Astroman

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by StarQuail Games for Xbox 360, originally released in 2010.
Astroman starts out in the same way as a number of other action-adventure games: namely all of the doodads that you need to collect have been scattered about a set of huge environments, and you need to find them all. Here, the doodads are ship parts, and you need them because a dastardly UFO shot down your ship, and now you must traverse 9 planets to retrieve them all.

The game clearly does not take itself seriously, and offers itself as a throwback to the 2D games of old that were light on story and heavy on gameplay. The opening cinematic shows your ship moving toward a moon and a shot being fired at it from offscreen. Then, we see Astroman and his crashed spaceship down on the surface.

The premise is explained by a short instructional briefing from Astroman HQ at the start of the game, which explains why your ship parts are scattered so far apart:


Re: Self Destruct
After sustaining critical damage, your ship will self destruct, scattering its components and any cargo across neighboring worlds, thus preventing their capture by hostile forces. This service is provided to you at no cost. You are welcome.



You start the game with the basics: the ability to JUMP and SHOOT. But as you explore the various planets, you’ll grab upgrades that increase your maximum jump height and you’ll even get a limited-use jetpack which lets you get a bit more distance on your jumps and lets you control your long, slow falls. You’ll also find health pickups that lengthen your life bar after you collect 4 of them, functioning in the same way as heart pieces from The Legend of Zelda series.


The game has the nonlinearity of a Metroid game, but without the somber tone. Rather than playing a tough-as-nails bounty hunter, you are instead controlling a chibi-looking spaceman in a bright yellow space suit with a knobby antenna sticking out of the top. And while you will certainly be exploring a number of deep and dark environments, themed with atmospheric music, they’re often populated by some pretty goofy and fun enemies.


There are many alternate paths through the levels, and some of them will be inaccessible until you’ve earned the requisite abilities, again illustrating the game’s Metroidvania design. This also means backtracking to some previous levels, particularly if you wish to obtain all of the life extending health pickups, which will help your chances of survival in the more heavily infested planets you’ll encounter later in the game.


You’ll want to thoroughly explore each planet before you leave, because upgrades are required for continuing your adventure. If you leave the planet without a required component, you’ll eventually have to come back and play through it again from the beginning. Lack of an in-game map makes exploration a bit more challenging since there’s no way to quickly tell which paths you’ve already explored. There are in-level checkpoints, which at least prevent you from losing too much ground if your exploration gets you killed, but they are one-time use only.


You won’t just be upgrading Astroman’s abilities; you’ll also be upgrading your ship as well, collecting parts that allow you to access new planets. You are in full control of your ship as you travel from planet to planet, and these flight sections control similarly to Asteroids.


At the start of the game, you only have access to the first 3 planets (well, once you get off of the first planet, anyway), and the next 3 are blocked by an asteroid belt. The required ship component is hidden on one of the first 3 planets, and once you get it, you can blast your way through the asteroids and access the next set of planets.


The gameplay consists primarily of platforming, and requires lots of precision jumping, and eventually a lot of precision jetpack hovering. Much of your time will be spent navigating environmental obstacles, jumping between narrow platforms, riding moving platforms (and jumping and dodging while doing so), avoiding enemy projectiles, and keeping your biscuits out of the fire. There are enemies to be killed along the way as well, but you have a limited amount of ammunition, so you’ll need to consider when it’s best to simply avoid them rather than engaging them head-on.


You only have the ability to shoot to the left and right, which adds a bit of extra challenge to dealing with enemies. Levels are designed around this restriction, with certain enemies purposely tucked away in positions that you cannot easily reach. You can also stand or duck while shooting (as can some enemies) to adjust the trajectory of your weapon, and to potentially dodge projectiles that are coming back toward you.


Jumping is expectedly floaty for a game where you’re controlling a guy in a space suit, and there’s a bit of inertia when running as well, including a skidding turnaround move ala Super Mario Bros. The character’s movement speed is not incredibly fast, but you’ll often be faced with situations where you’ll need to deal with multiple enemies, while simultaneously dodging projectiles and hopping from platform to platform. As such, you’ll still need to stay sharp if you hope to make it to the end.


Taking damage knocks you back, and leaves you with a few seconds of invincibility. Due to the platforming-centric design of the game, a knockback generally means that you’ll be unseated from your platform, or that you’ll miss your intended target, potentially dropping you down into spikes or lava.

While there are 9 distinct planets in the game, there are only 3 environment types, which includes the lunar levels, lava-based levels, and dark “night type” levels. Still, there’s a fair amount of variety in the layouts from planet to planet. Each level type has its own set of obstacles and enemies to overcome. For example, the lava-based levels add dangerous lava to the also-dangerous spikes.


The “night type” levels are some of the more challenging ones, at least from a navigation standpoint. When standing on the surface of the planet, the environment appears darker than other planet types, but you still able to see everything on the screen. As you descend, however, you will be enveloped by darkness, with just a small amount of light around Astroman to light your way. From this point, the only other things that are visible are the enemies (thankfully) and glowing green rocks that act as markers to help you determine where the path leads.


Getting around these levels – and especially finding the hidden paths within them – can be particularly challenging. The game does throw you a bone if you’re playing on the Astrobaby difficulty setting (the game’s equivalent to an Easy Mode), where you’ll encounter fewer enemies and your glow will be somewhat larger. But when playing on Astroman (Normal) or Astromaniac (Hard) difficulty settings, you’re pretty much left to work it out on your own. Enemy patrols consist of critters that crawl around the floors, walls, and ceilings, giving you some clues as to the level layout as well, so it may be better to leave them alive.


There are also 2 boss fights, both of which occur toward the end of the game.



2D CRED
StarQuail Games was founded by longtime friends Michael Sterns and Daniel Roth. Daniel works as the programmer, while Michael does the art. Prior to Astroman, the studio released Crystal Skies and Sky Puppy. Following Astroman, they began work on the Tiny Barbarian games.



Tiny Barbarian
In 2011, Michael developed a freeware game called Tiny Barbarian, featuring the small-in-stature Cimmerian taking down enemies in a tale inspired by Robert E. Howard’s Conan story “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”. The game features some basic swordplay, and some of the platforming designs that would go on to be used in the DX version. The barbarian travels left to right through an ice based world battling rats and soldiers in a 15 minute adventure that terminates in a boss encounter.



Tiny Barbarian DX
Tiny Barbarian DX is an enhanced sequel to Tiny Barbarian built upon the Astroman engine. The game features more technical swordplay, new enemies, new platforming and navigation mechanics, and more complex level designs.


Our Conan-like hero returns once more in a multi-part tale of his ongoing adventures. The game sees the barbarian using his upgraded sword techniques to do battle against snakes and snake-worshipping foes through a block-based world. Platforming challenges are numerous as well, featuring precision jumps, midair chain grabs, and sequences where you must dodge enemies and swat away projectiles while platforming and avoiding hazards.


In addition, the game features a number of unique sequences, including riding on the back of a catlike beast whilst jumping over large gaps and biting your way through enemy soldiers. There are several boss encounters as well, each offering new challenges.



Crystal Skies
In Crystal Skies, you control a pet fish as it navigates the Great Cosmic Spinning Vortex. This is a nice way of saying that you’re controlling an ex-pet fish as it navigates the waters of a flushed toilet.


Because Bubbles the goldfish is navigating a land of swirling toilet water, the player is tasked with navigating and jumping through an ever-rotating maze while avoiding obstacles. By collecting the requisite number of coins, the exit will open, allowing the player to continue to the next swirling vortex of doom.



Sky Puppy
In Sky Puppy, players take to the skies with a puppy named Wilford that can fly by flapping his big floppy ears. The Sky Puppy travels through the skies collecting doggie treats while avoiding flying spiked balls, eye patch-wearing kittens, and laser-firing UFO’s. The game has one-button control, only giving the player control the flapping of Wilford’s ears. By holding down the SPACE BAR, Wilford ascends, and by letting off, he falls. When on the ground, Wilford will walk back and forth, giving the player the opportunity to send Wilford flying off in a particular direction.


The levels are laid out as vertically-oriented obstacle courses, filled with enemies and objects. Air currents will push the Sky Puppy around as well, and the player must finesse the SPACE BAR to keep him riding through the current. Quick recovery is also a must, since it’s possible to take additional hits if you don’t react in time.

Each level is timed, and collecting doggie bones will add 3 extra seconds to the clock, but getting hurt drops a whopping 10 seconds, so avoiding enemies is crucial to survival. Unfortunately, the lack of direct control over the character makes avoidance difficult, meaning that repeated playthroughs – and thus foreknowledge of enemy placement – is necessary to complete a number of levels.


There is also level branching, similar to that found in Sega’s Outrun series, so the player is not required to take the same level-to-level path in each playthrough. Character designs are done in a cutesy style, and the overall design of the levels is very bright and colorful. There are 45 stages in total, with 15 different 2D backgrounds ranging from cities to snowy mountains to haunted castles to a fleet of spaceships, and eventually extending into outer space.

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