A top-down platformer with plenty of personality and better playability than you might expect.
This is the sort of game that Game Boy Works exists to document. Astro Rabby is not a timeless classic. It’s not a portable masterpiece. It’s not the greatest game you’ll ever play. It comes from a publisher no one remembers and a developer few people care about.
And yet, Astro Rabby has a lot going for it. It’s charming, inventive, and entertaining, and in some ways feels a little bit ahead of its time. Astro Rabby combines two genres we’ve seen a few times already on Game Boy—the platform action game and the top-down auto-scroller—and synthesizes them into something unlike any other release we’ve yet seen on the platform. In fact, this game has very few antecedents anywhere, the closest thing probably being 1985’s Bounder for Commodore 64. It’s a cute little game, simple and accessible yet fairly challenging. It’s unique, it’s fun, and the fact that it never left Japan means it’s the sort of game few people in the English-speaking portions of the web know about, and even fewer ever discuss.
Astro Rabby plays out across 24 stages of platforming action. Players take control of Rabby, a robotic rabbit who leaps into action in order to mend its creator’s broken heart—a team of rogues have stolen critical components for Rabby that prevent its inventor from completing the robot and giving it the power to fly. The game mostly takes place on the moon, which shouldn’t be any real surprise to anyone who knows anything about Japanese lore and the idea of rabbits who live on the moon pounding mochi or whatever. It’s something that’s shown up in all kinds of video games, from Compile’s Gun•Nac for NES all the way to those awful mini-bosses in Super Mario Odyssey, the Broodals.
You could almost see Astro Rabby as a sort of midpoint between Mario Odyssey and Gun•Nac, really. As in Gun•Nac, you control a mechanical rabbit on an adventure as the screen slowly scrolls upward; as in Mario Odyssey, you don’t advance by flying but rather by leaping. The top-down platformer is not a genre you see often; again, Astro Rabby doesn’t have a lot of precedents besides Bounder for C64. Even those two games differed in many respects: Bounder had you control a constantly bouncing tennis ball there, whereas here you have more agency over the timing and height of your leaps.
Basically, Astro Rabby’s action takes place across three horizontal planes: The ground, low platforms, and high platforms. Unless you pick up the rare high-jump power, you can leap up one level at a time. In order to go from the ground to a “high” platform, you have to use a lower platform as a stepping stone. The platforms appear here as panels, and their height is indicated through a simple simulation of distance from the viewer as seen from an aerial view: High panels are “close” to the screen and therefore appear as panels that are twice as large as the lower platforms.
Height and leaping factor into the core mechanics of the game beyond simple mobility. There’s a bit of the ol’ Ghost in the Shell effect at play here, as Rabby’s mechanical mass causes the force of his landing to shatter whatever he lands on. On most surfaces, landing will create stress fractures, and if you leap again and land on those damaged areas, you’ll break through and fall into the void below. However, Rabby can walk around instead of strictly being forced to jump, which will prevent you from breaking shattered tiles and is a major difference between this game and Bounder. However, the walk physics here feel slippery and aren’t much use for clearing gaps.
Still, there’s room for finesse: Cracked panels each have a durable rim, so if you manage to make a perfect leap and avoid the center of a damaged panel, you won’t break it. This isn’t easy, but with practice it’s possible. You can also pick up a power-up called the Shock Absorber, which prevents Rabby from breaking panels. Power-ups are scarce, though, and they only last a single stage or until you die, so they must be used strategically.
Which brings us to the point of the game. The raised panels Rabby leaps across are the real heart of Astro Rabby. Most of them are marked with question marks, like blocks in Super Mario Bros., and the question marks reveal hidden icons when you land on them. Five possibilities lurk beneath the Question Panels: A blank panel, a skull, a clock, an exclamation point, or a heart.
Of these, the blank panel requires the least explanation as it literally is just a blank space that will crack if you leap on it again. Skulls are worth avoiding, as landing on an exposed skull icon reduces your score by 1,000 points. Since this is a score attack game and you earn 1UPs by hitting critical milestones, skulls are literally deadly, in an indirect way. Exclamation points, on the other hand, add 5,000 points to your score.
One nice touch about Astro Rabby is its use of audio cues. Because Rabby covers up the surface of panels it lands on, you can’t always see what, precisely, you’ve uncovered by smashing a Question Panel—but the appearance of each icon is accompanied by a chime tone that corresponds to the power-up or hazard you’ve uncovered. This makes it easy to get a sense of how you should react even if you can’t see what you’ve found.
The clock is probably the most valuable icon, as it adds 50 seconds to the stage timer. Every stage in Astro Rabby is actually a loop that scrolls infinitely until you achieve an objective, not unlike the levels in the Famicom Disk System’s musical shooter Otocky, so it’s easy to run out of time if you don’t flip the correct Question Panel in your first loop.
And what, then, is that objective? That’s where the heart icon comes into play. Each stages contains a single hidden heart icon, which contains one of Rabby’s lost power-ups. Once you acquire the heart by exposing and then leaping on it, the stage immediately ends. The heart icons can contain one of several boosts, but you don’t know which you’ve collected until you get to the power-up screen leading into the next stage. At the power-up screen, you can choose to activate the power-ups you’ve collected for a one-time boost.
The power-ups include the aforementioned Shock Absorbers, of course. There’s also the Bullet Stock, which gives you thirty bullets to fire at the enemies that appear in a stage. This can be handy, as some defeated enemies will drop instant power-ups like the ability to jump extra high. The Power Wing booster allows you to jump further, though not higher. And the Protector soaks up a hit from an enemy.
And yes, you do have to contend with enemies here. Some are terrestrial impediments that only hurt Rabby if it walks or leaps into the monster. Others don’t do any harm but can push you off-course in mid-air—which is especially dangerous in stages set in space, where safe ground is vanishingly rare. Deadliest of all are the utterly infuriating aerial whirlwinds, which can kill Rabby at any height and will doggedly track the player’s movement through the stage.
The game’s 24 stages are spread across 8 worlds, each progressively more difficult than the last. The levels follow a very simple pattern in terms of format: One terrestrial—or rather, lunar—stage on the moon’s surface, followed by platforming without a net in the void of space, capped with a hazard-free bonus level in which you must leap on blocks in a specific order following audio cues.
It’s a pretty short and simple game, but the difficulty ramps up toward the end. You can continue indefinitely, but you have to clear a set of three stages in a single credit in order to advance, and the later outer space levels get nasty.
The whole thing works, though, in large part because the jump physics are so responsive and intuitive. The longer you hold down the jump button, the higher Rabby leaps… and the graphics do a pretty impressive job of depicting a robot bunny leaping “toward” the screen from a top-down viewpoint. Rabby appears larger as it rises, and with a jump boost on it can become quite huge and detailed—a great touch. This game concept would resurface a few times down the road on Nintendo’s 3D-capable portable systems, but considering the limitations of the original Game Boy, this is a pretty impressive effort.
You have a lot of control over Rabby’s maneuverability, too—you can easily nudge your robo-bunny pal around the screen and, with practice, nail some extremely delicate landings. The game wouldn’t work if Rabby didn’t control well, but since the game nails that, it holds up. It’s surprising, really, we haven’t seen more games like it.
Virtual Boy almost saw a spiritual successor to Astro Rabby in Japan System Supply’s Bound High, an infamously canceled title that eventually leaked for fan reproduction. And Nintendo itself would dredge up the idea of a top-down platformer as a concept demo when it first showed off the 3DS hardware. As for Astro Rabby itself, it comes to us courtesy of a developer called Cyclone System. The company only managed to put out about half a dozen titles in its short life—most notably the Japan-only sequel to Boomer’s Adventure in Asmik World and WURM for NES—but otherwise, not too much is known about it.
Cyclone System appears to have had a close relationship with developer Aicom, they of Pulstar and Totally Rad fame. According to an interview on Game Developers Research Institute, Astro Rabby director Shouichi Yoshikawa was also the director on Top Secret Episode: Golgo 13—which is quite a range of themes.
All in all, this is one of those interesting corners of Japanese games that merit recording, even if in the grand scheme of things Astro Rabby and Cyclone System amount to a mere blip in history. Sometimes blips can be perfectly pleasant in their own right, though, and Astro Rabby stands as the kind of entertaining little obscurity that make plumbing the deep cuts of the Game Boy library worthwhile.