"Astro Bot is the Mario 64 of virtual reality," read a comment aimlessly floating through my social media recently, prompting a mixture of suspicion, curiosity, and snark. It's a hell of a statement, given how much Mario 64 singularly changed video games, and, to be clear, not one I'm making. But the claim was audacious enough to prompt the cleaning of cables around my home theater, letting me plug in PlayStation VR headset for the first time since playing Moss, a charming adventure game, earlier this year. I've been a VR advocate for a while, and continue to support VR in the abstract, but when I only have an hour or so to play something at night, VR is too much. I'd rather just flip on the TV, lay awkwardly on the couch, and move on. Astro Bot: Rescue Mission, however, is worth all of the extra effort. It's not the Mario 64 of virtual reality, but who cares? It's tremendous.
What I'm saying is that if you slapped the Nintendo logo on Astro Bot, I don't think anyone would blink twice. And when it comes to platformers, a genre Nintendo more or less taken over these days, is there higher praise?
One of the core questions facing any VR game is a basic question: Does it need to be in VR? Because VR is expensive and clumsy in its current form, it's understandable to wonder whether a game could have reached its design goals without the extra hardware. Generally speaking, VR hasn't make the best first impression on this count, which is probably fine, honestly; if VR is transformative, it'll take a while for designers to come up with ways of taking advantage of it in non-gimmicky ways. Key to answering this, then, is whether the game either tangibly benefits from VR—Resident Evil 7, for example, is a fundamentally different, more harrowing game in VR, even if it's still great without—or if it goes a step further, and makes VR integral to its design. Astro Bot is the latter, choosing to see VR less as an extended window into a world and more as an opportunity for new player verbs.
If you stripped Astro Bot of its VR, it would be a fundamentally lesser game. There's your answer. Though platforming is the core mechanic, it is not Astro Bot's core strength—it's how the platforming dances with VR. It’s a game whose power lies in the sum of its parts.
The comparisons to Mario are appropriate, but Mario 64 is the wrong game. One of my favorite Mario games is Super Mario 3D Land for the 3DS, a game that, when it's eventually ported to Switch or another platform, will lose something in the transition. I'm sure it's a perfectly fine platformer in 2D, but the 3D element wasn't just a gimmick. Nintendo designed the levels to take advantage of the depth perception players got from 3D, making it easier to jump and navigate the world. It also focused on tight, contained spaces in which players only spent a little while in each stage, but they were dense with secrets and easter eggs. Astro Bot feels like the spiritual successor to Super Mario 3D Land in every conceivable way, design to aesthetic, and helps explain why I fell in love.
Astro Bot doesn't dedicate much time to its setup beyond a group of tiny robots encountering an alien that busts up their ship, scattering key pieces and robot friends across five stages and five worlds. It's your task to round them back up, knock the snot out of the bosses holding your ship pieces hostages, and head back to the stars. But what Astro Bot lacks in narrative nuance it makes up for by revealing the depth of its personality through attention to detail, a sincerity of care that extends to all parts of the game—how it looks, feels, plays, and the way VR is used to make the player a dual-purpose actor, as both a tiny robot and a towering omnipresence.
There are two characters in Astro Bot: the tiny robot you control with the Dual Shock and…your head. The robot has access to a typical array of platforming gameplay verbs: jump, punch, hover. As for your head, you can look around, obviously, but there are times when the game complicates things with rockets and ink splots that, if not avoided by physically dodging in real-life, can temporarily obscure your view. You're also, at times, asked to bash your face into objects to move forward. It's cute, but thankfully, not overused.
A number of stages complicate the formula with unique tools, such as a grappling hook to create tightrope platforms for the robot to walk on, or pull down pieces of geometry. There're a few others, including a fire hose and shurikens. These create a spinning plates dynamic, as you balance moving your head, moving the robot, and using the tool—often simultaneously. The most inventive moment, however, is a spooky stage with a flashlight, where the flashlight exposes the very platforms you need to progress. Not to overuse the Mario comparison, but one of Nintendo's overlooked insights is to flood the player with new gameplay riffs, taking them away early enough that you wish there was more time to spend with them, but doubly ensuring they don't overstaying a welcome. Astro Bot gets this.
There have been different approaches to platforming in VR, but most games strip your ability to manipulate the camera, one of Mario 64's many geniuses, because you can already look around in the headset. In Astro Bot, the camera moves at a fixed perspective as you move forward, but it's fully aware of the player's presence. If your head passes through a bunch of branches, for example, they snap and break as you shuffle through. But in more practical terms, as the robot climbs higher, the camera might remain below, forcing you to crane your head in another direction, to guide them. The game is cautious to avoid making this overly awkward and potentially painful, but if you want to find Astro Bot's secrets, you absolutely will need to stand up or peer in odd directions to find what the designers have hidden for you. It's so, so rewarding, though, and one of the chief examples of how Astro Bot would not be the same game in 2D. Flipping a camera around is different than turning your head.
The lack of complete camera control introduces an interesting wrinkle; you don't always have the best possible angle on your next jump. To compensate, Astro Bot is very generous with checkpoints (there are lots), lives (there are none), and most critically, it's nearly impossible to fall off a ledge. There's a subtle magnetism keeping the robot on track, so as long as you're moving generally in the right direction, you should be fine. Without this player favoritism, the game couldn't take as many perspective risks; it'd be deemed unfair. Instead, you learn to trust the game will do right by you, and it's easier to admire the strange ways Astro Bot has you viewing things.
Collectibles are typically bullshit. I avoid them, and I loathe them. And yet, there are exceptions, games that use them well, and Astro Bot is one. There are two collectibles in Astro Bot: robot friends and chameleons. It's unclear why there are hidden chameleons in each stage, but whatever—it doesn't matter. The robot friends are a form of currency to unlock boss stages, and chameleons grant a challenge stage, requiring players to hit a certain time or notch a high score. (They are extremely fun and worth doing.) Both pull from Nintendo's house approach, which is to make collectibles more than filler, and ensure the journey is rewarding unto itself, rather than a path to a trophy. The robot friends are often hidden in plain sight, but you might need to do something tricky to find the path. Other times, their location isn't obvious, but you can hear them trying to get your attention. That's your cue to start peering at the environment in weird, unobvious ways, producing a series of rewarding a-ha moments, as you puzzle out where the designers wanted you to look.
The chameleons operate similarly, but unlike the robot friends, they're invisible. You can vaguely see an outline, but their form isn't revealed until you've stumbled upon one. They tend to hide in out-of-the-way places, but produce similar results when discovered: a smile. Collectibles in Astro Bot are a rewarding joy, not mindless. There are just enough of them to make it manageable for the average person to track all of them down—I'm only missing a few—and more importantly, it's not a chore, but a natural extension of the game's design ethos.
"If you stripped Astro Bot of its VR, it would be a fundamentally lesser game. Though platforming is the core mechanic, it is not Astro Bot's core strength—it's how the platforming dances with VR. It’s a game whose power lies in the sum of its parts."
But look…so far, this is a bunch of words about the underlying technical and design thoughtfulness that makes Astro Bot work, and while I stand by that, it's worth confessing something larger: this game made me happy. It constantly put a smile on my face.
And while the notion of treating video games exclusively as escapism robs the medium of power, sometimes the world is worth ditching for a little while. It’s not a fault. The world sucks shit right now. A man credibly accused of sexual assault is now a Supreme Court justice. Families separated at the border are having their children torn away and given to other families. Apparently, Trump is still president? The idea of slapping on a headset and, for a moment, hanging out in a place where you can exert meaningful control, where everything around you is happy and joyous and wants to give you a high-five—that's not nothing, okay? I didn't feel bad about pressing pause for a little while. I'm still pitching in time and money to flip my congressional district, but late at night, when the darkness feels bleakest, I'd put on a headset and go somewhere else for a bit.
Deep breath. The midterms are a few weeks away. Deep breath.
Astro Bot, a Nintendo-quality platformer that also takes place in VR, is not only good, it's very good. It's game of the year material! Probably! And yet, I suspect a great many won't play it because they've made up their mind on VR. I get it. You're talking to someone who owns three different headsets, yet can't be arsed into using them for months at a time. Astro Bot is worth it. Borrow someone else's headset if you have to. Thank me later.
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