Astyanax (NES)

Ack! Creepy sun face! Kill it!

Astyanax (“The name is from Greek mythology, I think,” the opening cut scene helpfully informs us) is a 16 year-old freshman at Greenview High. He’s been having recurring dreams lately about a girl with purple hair trapped inside a bubble and calling out his name. Then he’s magically transported to the fantastic world of Remlia while walking home from school one day by a fairy named Cutie, who hands him a magic axe and tells him that he can only return to his own world if he can rescue Princess Rosebud (the bubble girl) from the evil wizard Blackhorn and his skeleton lackey Thorndog. So, typical teenager problems, basically.

Good thing they chose the most freakishly ripped freshman imaginable for the job! Astyanax looks like He-Man’s big brother. At this rate, I fully expect his muscle mass to collapse into itself and form a black hole by senior year. Someone take away this kid’s protein power before he dooms us all.

That’s your introduction to Astyanax (or “The Lord of King” if you’re Japanese), Aicom’s 1990 reimagining of their arcade release from the year prior. The arcade Astyanax starred a more traditional fantasy hero named Roche, so the whole dimension-hopping high schooler angle with Cutie and the gang is all new for this iteration. Lucky us. No matter what version of the game you pick up, it’s clear that Astyanax is a spiritual sequel of sorts to The Legendary Axe, yet another Aicom-developed action title starring a buff warrior dude that debuted on the PC Engine in 1988 and the following year on the TurboGrafx-16.

Like its predecessors, Astyanax on the NES is a basic hack-and-slash exercise at heart. There are eleven stages full of monsters for our hero to cut his way through, each of which has at a boss or two waiting at the end. There are no branching paths to explore (apart from one simple maze section in the tenth stage) and no secrets to find. Just kill, kill, and kill some more.

Thankfully, the designers put some real thought into Astyanax’s combat mechanics, and this keeps the non-stop action from growing stale. Use of your main weapon (which comes with its own silly name: Bash!) is governed by a power meter along the bottom of the screen. When it’s full, you’ll deal out maximum damage with your next strike. Every attack you perform empties the power meter, however, and if you attack again before it refills completely (which takes several seconds), the amount of damage you’ll deal is correspondingly less than the maximum amount possible.

This weapon charging mechanic, a direct holdover from Legendary Axe, is the most interesting component of the gameplay here by far. Getting good at Astyanax is largely a matter of learning which enemies are susceptible to a flurry of fast, weak attacks and which are better handled by biding your time and playing defensively while you build up strength to deliver more powerful blows. It’s a classic risk/reward dynamic very similar to the one present in the last game I played, Power Blade (though the power meter determined the range of the hero’s attack in that game, not the damage).

The other strategic element in play is magic use. There are a total of three spells to choose between on the pause menu, each of which costs you a number of magic points from your limited pool of twenty every time it’s used. You have Bind (which freezes all enemies in place for a limited time), Blast (which deals heavy damage to foes), and Bolt (which deals even more damage than Blast in exchange for more MP). The exact amount of MP needed to use a given spell varies depending on the current strength of your weapon. Astyanax can upgrade Bash up to two times by collecting power-ups, and the stronger it becomes, the more MP your spells cost. Bolt, for example, only costs five MP per use when you have the weakest version of Bash equipped, but all twenty if you’ve upgraded to the most powerful version. It’s another series of carefully calculated tradeoffs and I approve. I also couldn’t help but notice that Astyanax’s magic system clearly formed the basis for the more elaborate one in Aicom’s Totally Rad, released nine months later. Yeah, I play way too many games.

I really do appreciate the way the combat flows in Astyanax. There are always meaningful moment-to-moment decisions to be made. Should I jam on the attack button as fast as I can or conserve my strength? Should I use magic to get past a mob of standard enemies or save it up for use against the stage boss? Should I upgrade my weapon knowing that it will reduce the amount of magic power available to me? These are the sorts of dilemmas that elevate great action games above the pack.

I also must say that the graphics here are amazing when you consider the limits of the NES hardware. I can remember seeing screenshots of Astyanax in magazines as a kid and actually wondering if they were from one of those new 16-bit games I’d been hearing about. Characters are massive and the backgrounds are both richly-detailed and varied. The music is decent fantasy action fare, even if the soundtrack as a whole peaks rather early with its stirring stage one theme.

All is not rosy in the regal realm of Remlia, regrettably. Those gorgeous graphics I just mentioned come at a price. At around twice the size of a typical NES avatar, Astyanax moves sluggishly and his huge sprite makes him an equally huge target. The action in general can often feel a bit claustrophobic simply due to your hero and his opponents taking up so much of the on-screen real estate.

Certain aspects of the level design are another sticking point for me. Though mostly a side-scroller, Astyanax also features a handful of much less compelling vertical stages. The problem with these is two-fold. First, the greatest threat to your progress over the majority of the game, bottomless pits, are entirely absent. This may not sound like such a bad thing, but since the pits aren’t replaced with new hazards, there’s just not much for the player to get concerned over in these sections and the challenge takes a nosedive. In addition, enemies will sometimes spawn in right on top of you as you ascend or descend, an issue that’s not present when they enter the screen from the sides in the horizontal levels. This can result in the occasional bit of cheap damage. Simply put, these stages are boring when they’re not annoying and I’m glad there’s not too many of them.

On balance, I can absolutely recommend Astyanax, especially to anyone who’s already played and enjoyed Legendary Axe. The combat is engaging, the fancy graphics still hold up, and the loopy Saturday morning cartoon plot packed into the cut scenes is corny in the best possible way. It’s short and the unlimited continues make it relatively easy, but it’s also one of the cheapest NES games worth playing and shouldn’t set you back more than $10 at the very most. That’s still one hell of a bargain, even with a handful of dud levels and the occasional awkwardness of Astyanax’s oversized sprite to contend with.

Tell my boy Thorndog I said hi.

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