Retrospective: Astro Boy Omega Factor

The boy done good.

They don't make them like they used to. Apart from, perhaps, when they do - and then they're quite possibly better than ever before.

At the turn of the century the world was in love with the polygon - which isn't the best of news when your best work has traditionally been on two planes. To say Japanese boutique developer Treasure was struggling would be an overstatement - games like 2000's Sin & Punishment and 2001's Freak Out showed the developer of mini-masterpieces such as Gunstar Heroes and Radiant Silvergun was able to port its hyper creativity to three dimensions.

But games like Wario World - a rare home showcase for Nintendo's anti-hero that, while far from a disaster itself, was most definitely average - and the woeful Dragon Drive D, a title that the developer refuses to credit on its own homepage, saw a definite downturn, with a sense of apathy creeping into an output previously renowned for energy.

Nintendo's Game Boy Advance, with its unwillingness to create 3D worlds and its ability to conjure magnificent 2D ones, acted as the perfect tonic. Here, Treasure could return to its most comfortable workspace, but armed this time with better tools.

The partnership between the studio and the handheld started in humble fashion; Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting, a take on the popular manga and anime series that played out like Punch Out after several beef dinners and a month in the gym. Muscular, lean and sure-footed, it was a taut slice of brilliance, a stark contrast to its more bloated and directionless home console games at the time.

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Complete one runthrough and the game starts proper, with old levels repurposed as a time travel mechanic unravels in Omega Factor's plot.

Treasure's next effort on the GBA - developed in tandem with SEGA's Hitmaker studio - would take on another, slightly more revered licence. If Osamu Tezuka really is, as he's often billed, Japan's equivalent of Walt Disney, then Astro Boy is most definitely his Mickey Mouse. The Pinocchio tale told with rocket boots, Tezuka's world has a warmth that transcends its peers, populated by bumbling cigar-nosed detectives working against villains that bumble just as hard.

It's a world dense with characters, and it's one with a touching sadness at its core; created by a grieving doctor in the image of his departed son, Astro Boy's struggle with his existence and his burgeoning humanity creating an affectionate hook.

Both of which are apparent in Omega Factor; no mean feat when you consider that this particular take on Tezuka's world is, in between the abstract action, conjured from static screens, sparse interchanges and a central story that doesn't run much longer than an hour.

The titular Omega Factor fuels this; a sprawling honeycombed grid, it collects every character that Astro Boy encounters throughout the game. Each encounter - and some of them are obvious while others lurk in darker corners of levels - adds a point to spend on Astro's RPG-flavoured progression.

There's a lot of progression to make, thanks to the fact there are a lot of characters to encounter. Like Kingdom Hearts before it, Omega Factor ransacks Tezuka's oeuvre, pulling in appearances not just from Astro Boy itself but also from further afield; from Kimba the White Lion, from Black Jack and from Phoenix.

It's an all-inclusive approach not exactly exclusive to the game; Tezuka often repurposed his characters, casting them in slightly different roles across his various universes - but it does make Omega Factor an engaging interactive encyclopedia.

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