At some point game systems stopped coming with games. The pack-in, as it’s known, was fairly standard in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. When you bought a game console, it would almost always come with a game. They weren’t always good games—I’m looking at you, Altered Beast and Keith Courage in Alpha Zones—but at least they gave you something to play until you could afford to buy something you actually wanted. Or, since we’re talking about the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when videogames were still primarily for kids, until your birthday or a holiday rolled around and your parents finally bought you another game.
Pack-ins often served a dual purpose. They didn’t come with the console just to give it added value, but to also help teach the player how to interact with a new piece of technology. Combat on the Atari 2600 helped players get used to the concept of a joystick, while the endlessly playable and impossible-to-put-down Tetris showed the value of the Game Boy’s portability. Nintendo are basically the masters of this kind of pack-in; the Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt combo pack was a brilliant introduction to both the Light Zapper and the then-groundbreaking NES Game Pad, Wii Sports displayed the full potential of motion controllers right out of the box, and even the unloved Wii U showed off the full capabilities of its unique touchscreen controller with Nintendo Land.
The pack-in started to die off in the mid ‘90s, as the original Sony PlayStation became the first new console to not include a game when it launched in 1994. The Wii U was the last major console to include a new game in the box, and that was eight years and four console launches ago. Consoles that had been on the market for a while are often bundled with popular games, especially around the holidays, but the tradition of new consoles including a game in its package largely disappeared 25 years ago.
It’s ironic, then, that Sony’s PlayStation 5 is bringing the pack-in back. When consumers unbox their new PlayStations next week, they’ll find one new game already loaded on the system. That game, Astro’s Playroom, isn’t just the first notable pack-in in almost a decade; it’s one of the best pack-ins in the history of the industry.
I can’t go into too much detail about the game yet, so let’s use broad strokes. Astro’s Playroom, which stars the same adorable robot mascots featured in the excellent PlayStation VR platformer Astro Bot Rescue Mission, is a classic instructional pack-in. It exists to introduce the player to the new and unique properties of Sony’s DualSense controller. Instead of just being a small demo, though, it’s a full-fledged (albeit short) game in its own right, an adorable 3D platformer in the Mario mold that’s as charming and well-designed as a Nintendo game.
It’s evident from the first time you jump into Cooling Springs, the only level of Astro’s Playroom I’m currently allowed to talk about, that this game will be, at the very least, one of the cutest things you’ve played in ages. The astro bots are tiny neotenized robots—think an Asimo redesigned as a Peanuts character, with a chubby spacesuit body and a large round head—that live inside the PlayStation 5. The entire game takes place within different parts of the console, with Cooling Springs set in the console’s cooling system. It’s basically a beach resort for the astro bots, with dozens of them lounging around on the periphery of each area, engaged in various background antics while you try to deal with enemies and collect different objects. You’ll regularly see astro bots reenacting scenes from different iconic PlayStation games—check the shoreline right at the start of Cooling Springs’ first level to see a familiar father-son duo hanging out on a boat together.
One of the Cooling Springs stages serves as an introduction to the DualSense controller’s dynamic adaptive triggers. The shoulder buttons, L2 and R2, are extremely responsive to pressure. You have to wrestle with them a bit to fully hold them down, and games will be able to tell exactly how much force you’re using on them. This new level of haptic feedback manifests in Astro’s Playroom on a stage where your robot enters a spring-loaded suit. After zipping into the new outfit (using the DualSense touchpad to zip up), you hold either of those shoulder triggers down to make your robot spring forward. The more force you use on the triggers, the higher and farther your robot will spring. For small jumps, just barely push down on the trigger and let go; to spring as high as you can, hold down both all the way and watch your bot shoot up with great force. You also have to use the controller’s motion sensing capabilities to direct the arc of your robot’s jump—tilt it to the right or left to make the bot head in either direction. I can’t go into specifics yet, but throughout Astro’s Playroom you’ll find similar sections that display new and unexpected uses for the adaptive triggers, the touchpad, the motion controls, and even the controller’s built-in microphone.
Judged on both style and substance, Astro’s Playroom is an ideal pack-in game. It’s fun, beautiful, deeply entertaining, and also elegantly introduces the major new features of the PlayStation 5’s controller. And with its meta concept of playing entirely within the new system, while also tracking down art and items from the 26 year history of the PlayStation, it pays tribute to the company’s past and present without getting too schmaltzy or nostalgic. If you’re getting a PlayStation 5, this should be the first game you play.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.