Because I grew up playing video games in the late 90s and early 00s, the rhythms of the 3D platformer are as instinctive to me as breathing. Put me in front of Fortnite and I’m all thumbs – how can these kids think about building and shooting things at the same time!? – but I can run, jump, collect things and bash baddies with superhuman speed and efficiency. So it’s all the more delightful when a game like this actually surprises me with fun new twists on the controls and phenomenal art, music and style. I’ve had its signature tune playing in my head nonstop for the past week, like that unfortunate month around Christmas 1997 when all my thoughts were soundtracked by the Frosty Village theme from Diddy Kong Racing.
Astro’s Playroom imagines that your brand new PlayStation 5 has little chibi robots living inside it. The game comes with the console, and it’s designed as a showcase for its new capabilities and for the DualSense controller, which has fancy rumble feedback and adaptive triggers in addition to the touchpad and mini speaker of the PlayStation 4’s controller. It is also a ridiculously cute tribute to 25 years of PlayStation history, games and hardware, packing in references to literally hundreds of fond PlayStation memories. It will bring out your every buried recollection of PlayStation games and gadgets; at one point I found myself laughing nostalgically at a perfectly rendered recreation of a PS2 camera add-on. That’s how charming it is.
Like Astro Bot Rescue Mission, a PlayStation VR pack-in that is low-key the best VR game I’ve ever played, Astro’s Playroom is so endearing because it gets playful with the hardware it’s showing off. Instead of shooting things with those new triggers, you’re climbing mountains in a monkey suit or squeezing them to spring a ridiculous robo-frog around the place. You use the touch pad to pull zips, the controller’s mic to blow pinwheels.
The levels are improbably inspired by video game console innards, with trees made of twisted-together cables and platforms made of spinning discs or jutting control sticks. In one level there’s a floating sound chip in the sky, which sings to you about the power of the GPU. Everywhere there are little bots doodling around: in the Cooling Springs, they play in the water or huddle together in front of teeny PlayStations; in the SSD Speedway they zip along lightning-speed pathways. Some of them act out scenes from old PlayStation games, which never failed to make me smile. Whatever they’re doing, their animation is unfailingly adorable.
Besides the controller gimmicks, Astro’s Playroom is an able showcase for what the PlayStation 5 can actually do. There’s a lot more happening on screen than previous consoles would have been able to manage, with loads of bots, moving enemies, animated environments, light reflections and flashy effects that result in absolutely no slowdown. You can zip around between levels instantly thanks to the PS5’s ultra-fast loading times. PlayStation’s ASOBI development team clearly has intimate knowledge of console hardware to complement its gift for playful game design.
Playroom doesn’t last long – perhaps two evenings’ play – but it’s fantastically enjoyable, and it’ll make you feel good about having just spent a load of money on a new console. Without wanting to spoil it, as you play, you amass a collection of PlayStation artefacts stretching right back to 1994, and you can then wander among them in a laboratory as teeny-tiny bots dance on top of them and polish screens and dig through discs.
Inspecting all that gaming gubbins up-close as a tiny robot gave me a new appreciation for the art of Sony’s hardware design. I’m not a technically minded gamer, and for me the appeal of individual consoles has always been decidedly secondary to the games I can play on them. But there is proper magic in how engineers and programmers create the machines that enable our gaming experiences, and Astro’s Playroom helped me to see it.