It's hard to imagine now, but the initial Tomb Raider was one of the first 3D games to teach people how to move in a world made out of polygons. Next to the planar gliding of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, Tomb Raider felt liberating and complex.
That it kind of pointed into a certain direction was clear when Croc was released and transplanted Tomb Raider's control into a kid friendly world. It would take the release of Super Mario 64 to shatter the paradigm and feel like a step forward.
Which it was. No matter how much I prefer Super Mario Bros. 3 over Super Mario 64, the latter did prove instrumental in how 3D games should act. For many the paradigm shift was so huge that it basically defined the 3D games afterwards, in terms of movement, camera controls, and game design.
No wonder Super Mario Sunshine, Galaxy and even Odyssey felt like more of the same despite being great games in their own right (yes, Sunshine is good, get over it) and being presented as the next step in 3D platforming. They weren't.
And you know what? Maybe Astro Bot Rescue Mission is that next step.
It's hard to convey exactly why that is. Especially without the aid of a PlayStation VR headset. If you look at screenshots and videos of the game on a flat screen, you'll see the most twee and basic of 3D platformers. Put on the headset however and it's like Miyamoto himself has snuck off into Sony's studios to toy around with this crazy new thing called VR.
Underneath the twee exterior and happy feels lies a masterclass in VR game design all served on a more than palatable cracker of the common 3D platformer. Yes, you're playing a combination of Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon being stuck in a one-way scrolling level that feels so incredibly 8-bit backwards that it's modern again. Yet it's filled to the brim with tiny touches that make you marvel at them with a large grin on your face.
Case in point: your character will walk behind a wall and you'll have to peek around the corner to see what you're doing.
Read that again. It's such a banal thing to do, yet do it in a video game - in VR - and it's holy manna from the heavens. This was unthinkable, it was undoable, yet it feels like the right thing to do, and when you do it, it makes you realise you are in the game.
Astro Bot constantly reinforces your sense of presence like this. Get a power-up and your ever visible controller needs to be slotted into a contraption to get equipped with it. Aiming throwable objects is done by simply looking at your target. Judging jumps under the weirdest of camera angles as you twist and turn your head around, is instantly doable because you can see the depth. The world reacting to buttons, switches, and triggers is as joyful as having a toy world play set with internal mechanics to play with. Hell, you yourself are a part of the experience with headbutts and various other interactions that are too good to spoil.
Don't even get me started on verticality. Or to put it another way, I don't want anyone ever talking about verticality again without having played level 2-1 in Astro Bot Rescue Mission.
That level also hammers down another design trick: stealing. Here you'll receive a water spout power-up, taking Super Mario Sunshine's signature gimmick and turning it into something utterly joyful (and for the boys, maybe a tad juvenile) to use. Astro Bot doesn't care though. It mercilessly borrows cues and ideas from elsewhere, but repackages it within a VR paradigm shift that makes every single concept more potent than the originals that introduced them.
That's the sheer brilliance behind the game: it's not a game. It's more like a toy chest come to life. Something for you not to play, but play in. The development team isn't called Team Asobi for nothing. Toys-to-life gets bandied about a lot, but it's Astro Bot that genuinely wallows in it. Its hub-world emphasises this with an environment to simply play in. Ladders, chutes, bounce pads, and all other sorts of items await you and your tiny avatar. There is no goal, no point, but you can't stop smiling and wasting time anyway.
Astro Bot Rescue Mission is pretty much perfect in fulfilling the promise of virtual reality. It makes you lose yourself in its world and retrieve the childlike wonder you've undoubtedly lost somewhere along the way getting here. It truly is something to play.