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Our Missing Video Game Robot Hero

Illustration for article titled Our Missing Video Game Robot Hero

Osamu Tezuka's beloved boy robot, Astro Boy, defined an art form, inspired a nation, and is a cultural icon worthy of the Robot Hall of Fame. So why doesn't he get more video games?

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Not counting his first Japan-only forays on the Famicom and Superfamicom, Astro Boy has only appeared in one PlayStation 2 game and one GameBoy Advance game. The year was 2004 and both Sonic Team and Treasure Inc. (partnered with Hitmaker) developed games based on the 2003 anime remake of the original 1960s Astro Boy cartoon. Sonic Team's PS2 game, Astro Boy, was pretty lousy while Hitmaker/Treasure's GBA Astro Boy: Omega Factor was one of the best things to happen to handhelds that year. Since then, we've got nothing but a quietly-announced, never-demoed tie-in game to the upcoming CGI Astro Boy film directed by David Bowers.

Astro Boy's absence from video games could be due to many reasons – licensing, marketing, etc. – but two big ticket items ultimately tank any hopes of a serious Astro Boy gaming franchise: demand and need.

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There's not enough demand for Astro Boy video games in the United States because we don't love him the way they do in Japan. The 1960s cartoon didn't even complete its full 193-episode run in the States when it originally aired in 1963; and it took decades before Dark Horse Comics to translate and publish the manga. Poor Astro Boy just wasn't on the radar as America's resident robot hero.

Back in 1960s Japan, when Astro Boy was first created, there was a desperate need for heroes. World War II had been over for more than a decade, but there was a loss of hope in the country and a profound fear of technology and nuclear weapons*. Anime and manga icons like Astro Boy and Ashita no Joe restored to Japan a sense of purpose and youthful optimism they'd lost in the war. Also, science-y things like Astro Boy put a friendly, rosy-cheeked face on technology, which helped the country cope with the devastating fear inspired by the A-bomb attacks.

In short, Japan needed Astro Boy and America didn't. Without the need for the robot boy hero, America never established a connection to Astro Boy that would inspire parents to make their children watch the 1960s cartoon. Later when the 2003 reboot of the anime series reached America, the show still couldn't find its audience and was canceled after spawning the hideous PS2 game and the wonderful GBA game.

That's not to say America can live without robot heroes.

We have one, in fact, and his name is Mega Man. Mega Man does most of the same stuff as Astro Boy – he even has the beam cannon on his arm – and he beat Tezuka's beloved boy robot to the US gaming scene by a good decade or more. He may not be as fleshed-out a character as Astro Boy, because Mega Man didn't start out with a manga or cartoon series to establish his back story. But he did have the whole filial piety thing going on with his creator, Dr. Light, which was similar to the connection Astro Boy had for his adoptive father figure, Dr. O'Shay (a.k.a. Dr. Ochanomizu, Dr. Packadermus Elefun, Professor Peabody, Jimmy Durante's nose-twin). So what if Mega Man wasn't about childlike wonder or youthful optimism; so what if he never did anything serious like address racism against robots. Mega Man was about kicking robot ass and Americans can totally get in on that.

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So, alas, Astro Boy. We loved you in Omega Factor and we respect you as a cultural icon worthy of Mickey Mouse's company – which is why you're in the Robot Hall of Fame. But Mickey doesn't have a great gaming franchise and so far, you don't either. Maybe your upcoming tie-in movie game on PS2, Wii, PSP and DS will be good. Heck, maybe the film itself will be awesome. But in the meantime, we'll be sticking with Mega Man 9.

*The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Donald Richie

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DISCUSSION

There WAS an American series of comics based on Astroboy in the late 80s that was published by NOW comics, drawn by Ken Steacy (for the most part) that wasn't half bad (tho' storywise, doesn't come close to what Tezuka Osamu put into the original).

People who were children in the 60s and had Astroboy or Gigantor show in their area have fond memories of the character (Bill Watterson, in his Calvin and Hobbes strip, had a tip of the hat to Astroboy (Calvin got his hairstyle that week)), but anime wasn't nearly as familiar in the US as it was elsewhere. Sure, we know it was Japanese, but outside of Astroboy, Kimba, Speed Racer, Marine Boy and Gigantor, you really didn't see it that much (during the 70s you may have had Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman), Tranzor Z (Mazinger), or the cartoons that formed the impetus for the Shogun Warriors toys, and the 80s had Robotech, Voltron and a series I recall was called Sport Billy).

We know it from my generation, but succeeding generations I don't think got into anime like that til' it got more popular on VHS and later DVD.