Astro Robo Sasa (NES) review
"Flying with weapon recoil is an interesting idea that has now been used and never needs to be revisited. Thanks, Astro Robo Sasa."
Astro Robo Sasa won't be winning any beauty contests, even though it doesn’t look terrible for a game of its vintage (pre-Super Mario Bros.). It actually has distinct backgrounds instead of black empty space, which wasn’t common at the time, but none of those backgrounds are detailed enough that you’ll likely appreciate the distinction. Sprites are tiny and muddled, and it's often difficult to even tell what they're actually supposed to be. Even Sasa himself looks like nothing more than a tiny bundle of pixels.
From a sound standpoint, the game doesn’t fare much better. Aside from the title screen music (which is strangely catchy), the bulk of the music is unmemorable. There aren't many different sound effects, either, and you are likely to get sick of the constant “pew-pew-pew” of Sasa's gun. You'll be hearing it a lot.
That’s the game's gimmick, after all: guns that pull double duty as both a weapon and a mode of transportation. Shots don't go very far, but apparently they produce enough kickback to send Sasa sailing through the air. You can fire in four directions, and Sasa will respond by moving in the opposite direction. A related point is that Sasa draws both ammo and health from a single pool of “energy.” Each shot fired requires one energy point, and each time Sasa comes into contact with an enemy, some of that meter will also drain. Every single-screen stage contains a handful of energy power-ups that can be collected to ensure Sasa’s survival, and in fact, that's your primary objective. Stages end when all of the energy tanks have been either collected or accidentally destroyed. Because Sasa's energy doesn't replenish between stages, your ultimate goal is to collect more energy than you spend. You only have one life, and once you lose it, the game ends.
There are a total of 16 stages, most of which come in similarly-themed groups that feature the same general layout but offer different enemy and energy placement. Despite this limitation, Sasa actually presents the player with a fairly wide variety of environments, thanks in part to the fact that half the locales have their own unique gravity restrictions and enemy types (though most of those foes simply move from one side of the screen to the other). The early outdoor stages are easily navigated, as they feature low gravity and wide open spaces. Eventually the game moves indoors, though, to an infuriating warehouse with high gravity, narrow spaces, and enemies that can't be completely defeated (shots stun them, but incapacitated foes still inflict damage if you brush against them). After that particular set of stages, you’ll venture to a series of underwater environments, where gravity is reversed thanks to buoyancy, and Sasa must fire upwards simply to keep himself close to the ground. The final few stages then occur in outer space, where there's no gravity at all except for the black hole in the final level that will draw you towards it. If you survive all of that, you're rewarded with a cute little scene demonstrating the love between Sasa and his girlfriend/wifebot Nana (Player 2's character in multiplayer mode), at which point the game starts over while retaining your energy levels and score.
Since it features only 16 tiny stages, Astro Robo Sasa may sound like an incredibly short game. However, one thing prevents you from simply zipping through the whole thing in a few minutes while also serving as the title’s fundamental flaw. That one thing is the fact that most energy pickups are hidden behind barriers that you have to shoot dozens of times each in order to break. This is an understandable decision, because the typical stage could otherwise be finished in just a few seconds. There has to be something to spend your bullets on, after all. Understanding why the barriers must exist from a design perspective doesn't make them any less annoying as you deal with them during the game, however. Since the kickback from Sasa's weapon forces him to move, and because his shots only have a limited range, it's impossible to land more than a few shots on a single barrier without having to realign yourself partway through the assault. That mechanic is clearly meant to add some challenge, and Sasa's mechanics are all about finesse in the first place, but the end result is more annoying and frustrating than it is enjoyable.
While it’s not very much fun to play, Astro Robo Sasa does at least feature an interesting idea, one that is even more interesting (and perhaps even less fun) when you experience it with a friend. Sasa features a simultaneous multiplayer mode that could very easily destroy a relationship. Player 2 controls Sasa's lover, Nana, who possesses the same abilities that Sasa does. Both heroes will have to collect energy tanks, and they don't share a common energy meter. Energy tanks yield a lot more energy in multiplayer mode, so there's enough to go around, but gamers aren't always great at sharing. The real kicker, though, is that Sasa and Nana can hurt each other with their shots. Players are more likely to die from accidentally gunning each other down than they are from enemy collisions.
It's a shame that Astro Robo Sasa isn't anywhere near as good as it could have been. Flying around with your gun and limited ammunition is an interesting concept, but it's simply not a fun one as executed here. Perhaps Sasa would work better as a modern Jetpack Joyride-style infinite runner reboot, but as it stands now, it's far from classic and is best left alone.
Staff review by Rhody Tobin (May 12, 2013)
Rhody likes to press the keys on his keyboard. Sometimes the resulting letters form strings of words that kind of make sense when you think about them for a moment. Most times they're just random gibberish that should be ignored. Ball-peen wobble glurk.
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