Retro Review: Astro Rabby (Nintendo Game Boy)

The original Game Boy, eh? Home to hundreds of obscurities, games that never got the attention they deserved the first time around, just ripe for you to discover! One such obscurity is Astro Rabby, a Japan-only platformer... Kind-of.

Developed by Cyclone Systems (who you can learn a little bit about in this interview- they were an offshoot of Pulstar developer Aicom) and released in 1990, Astro Rabby is, in a funny way, a 2D top-down version of JumpingFlash!, where you control Rabby, an adorable space-robot-bunny thing. As the screen slowly scrolls forward, you have to jump on top of question-mark blocks to uncover the single heart item (hidden amongst all the time extension/point items you'll find) to move to the next stage, but you have to be careful where you jump- on every first stage in a world, you'll crack the floor when you jump, and jumping on cracked floors makes them give way, and every second stage in a world is in space, meaning there's not many platforms around...

I Can't Believe It's Not Robbit

Since it's from a top-down perspective and the stages automatically scroll , there's not much freedom to explore (although each stage will loop eventually) but there's essentally three 'heights' for platforms, shown by how big they appear on-screen- the floor, medium-height platforms, and tall platforms. Fortunately, the game makes it very clear what height everything is and whether an enemy will hit you (if it's in the air, it'll hit you no matter what height you are) so there's no awkwardness when it comes to judging how high you are on the stage. Quite a feat on the tiny Game Boy screen, really, considering how many pixels they have to work with! There's a few other game mechanics here and there, such as power-ups that appear from killed enemies to boost your ammo count, jump height and speed, a match-the-sounds bonus game every third stage, and the upgrade shop between levels- collecting the heart and clearing the bonus stage gives you upgrades for Rabby such as ammo for his blaster and shock absorbers that stop him from smashing the ground. Aside from that, it's fairly simple- smash every question block you see and catch the heart!

Considering how much could've gone wrong with this concept- a top-down perspective game with pseudo-3D elements like this on hardware like the Game Boy is quite ambitious- Astro Rabby does the job admirably well. It takes a few stages to get going- in particular, the enemy count in early stages is insultingly low- but once it does, there's pits and obstacles everywhere and precious safe areas for Rabby, especially if you have to loop the stage again. Once you get into the swing of things, it's quite a compulsive little game, as you'll find yourself wanting a quick go every now and then- it offers a decent challenge while also keeping things brief, as portable games ideally should. It's just a shame you can't skip ahead a few stages when you start a new game, but they're fairly short, so it's not a massive problem.

Space Rabbit Out of Control

What is a problem is that the controls do their best to try and ruin the experience. Most of your time will be spent in the air moving from platform to platform, especially since Rabby is slow on the ground, but the poor mecha-rabbit thingy doesn't so much move while jumping as slide across the screen. Sometimes you really have to fight with the controls to land safely, and this only worsens if you pick up any Speed icons from defeated enemies. Grabbing a Jump icon to spend more time in the air helps, as does using the very scarce Power Wings upgrade that remove all slipperiness, but dying (as you may well do if the controls have their way) takes all upgrades and power-ups away from you. Most of the time you can get them back fairly quickly, but in certain situations, this can make the game far harder than it should be, especially the later space stages where you'll really struggle to make it across those large gaps without power-ups. It's not as damaging as in shmups like Gradius where losing your upgrades is tantamount to death, but it ramps up the difficulty considerably, edging things over into frustrating, especially since it's usually not your fault.

It's a shame Cyclone Systems didn't quite get the controls right, because if you can learn to adjust to them (or abuse the upgrades/power-ups) then Astro Rabby is certainly an interesting spin on the platform genre, with a strange 'one-more-go' feeling to it at times. Yes, it's a bit of a drag having to play through the easy stages at the start each time you play, but once you get a little further in, and start facing up against stages like the planet that's more holes than ground, the game offers a decent challenge, only compromised by those floaty controls. It's a simple, bite-sized game that could've been essential with a bit of tweaking... As long as JumpingFlash exists, we'll always have at least one excellent space-robot-rabbit thing simulator, but at least Astro Rabby tried its best.

Last Updated ( 14 April 2011 )  

Tepid Snake

Wait, what do I put in this box again? Oh, it's about me. I like playing weird and unusual games- the sort you're likely to forget about- and I hope you like reading about them because they're what I write about. And game trivia too. Please look forward to it!

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(Link to this comment) Cauterize 2011-04-15 08:36
This sounds like the perfect game for the Virtual Boy, if not very similar to the unreleased (yet leaked) game Bound High.
(Link to this comment) leightonandoff 2011-09-17 02:49
I don't believe any game would be good on Virtual Boy. I got one earlier this year with a complete set of U.S. games off the Bay, and I've played it about 5 times. It makes your eyes bleed like nothing else I've ever experienced (except for chlorine). It only gets fired up now when I see friends who haven't heard of/played it yet (usually the former), and I've stopped playing it as I want to keep my eyeballs intact. Wario Land seems like the best game, but I can't bring myself to play it because of the pain of my melting eyes. Although, it's a cool thing to own, a nice conversation piece, and it does look cool in a naff 90's kind of a way. Still glad I brought it though.

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