With new developers entering Virtual Reality with brand new ideas and concepts, we are finally seeing this new space in games start to take hold. No longer is Virtual Reality seen as just an expensive peripheral but is becoming a new way to experience a whole new medium of games. But with those new ideas comes a learning curve that many are still trying to figure out; how is the player considered in this new space and how does it interact with the player themselves? These are just some of the questions developers are wrestling with as we are in the middle of attempting to figure out what is the gold standard for VR.
It is because of this, that Astro Bot Rescue Mission shines. While many VR developers are attempting to tackle these growing pains of a new medium, Astro Bot Rescue Mission opts to take a different path by focusing on VR concepts that are much further along in terms of quality and taking them to their conclusion in a way that only a Platformer could.
In Astro Bot Rescue Mission, you, are the camera. This is the main way that virtual reality is used throughout the game, as you control Astro Bot running around levels and platforming to his little robotic heart’s content, you are also the observer in the level itself. No, you’re not some sort of divine cloud that just exists around Astro Bot, you are a robot yourself (that kinda looks like R.O.B) that has been charged with controlling Astro Bot and are a part of the world just as much as he is.
In earlier levels, the game doesn’t make much of an effort to make this concept obvious. Instead, much of it is treated as a traditional platformer that just happens to have a field of view dependent on VR. Bots (which you need to rescue) might be placed immediately behind you when you start or far out of view in the bottom of the level, as a player, this slowly familiarizes you with the concept of looking around and exploring your environment; Astro Bot isn’t the only one who has a role to play in finding things, so do you! Quickly you will find yourself craning your neck to look around corners or twisting your body on your couch to see what that weird sound behind you actually is (it’s a bot you missed). Soon enough the concepts of how one interacts within this world in VR come to fruition…until they are once again built upon.
Now that the concept of being the camera is understood, it’s now time for the game to slowly ease the player into being the actual present controller of Astro Bot. The way Astro Bot Rescue Mission achieves this is by creating scenarios and situations in which the player is both forced to recognize an interaction and discover new ones. In the first underground level of Astro Bot Rescue Mission, one of the main obstacles employed is cannonballs. Many of these are placed in a position that is a threat to Astro Bot, but a few are tactfully located where they are bound to hit you. Suddenly, a cannonball crashes into you and your vision is obscured with cracked glass! This isn’t the type of game where you can take damage, but you can certainly be impeded and interacted upon by the environment. No longer is your role just platforming with Astro Bot through the level, you now are—on some level—taking a more active role in progressing through the level outside of Astro Bot. It is through this method that Astro Bot Rescue Mission elevates what would normally be a typical platformer moment and gives them a VR facelift to great success.
The Mine Cart (Donkey Kong Country) – Astro Jones
Easily the most notable levels in the Donkey Kong Country series, it has become in one form or another a staple in Platformers—Astro Bot Rescue Mission is no different. But unlike traditional 3D platformers, Astro Bot manages to elevate this concept with the aid of VR.
When you first hop in the mine cart not much is different from any other 3D platformer, you hop from rail to rail avoiding pitfalls and obstacles. But in a brief moment, you are placed at an angle, forcing you to control Astro Bot from the left side of the screen looking towards the right. This may not seem like much, but this slight change in vantage point forces you, as the camera, to adjust and control Astro Bot from a non-ideal point of view and continues throughout most of the levels. Now, while no longer looking directly above, you are forced to predict and look around the environment as Astro Bot whizzes past on his cart. It will move up, down, side to side, and so will you as the camera to make sure you are seeing exactly what you need to see to get through the level.
Mid-way through the track, robots and other items will fly into the screen, forcing you to interact with the environment once more; literally using your head to head-butt the robots blocking your view and making sure you’re not in the wrong place at the wrong time or risk having your view obstructed with broken glass. Shortly after this, the track begins to warp, causing you to take a large dip nearly into the lava only to quickly resurface and watch the track be torn apart. All the while this is happening, you are forced to keep track of all these sudden camera movements or else you risk losing track of Astro Bot and running into something you shouldn’t. Soon afterward Astro Bot launches high into the air and finds himself at the finish line.
From the actual gameplay side, the level isn’t much different than any other cart level. Pieces of the track fall apart, obstacles exist in your way, and it’s your job to dodge and avoid them to get to the end. All of that is still true here, but the aspect of VR enhances this classic trope of level design and adds an element of needing to follow along. Normally, in a non-VR game, the camera would follow the character right along so you can make the required moves as needed to complete the level. In the case of this level in VR, Astro Bot opts to not give you an optimal camera position and instead asks the player to overcome this obstacle by adapting to the situation as it comes at them. It is a small change, but it’s one that manages to take the entire level and shift it to where the challenge exists. It’s not just about having quick reflexes, it’s about having decent reflexes while simultaneously being able to adjust your view to see what needs to be seen.
The Underwater Level (Super Mario 64) – Beachside Boogie
Beachside Boogie is the spiritual successor to Jolly Roger Bay from Super Mario 64. Many of the elements that existed in Super Mario 64 also exist in this Astro Bot Rescue Mission rendition, the beach at the start, the eels, and even the broken ship are all present. But, just as the same with the minecart level mentioned above, the act of being in VR has provided this classic platforming level a new series of tricks to raise it above the rest—and it all starts with your way down.
Just like Super Mario 64 you initially start on the beach, and once you have quickly explored this area, you head down into the ocean where the rest of the level exists. Astro Bot Rescue Mission always takes a moment to make sure the transition to new environments isn’t jarring, and instead, uses these opportunities to give you an actual sense of descending into the sea rather than now being underwater. The transition may be longer, but it gives the player a greater sense of where they are as opposed to quickly jumping between the two environments. Now that you are underwater, it’s time to acclimate yourself to this new area and explore some old ships.
One of the best tools Astro Bot Rescue Mission uses when it comes to VR is obstructing your view, and this level uses broken ships as it’s the main method. Astro Bot will find himself needing to swim around to continue through the level, and it’s your job as the camera to once again look around to make sure you can see and achieve the solution to keep moving forward. After traversing through the broken ship, you are quickly taken through a series of spikes that you literally need to duck through, a series of seaweed and then BAM! It all opens up into a large portion of the underwater cave and it’s time to look around and explore.
Deep at the bottom lives a large eel that can be killed, revealing a cave where it lives that you can somewhat see thanks to your vantage point of the camera. Above, you are a pod of robotic dolphins swimming around with a bot to the rescue. There is a cornucopia of options available to look around and see that the area that is just a bit more magical thanks to how it is presented. As you continue to advance further, jellyfish are prepped in your path that force you to position yourself as the camera or risk being shocked and your vision being obstructed. You again come across another broken ship that you can explore, but soon after you will find your exit from the sea that will take you back to the surface.
As you rise up there are pieces of wood that you need to dodge as the camera, and just as you are ready to reach the surface, a mass of seaweed is now on your head. You can try to shake it off all you want, but it is stuck there, drifting back and forth as you sway your head. It is at this point that you are reminded that the game takes a moment and shows you (the camera) that you do exist in this world and are not separate from the environment.
It is through these VR enhancements that a simple level like this can really open up. You need to peek and look around to see where Astro Bot can actually go. Jellyfish stand in the path of having the perfect view so you must adjust to seeing what they are blocking. The environment makes sure to immerse you in this area in such a way that makes it feel foreign and different than the rest. All of these small additions enhance the level to new heights with you as the camera are compelled to interact and look around to reach the end.
Astro Bot Rescue Mission doesn’t attempt anything too daring, but for the few things it does attempt to enhance in virtual reality, it does so masterfully. All the common tropes found in platformers are taken to new heights just by toying with the idea of you being the camera. Obstacles are placed in a way to always keep you looking around and working within the confines that the level places on you. These restrictions serve to evolve the level design present in Astro Bot Rescue Mission and take the many things we have come to expect in a platformer and bring them to new and exciting heights in VR. While VR might be capable of much more, right now, Astro Bot Rescue Mission manages to find the perfect blend of classic and new all within the confines of its levels.
It is an approach many VR developers should aspire to.