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Astro’s Playroom Is the Sony Tribute PlayStation All-Stars Never Got to Be

The PS5 pack-in has a great understanding of PlayStation's history.

I’m a noted defender of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, Sony’s Super Smash Bros-like from the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita era. As a person with more attachment to characters like Sly Cooper and Nathan Drake than most of Nintendo’s characters, I don’t have that same level of nostalgia for Smash Bros. that a lot of people do. But even I can admit that PlayStation All-Stars is a game with faults. But beyond its less-than-stellar production values and glaring lack of a robust suite of single player content, there was a brawler with a really strong sense for fighting game fundamentals. And I really loved that it was never afraid to really go out there and take extremely conflicting video game franchises and just smash them together. Who among us can look at Kratos and Sir Daniel Fortesque fighting on a LocoRoco stage and then see a Metal Gear come in and start wrecking the place and not laugh at the absurdity of it all? But as I’m playing Astro’s Playroom on my PlayStation 5, I’m realizing that it finally gets right something that PlayStation All-Stars was never able to accomplish: feeling like a truly holistic tribute to the PlayStation brand.

PlayStation All-Stars was fairly backloaded when it came to representation of big tentpole games of PlayStation history. For the time, PlayStation All-Stars was pretty solid when it came to PS2 and PS3 representation, at least when it came to Sony’s own stable of characters. Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, Infamous’ Cole MacGrath, and Sackboy from LittleBigPlanet were around to rep some of Sony’s best games of the PS3 generation. PlayStation 2 characters also fared pretty well, with Sly Cooper, Ratchet and Clank, and Jak and Daxter all showing up to fight.

The original PlayStation is where some omissions become more apparent. Sir Daniel Fortesque and Parappa the Rapper were there to appeal to the PlayStation hardcore, but characters like Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot, whose original trilogies were synonymous with Sony’s first console, were notably absent. This appears to have been due to IP owner Activision not allowing either character to be used, with Sony Santa Monica saying that any inclusion of the characters was “100% not possible.” 

Working with third party studios was ultimately PlayStation All-Stars’ downfall when it came to filling out its roster. The game was unproven and Sony’s standing in the larger console market was not where it is now. So the best we got were third-party characters that were from companies ready and eager to promote an upcoming game. Dante from Devil May Cry was passed over for the alternate version of the character seen in the yet-to-be-released DmC: Devil May Cry, there’s a Big Daddy from Bioshock here for literally no reason other than Bioshock Infinite being a few months away, and in a move that is more retroactively funny than it was annoying at the time, Isaac Clarke from Dead Space was added as DLC just before Dead Space 3’s launch. You know, the noted PlayStation Icon Isaac Clarke?

Looking back on it now, PlayStation All-Stars was a game that could have been a great, heartfelt tribute to a history of one of the biggest names in video games, but instead it was maybe half that and half ad space for companies unwilling to budge if it couldn’t be converted into an immediate profit. Now, eight years later, that spirit seems to have finally come to fruition with Astro’s Playroom. I hadn’t given the tech demo platformer much thought going into the launch of the PlayStation 5, as I expected it to be just a guided tour of the power of the DualSense controller. And it is that, having made me a believer in things like haptic feedback and adaptive triggers. But it’s also an extremely charming tribute to PlayStation, both on the side of the technology Sony has utilized, as well as the games they’ve helped bring to life.

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Astro’s Playroom has a little robot named Astro going through four levels of DualSense-demonstrating platforming and picking up “artifacts,” which are different consoles and peripherals in the PlayStation ecosystem. Each level ends with finding each of the PlayStation consoles, and along the way you’ll pick up other relics of the past like the PlayStation Eye camera, a PlayStation Move controller, or an old PlayStation memory card. That alone would be a super charming and fun way to bring home not only how far The Brand of PlayStation has come, but also how truly different the DualSense is compared to its predecessors. But the thing that I most enjoyed about Astro’s Playroom was when I would stumble upon a robot with a big blue camera on their shoulder, recording recreations of different games and characters across PlayStation’s 26 years.

Once I realized what it meant to see a robot with a blue camera in Astro’s Playroom, it was all I was looking for. Unlike PlayStation All-Stars, there aren’t criminal omissions of major games that helped bring us to the PlayStation 5. No matter what point you came into PlayStation, there are likely references to some of your favorites here. Much to my delight, I found robots acting as Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us, hiding behind a wall from a robot dressed as the series’ Clicker zombies. Shortly after, I walked by a robot climbing up the side of a wall and letting out Nathan Drake’s trademark “woah woah woah” when it nearly lost its grip and fell. I also saw  Parappa the Rapper putting on a concert, Kratos and Atreus riding in a boat at the beach, and a hunter from Bloodborne slicing up grass. It’s not even just critical darlings here either, as I found a robot dressed as Sir Galahad from The Order: 1886 fighting Half Breed robots. Even M-rated games are played up in a very cute way, although the Heavy Rain reference made me audibly gasp when I walked up to it and realized what I was looking at.

But on top of all the Sony stuff, there’s also a fair bit of third party characters and references that PlayStation All-Stars could’ve used eight years ago. I found Cloud Strife’s Buster Sword posted up like Final Fantasy VII’s main menu as robots gathered around to check it out, saw a robot dressed as Crash Bandicoot doing the jumping marsupial’s victory dance, and even hit the right box to find Metal Gear’s Solid Snake hiding under it.

It’s hard for me to condemn PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale for not delivering every character and level a lot of people wanted, because judging on what Astro’s Playroom is able to accomplish, it seems like maybe Sony just wasn’t in the place in the grander console space during the time to be calling in favors with companies like Square-Enix, Konami, and Activision to get characters like this. In the time since PlayStation All-Stars, Sony has gone on to have major deals and a more hands-on working relationship with developers than it did in the PlayStation 3 era, and maybe that helped build bridges for collaborations like Astro’s Playroom. But now all I can think about is what a PlayStation All-Stars on PlayStation 5 would look like in a time when Sony has improved its outreach to the point where it can sell companies on including characters and imagery in a free pack-in game.

It might not be the fighting game/brawler that I’d like to see, but it is nice to feel like something that Sony has put out into the world has a greater understanding of how it can pay tribute to its history, and it helps that it’s also a ton of fun to play, too.

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Kenneth Shepard

Kenneth is a Georgia-based writer who still periodically cries about the Mass Effect trilogy years after it concluded.

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