Astronot [$1.99 / Free] is kind of ugly. Gameplay takes place in a tiny window framed by what looks like a Tiger LCD handheld casing, complete with chunky red virtual buttons and a colorful graphic featuring the game’s protagonist with an asterisk wedged squarely up his backside. Said protagonist and alien enemies are melted piles of pixels, reminiscent of something out of VVVVV held over a hot stove like your least favorite G.I. Joe. Oh, and those worms Eli And Brad mentioned in the video preview they put together? Yeah, they’re snakes, but look like frumpy, sad sock puppets.

So Astronot’s an ugly game. But it’s not a bad one. It’s a game made by Wade McGillis, a talented young man whose Twitter bio reads, “I don’t like what I make.” A game with a trailer like this. A game not so bad it’s good, but a genuinely good game that’s kind of bad.

Astronot is also a Metroidvania game. As an angry-looking garbage worker who apparently propels himself forward by squatting, you must squat through a dangerous alien landscape as the lone survivor of a trading ship crash. In the Metroid tradition, Astronot presents you with a sprawling labyrinthine world to explore, guiding you to open up passageways and acquire power-ups along your way. Something immediately jarring when trying to wrap your head around the planet, however, is that the game does not include a map.

This means that you will either map things by hand, or just wander back and forth for a bit like I did, nervously squatting about until you’ve learned the lay of the land. Even as someone who loves exploration, this struck me as frustratingly archaic. While my notebook filled with Fez scrawl was something I buried myself in, mapping Astronot’s disjointed mass of pipework seldom felt worth it in the early going.

Luckily, the act of actually moving around the map feels pretty good. Your space(garbage)man leaps into the air with the calculated floatiness of an anti-grav Sackboy, and the screen-encompassing virtual controls are always responsive. The game feels nearly analog and it’s empowering. Which is really what Astronot is all about. For as helpless as it can make the uninitiated feel, there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had if you’re dedicated. Most any ledge can be climbed, most any boss toppled (save for maybe one... cough). It’s all there for the player to discover in his or her time.

There’s so much that seems indecipherable, and much of it has in fact been worked out by the dedicated crew on the Touch Arcade forums. In my time with it, I still haven’t collected all of the squares which unlock the secret ending. And what’s the deal with the “Glitchy” visual filter, which transforms the game into something that looks like Jasper Byrne’s brilliant Lone Survivor played on a monitor with the brightness turned down? I’m determined to figure it out on my own, and that’s how it’s intended.

It’s mature, old school design. Very rough around the edges, and certainly not showpiece for the platform. Ugly, in fact. But it’s also a lot of fun, and interesting enough that, given my resistance to cheating, I have a feeling I’ll be squatting my way through for another solid three or four weeks.

As the song goes, “I love this cool game, and all its sights and sounds. Boom-de-yah-da, boom-de-yah-da... “

TouchArcade Rating

  • Adams Immersive

    Nice video! Makes it look better than that screenshot.

    Now, blow the view up to near-full-screen and add iCade support and I’d definitely be interested!

  • Klas Segeljakt

    I don't agree with that it's ugly, it's retro, the writer obviously forgot that.

    • jchamplain

      It can be both ugly and retro. And it is. I think that's the point.

    • Ryokashi

      There is a difference between retro and ugly. People seem to think a bad art style can be called retro to instantly excuse it, but there is good retro and bad retro. This is bad retro.

      I'd say this review is really accurate.

      • Aaron Sullivan

        So, YOU don't like it. That doesn't make it objectively bad, imo.

        I find the art style to be great, personally. Retro or not. There is character in the limited set of pixels, the color choices and structures of the "sprites" are evocative of what they are, where they are, what they do to you, what might happen if you shoot them. On top of that, like all good pixel art it forces the viewer to imagine details and fill in their own interpretation.

        The only "bad" retro art I can think of is stuff that is not thought out and doesn't accomplish what I laid out above. Random bits of sloppy artwork with no injection of purpose or thought. The graphics in this game, from what I've played so far, are well crafted and full of character.

  • veggieh8r

    Did they ever fix those game breaking map design flaws?

    • Aaron Sullivan

      What should I be looking for when I play?

      • wassupbiloxi

        You can get stuck pretty easily, with no escape except to delete your save file. Still hasn't been fixed as far as I can tell.

  • Aaron Sullivan

    I don't find the actual game ugly at all. It reminds me of early computer game graphics in a very good way. In fact, I love how the smallest set of pixels is suggestive enough to really delineate different parts of the map, suggest what will kill you and what will be safe and even set different tones. The music is just as boiled down and minimalist and yet effectively supports the game.

    I think the interface is ugly though. The buttons and the "backdrop" around the game screen. It's distracting, imo. (I'd almost rather see a photo realistic late 70's looking hardware around the screen, maybe even the buttons looking like actual keyboard keys.)

    The controls and movement, however, are SPOT ON and fun as suggested. Comparing the jumping to the floaty, boring, squishy frustration of Sackboy-jumping is an insult to this game, though, even if it was intended as a complement. (Or maybe LBP 2 fixed this and I never knew? I'm judging on the original LBP.)

    Anyway, I'm always curious how successful these types of ultra retro hardcore games are because I'm loving this one and if I thought it would be profitable I'd start developing one or two.

  • forenglandalec

    Yeah I don't know it calling it ugly is fair. It's the reviewer's opinion though. I just think a word like ugly rather than simple (it's not unbearable to look at for long periods of time), undersells the fact that its a fantastic little adventure. I think the visuals along with the music, add to what I kind of feel is an odd menacing world that you explore.

  • DCver3

    I thought the art direction of the game was spot on. I concede to the author as art is subjective but I'd agree with an earlier post that simple would have been a better choice of wording than ugly. Journalistically speaking anyway.

    I would say the art is actually inspired. Given the limited playing area and pixel resolution, this game has made me feel anxious, fearful, alone, lost, excited, joyous, get the point. Before writing this I really thought long about the big budget games I own and they don't do that...period. Perhaps my imagination is more robust than others, being that we are talking about subjective viewpoints, and I just "get" what the dev was laying down. That said, I had no trouble figuring out just by looking that I shouldn't jump in the shifting looked like lava to me.
    To be fair, I grew up on Metroid. My NES took no end of abuse by the time I frustratingly made it through that game. Hell, Metroid 2 only had 4 different colors to work with.
    The point to all this rambling is this. If you are on the fence about this game because of the art style buy it. Right now. Don't even read the rest of my over-opinionated brain spew.
    It's all the frustration through the journey that makes beating a game feel so fulfilling. I've been a gamer for a long time and games like this are the few I play yearly for the way they make me feel throughout the adventure.
    Cool...go buy now!

  • Tyler Jackson

    So... I've got all the upgrades except the lava suit, and I have yet to discover the area with all of the portals I keep reading about. Any help?

Astronot Reviewed by Jonathan Glover on . Rating: 4