Explore vast alien landscapes! Zap all of the aliens! Hey, they were blocking your view.
StarQuail Games -- a group consisting of programmer Daniel Roth, artist Michael Stearns, and musician Jeff Ball -- has come out of nowhere with one of the better modern platformers around, a completely satisfying romp through nine planets in search of missing ship parts and player power-ups which is sure to delight fans of Metroid, Simon's Quest, and other such 2-D adventure games. Astroman may not have been part of last year's Indie Games Winter Uprising, but it can go toe-to-toe with any of those games despite the lack of publicity, establishing itself as arguably the most enjoyable game of the month let alone as one of the better platformers to come out since Microsoft opened up its console to independent developers.
The game begins with an accident smashing Astroman's ship and scattering the pieces of it throughout the solar system. The player begins on a map screen with nine planets grouped by three, with each grouping divided by an obstruction which requires items to be retrieved to pass through the barriers. Thus, while the player is free to visit the planets in any other as he or she chooses, map and sometimes level obstacles will dictate in what manner the player may advance. Initially, the ship will only allow the player access to the first of the three planets where Astroman will hop and shoot while searching the level for ship enhancements and power-ups. As with most platform adventure games, there will be places visible but inaccessible due to the player lacking a certain ability to be gained later on, encouraging players to backtrack at times to nab previously unobtainable items once Astroman has the capacity to reach them. It's this treasure hunt persona which makes Astroman so addictive and fun in much the same as it is in Metroid and other games. While the planet levels aren't quite as nonlinear as they are in Metroid, there's a great deal of room for exploration with many secrets to be unearthed.
Astroman revels in its simplicity, a simple run-and-jump adventure which excels thanks to clever level design and solid presentation. Astroman controls perfectly, even though his bounding super jump ability can feel a slight bit awkward at first, particularly in heavy enemy infested areas. The game limits Astroman's space gun ammunition, but there are plenty of ammo and health bonuses to be found throughout each level and left behind defeated enemies. These are very minor deviations from what people may expect going in, but they add a wrinkle of personality to the game, making it feel more original without frustrating the player with innovation at the risk of tarnishing the familiar platformer formula the game otherwise basks in. Although the game does reuse enemy types on all planets, Astroman's variety is more than sufficient at challenging the player and keeping things interesting though at the expense of having all these planets feel mostly the same beyond a handful of twists. Some levels will have the player using a sort of rail car to navigate a cavern while other planets plunge Astroman into complete darkness with only a smattering of cubes and the glow from enemies and his shots lighting the way. The difficulty curve is just about perfect, and the last few levels will put Astroman's new found abilities to the test, even if the plethora of health packs to be found reduces the challenge somewhat.
Even with the three planet types -- Moon, Lava, and Night -- all sharing the same block structure, they each retain their individuality thanks to unique block patterns and coloring, thematic level design elements, and a great atmosphere enhanced by the game's excellent soundtrack. The simple lines and design of Astroman and his enemies may have people dismissing the title as a Flash game, but the presentation and depth quickly put to bed any such thought. All of the characters animate smoothly, and occasional touches such as the distant heat wave haze in the background on the Lava planets or the lighting effects when submerged deep underground are good indicators of the level of artistry and care which have gone into the game's creation. The atmosphere of Astroman feels palpable compared to most games, a successful marriage of visual and audio elements which make each themed planet a distinct joy to play. The soundtrack is particularly notable given how long the player will listen to the song rotation; all in all, Astroman took me a bit under six hours to complete with all items found, delivering a completely satisfying experience from start to end. I still found myself playing the game afterward, too, just to enjoy the music and the tight controls, even if there was nothing new left to explore by that point.
Astroman is a fantastic platformer and an excellent purchase for fans of the genre. There is more than enough gameplay here to justify the purchase, and three difficulty settings ensure players of all skill levels can enjoy the adventure. As StarQuail Games' third video game release and first on Xbox 360 (after Sky Puppy and Crystal Skies), Astroman makes for a terrific addition to the Xbox Indie library and one everyone should check out.