Game: Astro Rabby
Developer: Cyclone System
Release date: 1990
It's no secret that Nintendo's GameBoy wasn't a technological marvel. Sure, its hardware was comparable to that of the Famicom (or the NES, if that's your cup of tea), but that doesn't mean a whole lot when you consider the latter was six years old when the former first hit the streets.
Also, as everyone should know by now, the GameBoy's screen wasn't the greatest. In fact, it's far more responsible for holding back this handheld's titles than the amount of sprites it could handle or the size of its onboard RAM.
I bring up all of these details because they prompted a lot of developers to put a cap on their creativity while producing games for Nintendo's first portable system. That's most evident in the shocking number of puzzlers and other simple, single-screen affairs that found their way onto store shelves during the GameBoy's reign.
The same criticism can't be laid at the feet of the folks at Cyclone System, makers of Astro Rabby. After all, not only is this Japan-only 1990 release a platformer, but it's a top-down platformer that in a really weird way calls to mind an early PlayStation effort that so many people seem to love, Jumping Flash!
Admittedly, Jumping Flash! offers players a whole lot more freedom than Astro Rabby does, but the point still stands: this is a GameBoy title that shouldn't exist given the bulk of the system's often-creatively-barren catalog.
Which begs the question: what makes Astro Rabby so great? Or, at least, what makes stand out from the system's sea of Tetris wannabes?
To that, the first thing I'd point out is the top-down, pseudo-3D platforming action that serves as this game's backbone. It's weird and kind of floaty at first, but give it time and it'll not only grow on you but it'll probably start to feel pretty darn good. I'd even go so far as to describe it as "exhilarating" after you become accustomed to it.
Mind you, Astro Rabby isn't some sort of freeform platformer that lets you wander about as you like. Actually, it's presented almost like an overhead shmup. Each space-based level scrolls forward at a rather languid pace (thankfully!). If you reach a particular level's end point without picking up the "power-up part" that's hidden within one of its many Super Mario-esque question blocks--here you bounce on them rather than hit them from below to reveal what's inside--you loop back to the beginning and continue in that vein until you finally nab it.
In the meantime, you hop around and do your best to avoid the out-of-place baddies--extraterrestrial frogs, moles, octopi and the like--as well as bottomless pits that populate the remainder of each stage.
Something that makes all of this space-hopping, parts-grabbing action a little more enjoyable than it would be otherwise is the blippy, boppy soundtrack that percolates in the background.
If only the best of those tunes played during Astro Rabby's woeful bonus rounds. They're based on that old-fashioned game known as Concentration--only in this case you're tasked with matching bell chimes rather than images. If that sounds at all appealing, well, let me assure you that it isn't.
Actually, I'm sure it would be at least acceptable if it were easy to tell the difference between the sounds. As it stands, it's hard--really hard--to tell one from another. Combine that with the fact that you have to wrap things up in 30 seconds or less, and you've got yourself a miserable experience.
Thankfully, you're allowed to continue on with your pixelated adventure even if you fail to complete these extra stages. There's no question, though, that it would be a lot more fun if Astro Rabby's developers had it so you could beat them now and then. (Full disclosure: I've yet to get close to clearing a single one.)
My suggestion: pretend these bonus rounds don't exist and instead focus your attention on the rest of what this quirky import has to offer. Do that and you should have a surprisingly good time--especially if you generally use your GameBoy to play one of the system's many puzzlers.
See also: previous 'Great Gaymathon' reviews plus 'Another Year of the GameBoy: Astro Rabby'