Astro Tripper Review
Although European PlayStation 3 owners have complained about a lack of PSN content since the launch of Sony’s new machine, they should take solace in the fact that some downloadable titles actually hit their region first. Take Astro Tripper, for example. It released on the Euro PSN in December but we North American gamers had to wait until mid-March before we could lay our hands on the insanely fast-paced, old-school shoot-‘em-up experience. For the most part, Astro Tripper really is a throwback to the days of colorful side-scrolling shooters – quick, how many here played Trevor McFur on the Atari Jaguar? – and that’s not a bad thing, especially if you’re a gaming veteran who has been pining for a new shooter fix. It’ll only cost you five bucks on the Store and the 47MB download will pass in a matter of a few short minutes, so what’s stopping you from giving it a try? Even if these types of games have never been your cup of tea, this is a nice option to spice up a boring, dreary rainy day. No, it ain’t Killzone 2, but it’s not supposed to be, right?
As far as the visuals go, you’re looking at plenty of flashy color and shading, along with a maelstrom of graphical effects that capture the eye and tantalize the senses. The only problem is that you have to be skilled enough to advance to the point where you can really appreciate the inherent artistic fluidity and creativity. If you’re a poor player – and most all of you will be when you first start – you’ll only see some colorful spinning balls and maybe a few interesting-looking enemies in the form of various creatures. But the more you play the prettier it gets, and the graphics are actually a major highlight. We also like the way PomPom designed the levels; they introduce a next-gen style of visual by including elevation and twists in the standard format. It’s not technically “side-scrolling” as you’ll go back and forth in any particular level, and height – as in, moving up an incline or down a ramp or something – does indeed play a role. It’s a very interesting way of presenting a shooter and it’s a style we really haven’t seen before, although it’s not without its gameplay faults. We’ll get to those in a bit, but for now, let’s just say Astro Tripper is a very pretty downloadable title.
The sound is a little lacking, mostly due to a somewhat strange effects selection and a soundtrack that doesn’t really cut the mustard. The music acts as a nice accoutrement and the electro beats do fit the futuristic atmosphere, but there isn’t quite enough diversity and they don’t really pump us up. This is a super fast-paced, intense shooter with ceaseless action that doesn’t let you breathe, and yet, the soundtrack seems surprisingly laid back and even boring at times. But again, things get better as you progress and you’ll have to – quite literally – stick to your guns if you want to see the best the technicals have to offer. The only other bizarre part of the sound is that the gunfire sounds dull and muted; most unfitting to the slick hi-tech presentation, and even when we power up the weapons at our disposal, we really don’t have the appropriate level of “bang,” if you get our meaning. All in all, the sound is okay for a piece of downloadable content but for the most part, we kinda wanted more. In this way, we think the sound is just a little bland for this type of game, even if it well implemented.
You might think the gameplay would need no explanation, especially if you’re an old-school gamer who grew up with the likes of 1943 and such. But as we hinted at when talking about the graphics, there’s a distinctness to Astro Tripper; an originality you haven’t seen elsewhere. You will have the option of participating in either Adventure or Challenge Mode, and although Challenge Mode doesn’t represent enough of a departure from Adventure, the same design uniqueness is apparent in both. When you first start, you’ll quickly realize that instead of moving only from left to right, as we traditionally did in old-fashioned space shooters, you actually move from left to right in a set level space. The area changes in size and shape and yes, there’s the height element to think about. For example, in the second level of the Training Grounds, there’s a slope that runs upwards left to right, and this will have an effect on your fire and line of sight. In the third level, there’s a mound in the middle of the level and if you go over the top and down the other side, your increased momentum can stick you into the wall. But you can freely counter this by hitting the Circle button to flip your ship around.
You can also change your weapon from straight, powerful blue blasts to sweeping, red blasts that are best for swarming enemies. All you need to do is push the Square button to switch between the two, and X is the fire button. Beyond this, there isn’t much to talk about; the rest of the experience is all about keeping your eyes constantly peeled for oncoming assaults and relying on your keen reflexes. All of this works well but we did have a small problem with the control of our ship. For whatever reason, the developers decided, perhaps for the sake of smoothness, to allow the ship to move a little on its own. In other words, the ship is never stationary; it’s always hovering and moving slowly in the direction you were thrusting in, which is great for realistic physics…but last we checked, this isn’t a simulator. This proves troublesome because sometimes, sharp movements can cause you to overshoot your intended position, and we found ourselves running into enemies more often than we would’ve liked. And when you lose a life simply by touching one of the baddies, this can get extremely irritating, so the mechanics include a certain amount of frustration.
There are 14 levels spaced out over 4 different worlds and while that may not sound like a lot, you have to take the difficulty into account. Unfortunately, the challenge may be a touch too steep to appeal to the casual game out there; i.e., the type of gamer who is often interested in checking out the PlayStation Store for games that will act as pleasant diversions. This game can really make you toss your controller in frustration and while we certainly remember that from days long past, we think PomPom was really overestimating their target audience when the ratcheted up the difficulty to such extreme levels. It’s not ridiculous, but it is to the point where many will find it annoying and even unnerving. You can always nab power-ups to increase the effectiveness of your blue and red fire, and a multiplier bar will continue to rise, provided you eliminate enemies fast enough. But there’s one additional obstacle to overcome, and it centers on the time limit. That’s right, each level must be completed within a certain amount of time, and if you fail, you will lose a life. Of course, you can always get that life back when and if you reach 1,000,000 points, but for most normal humans, that’s a big “if.” Seriously, what do they expect from us?
Astro Tripper is a visually pleasing, smooth, engaging shooter, and that alone is probably worth the $5 price of admission. But bear in mind that you’ll need to contend with a very steep challenge level, somewhat loose control, and the fact that there isn’t a great deal of depth or variety. Rather than different weapons, you can only power up the ones you have, and there really isn’t much in the way of special items or skills. You’ll get the hang of it within minutes but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to get very far…it takes some practice and patience, and it certainly isn’t overly accomplished, but it’s a decent addition to the PSN.
5/5/2009 Ben Dutka