grips with lasting the bosses from the air, expect to romp home, completing the game in approximately 5 hours.
If you are a fan of Astro, it's good news visually, but anyone over the target demographic of 6-10 years old is bound to feel let down by the simplistic and short-lived play. Perhaps the key to the game is that while the graphics appeal to kids, they signify themes that are more adult - the secret of good anime. For youngsters, the Astro Boy universe is a crisp, exciting world and although he first hit the Japanese, consciousness 50 years ago, young eyes may well have been following the new adventures on the Cartoon Network.
Sega and Sony really come through with the look and feel of Metro City, but the game is too short and easy for adults, yet fiddly for younger players to master. Overall, it is a shame- the GBA title is far more engrossing and anyone who has dabbled is sure to find the PS2 game a disappointment. Given the great character to work with, it could have been the new Mega Man. In a genre where the biggest fans are cruelly marked as be-spectacled Zena fans, this is too simple and too immature to challenge gamers, or the PS2. A real shame as the Astro Boy sure has style.