Just when you thought that the DSiWare service had nothing left to offer except some word puzzles and interactive children’s books, along comes Astro. It's quite clear that this is intended to pay homage to the Atari classic Asteroids in its design and gameplay, but it falls short of recapturing what continues to make the original a perennial favourite. This game provides proof that even coming from respectable lineage cannot save you from your own faults.
If there was an award given for the most hilariously generic sci-fi plot ever written, Astro may not be the winner but it would absolutely be nominated. Set in the 30th century, a fleet of evil space Pirates has decided to descend upon the human colonies for some reason or another. In their final hours, the humans realize that the only person skilled enough to pilot a ship and save humanity is a man - your faceless character - who has been in prison for many years for committing some presumably heinous crimes. You're then let out of prison, because trusting a known criminal is apparently the best we can do in the future, and the action begins.
Each stage takes place in a singular flat arena in which enemies approach from all sides. You can navigate your ship freely around this area, and passing through one edge will spit you out on the opposite end of the screen and back into the fray. All of the campaign’s stages consist of taking out groups of enemy ships with some boss stages sprinkled in to add a little bit of variety to the mix. In essence, Astro is a twin stick shooter allowing you to control your ship's movement with the D-Pad and your angle of fire with the lettered buttons acting as a second D-Pad. As all of the game's action takes place on the console's lower screen, you also have the option of directing your fire with the touchscreen, a significantly more accurate way to aim.
Beyond the main campaign there is also a Survival mode. This is like the survival mode that can be found in almost any other game of this type in that it simply pits you against wave after wave of enemies until they finally get the better of you. There are separate local leaderboards for both Story and Survival modes, ensuring that keeping track of your records is made simple. The gameplay between the two modes doesn’t change at all, but if you’ve already made it through the campaign then Survival exists to potentially extend your playtime.
In terms of its gameplay, Astro functions just fine. The big problem here is that this is a very, very ugly game. In each stage, the backgrounds are static images that do nothing to enhance the experience and all of the character models look like hunks of loosely placed pixels. Combined, the whole thing is a grainy mess and it can be difficult to determine what is happening on screen. This problem is particularly prominent in the upgrades screen as nothing is labelled with words or identifiable symbols. Switching ships and upgrading weapons, a necessary and relatively complicated mechanic, is also never explained. Instead, it is up to the player to decipher what each rough image means and how it affects their ship. This game looks so bad that not only does it detract from the presentation, but it also hinders gameplay on the whole.
The soundtrack is just as bad as the visuals, consisting of several repetitive MIDI tracks, but it somehow works. The music is by no means good, but it fits with the cheesy sci-fi aesthetic that Astro so desperately wants to achieve, not to its own detriment. Whether or not this soundtrack was intended to be the tongue-in-cheek masterpiece that it ended being is unclear, but it somehow stumbles towards being the most adequate aspect of the entire package.
Astro is exactly the type of game that has the best of intentions, but something went wrong in the development process. The gameplay is reminiscent of arcade classic Asteroids and it plays well, but the visuals are so muddy and mangled that the menus and equipment screens are undecipherable. Add a profoundly generic story into the mix and you’ve really got a disastrous blend on your hands. Steadfast fans of classic arcade titles might find some enjoyment in the traditional action, but the rest of the package is nothing but a disappointment.