This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.
All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.
The NES was the first home system that got into cinematic storytelling. Ninja Gaiden was the first game to really make it work, with cutscenes telling the story between stages. Tecmo’s often seen as the pioneer of the medium, but one other company actually did more with cinematics in all aspects of their early games than even the company behind Ninja Gaiden and Tecmo Super Bowl: Jaleco. Yes, the long-irrelevant Japanese publisher and developer started things off with a baseball game, Bases Loaded, which would show a Jumbotron of players rounding the bases after home runs, coming in from the bullpen, and beating the crap out of pitchers that beaned them. No, that previous statement is not hyperbole; and if a game tried to do that today, Major League Baseball would have everyone associated with the game assassinated.
One of my favourite games growing up was The Astyanax, an action-platformer that started life as a mediocre baseball game. The gameplay allowed players to use multiple weapons with various strengths and weaknesses to kill the enemies while using magic. It was bog standard for the time, so for the NES conversion, Jaleco added in a story. It involved a high school student being magically transferred to the world of Remlia by a fairy named Cutie to save Princess Rosebud from the evil Blackthorn, all told in a then-unknown anime style. It’s never quite explained how a high school student manages to learn how to fight and use magic, and where the helmet comes from in the action sequences. Then again, Nintendo Logic made us believe that a New York plumber being sucked into the Mushroom Kingdom to save a princess from a large turtle was perfectly acceptable, so let’s roll with it.
I loved Astyanax growing up, but does it stand up to scrutiny in 2011?
HOW WAS IT THEN: Astyanax got lost amid bigger name games by bigger name companies during the peak of the NES, but those that noticed it found a great time to be had. The gameplay was fairly standard but largely enjoyable due to the combination of melee and magic elements. There was a mechanic where spamming melee attacks would make them really weak, but if enough time passed between attacks, a power meter would load up that made attacks stronger. The boss battles were challenging but not really cheap, and though cheap deaths were possible, this was something we were used to in the NES era. The graphics were nice; though the colour palette was a little weak, the sprites were large and well detailed. The story had more going for it than those of other games of that era, which included some cliffhanger moments and one scene that was legitimately stunning for its time.
Astyanax was definitely worth the money in 1990, even when competing with what was becoming a loaded slate of titles in those days.
Plus, in the “sad but true” department, I totally had a crush on Cutie when I was ten.
HOW IS IT NOW: Astyanax has stood up surprisingly well to the test of time. The controls are still responsive, though glitches do rarely occur. The boss fights are still challenging but not cheap. There are times, especailly later in the game, where cheap hits and deaths occur, and they become problematic at times. While that was almost expected in the NES era, it doesn’t quite fly so well in 2011; but because continues are infinite, it never becomes a major, game-breaking problem. The negative side effect of this is that beating the game is a matter of attrition, and there’s little incentive to go back once the deed is done outside of improving a high score. That doesn’t take away from the fact that the game is still an enjoyable action platformer even twenty-one years after release.
The graphics are still attractive today. The colours look a little washed out, but the sprites are large and usually well detailed. The game’s soundtrack is outstanding as it’s both atmospheric and good enough for modern chiptune fans to rock out to. The only problem is that the NES didn’t have the horsepower to handle a lot of the action on screen, so slowdown and flickering are a problem.
The story was deep and involved back in 1990 when compared to its peers, but it seems trite and simplistic nowadays. The death of a main story character was considered taboo in the era when this was made, but today, that would be good enough for a Saturday morning cartoon. There’s no real depth to the story: you’re a hero, Blackthorn is pure evil, kill Blackthorn and save the Princess. The plot twist is also predictable, but it’s still enjoyable even if the writing wouldn’t stand up in 2011 other than in an ironic sense.
There’s no element of Astyanax that really stands out, but it’s definitely one of the NES’s better action games. It would be worth a $5 Virtual Console download, and it stands up better than some games released for XBLA and the PSN even today.