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A lot of mobile games claim to be “retro throwbacks” these days. Maybe a game will play around with an older graphic aesthetic here or even an older gameplay mechanic there, but ultimately few games are willing to dive into the world of 1986 with as much reckless abandon as Astronot. This little 8-bit action/adventure title clearly isn’t afraid of the past—it embraces it with open arms, strengths and weaknesses included.
In Astronot you play as a “lowly garbage worker” who’s been stranded on a foreign planet and must explore the landscape with nothing more to start than a trusty blaster. Embodying all the aesthetics and minimalist values of the decade of gaming it re-lives, Astronot gives very little direction and few graphical pointers that indicate how the player is to advance forward. This 2D planet is yours to freely explore, with a wide variety of routes to choose starting off, each one leading to big bosses, new power ups, stronger weapons and access to new areas. If it sounds like Metroid, then you’re right on track.
When you start the game up, the first thing you’ll notice is that it’s played on a “screen within a screen”, so to speak. It definitely works in that the big bright buttons never get in the way and the controls feel more precise than your average mobile game with virtual buttons. However, the small screen that you’re stuck playing on will feel unnecessarily small for iPhone players. Furthermore, I’d rather see more of the retro world that the developer has built than the tacky wallpaper that fills the interface.
Like the Metroid series that it draws inspiration from, Astronot’s greatest strength is its ability to instill a bleak sense of loneliness in you. As you wander across the desolate planet surface, friendly faces are few and far between, as are save points and hospitable locations. There are no extraterrestrial locals to tell you why you stumbled upon a certain location and no walls of text to indicate that you’re heading the “correct” way—just the instant death promised by pixelated lava, seemingly unbeatable enemies, and dangerous cavernous jumps. All that to say that Astronot doesn’t take its exploration elements light-heartedly. Rather than enjoying the scenery and moving at my own pace as I would in a modern open world game, Astronot focuses on exploration as a means of survival.
Despite how badly I wanted to move forward in the game, I often found myself quite often lost and confused—even a little frustrated more times than not. Because the different sections of the planet don’t always look very different (and consist of a lot of environments that are nothing more than places to walk through), I really found myself wanting some kind of a map system, or at least a few blinking lights and some landmarks to distinguish areas. Intentional design choices like these will no doubt make the game immediately obtuse and perhaps even unplayable for many modern gamers. It’s game that will take you from high feelings of victory and advancement to the depths of despair in mere minutes. But for those who have the patience and endurance for such a thing, Astronot offers an incredibly rewarding hardcore retro experience unlike any other in the App Store.