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Astyanax

Astyanax.  What a weird choice for a game title.  Most games live or die on store shelves from factors not even related to whether the game is good or not.  Box art, customer awareness, the screenshots used to “sell it”, all of these are elements that can make or break a game at retail.  I mean, when you think about it, there is no way in hell Mega man should have been a hit with that atrocious cover.  At the least, with a title like Astyanax you know quite a few people are going to pick it up and look at it, wondering what the hell does that word even mean?

Astyanax was originally released in arcades in 1989.  I have only seen screenshots of it and found out about it after the fact.  The NES game was also released the same year however like Rygar before it is a completely different game.  The Astyanax in the title refers to the hero of the game, a 16-year old high school student who is transported to the world of Remlia to save its princess, Rosebud.  With no other way to return home aside from saving her you take axe in hand and proceed on your quest.

A side scrolling platformer, gameplay is exactly the same as Legendary Axe for the Turbo-Grafx 16.  You have a meter that charges up and controls the power behind your swings and can be extended permanently by collecting items contained in idol statues.  Unlike LA, in addition to your axe you have 3 magic spells that require different amounts of magic:  Blind, Blast, and Bolt.  Also, you can upgrade your weapon 2 times, axe-spear-sword.  In a very strange twist, the spear is the weakest one but is required in order to obtain the sword.  How fucked up is that?  The game is decently long and takes place across 6 levels.  Each of the 6 levels are broken up into multiple parts and all have a mini boss or boss at the end.  The bosses are one of the game’s graphical highlights.

The graphics are insanely detailed by NES standards.  The sprites are absolutely huge and the backgrounds follow suit in terms of detail.  The game throws a large number of enemies at you at once, which is impressive but not always a good idea.  Nearly all of the bosses are towering monstrosities that dwarf you and are the game’s high point.  Jaleco really went all out creating the look of the game.  Like Ninja Gaiden the game is filled with cut scenes that move the story forward at a good clip.  Even the music is catchy and suits each level perfectly.  It is a bit comical how seriously the game takes itself at times but that isn’t really a minus.  The ending cutscenes are very long and make completing the game well worth the trip.

This is very much an amalgamation of elements from many of the best Nintendo games.  The only keeping it from being mentioned in the same breath as classics such as Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania is polish.  The game delights in throwing as much on screen as possible but this comes at a price: crippling slowdown.  There are times where the game will slow to a crawl, music and all, and it happens frequently.  The collision detection is also very spotty, with clean hits missing or being forced into breathing range for attacks to register.

The Castlevania games are notorious for throwing Medusa heads at you in the worst possible scenarios but they at least show some restraint.  Here that isn’t taken into consideration as you’ll face the possibility of falling into a pit at nearly every opportunity.  There is some suspect enemy placement; many times you’ll be forced to waste magic to proceed or risk a one hit kill.  This plus the slowdown means you will be starting many of the levels over repeatedly.

Even taking those criticisms into consideration at most they keep the game from being a 9 out of ten.  This is still a damned fine platformer that unfortunately went unnoticed during that period.  It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t reach the heights it aspired to but will still entertain you for a few hours.

 


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Legendary Axe

Whenever a new system launches everyone looks for that one title.  The one that justifies whatever price you have to pay just to experience it.  In the past these would usually be packed in with the system, like Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario Brothers.  For the Turbographx-16 that game was Legendary Axe.

Legendary Axe was available at the system’s launch in the US in August 1989.  You play as Gogan, a barbarian who has been away from your home village for an unspecified length of time.  The Cult of Jagu, who control your people have selected your childhood friend Flare as their annual sacrifice and that just won’t stand.  Armed with the Legendary Axe you set off to save her.  This all sounds a bit like I’m describing Golden Axe but the actual game itself is nothing like it.

Across 6 levels you battle all manner of monsters to reach cult leader Jagu before it’s too late.   If you’ve played Astyanax on the NES then this game is essentially the same in nearly all facets.  Both games were designed by the same man so it stands to reason he carried over the same game design principles.  You have a strength meter that builds up and determines the power behind your attacks.  Scattered around the world are idols that can be smashed for power-ups, one of which will extend the length of your strength bar.  The difference in power between a fully charged hit and even a half power is staggering to say the least.  Receiving any damage resets the meter, wasting your charge.

Determining when to build it up or just spam weaker shots is key.  Right up until the end of the game new enemies are introduced with their own attack patterns that must be learned and will force you to make snap decisions in terms of attacking.  Aside from increasing attack speed, health and extra lives the axe is your only weapon.   Learn to love it.

Graphically this was head and shoulders above anything on the NES.  The level of detail in the backgrounds and variety of colors was practically a revelation in those days.  A common theme in the advertisements for TG-16 games was the ridiculous sprite sizes the system was capable of.  With the exception of the final boss you don’t really see much of that here but the game makes up for it with the sheer amount of enemies it can throw on screen with no slowdown.  The soundtrack is equal to the graphics in its variety and matches the game’s them perfectly.  This game was a prime example of the TG-16’s technical muscle.

I mentioned Astyanax earlier for a number of reasons.  Beyond the basic game mechanics, this game also shares a lot of that game’s flaws.  There are far too many bottomless pits and small platforms to navigate, and just like Castlevania there are numerous enemies waiting to pop out right when you jump nearly every single time.  Getting hit knocks you back a little too far and will have you rage quitting In short order.

The difficulty isn’t too high for the most part until you reach the end of the game, where the challenge feels like it’s warped in from a different game.  The maze you have to navigate runs far too long with next to no hints that you are going the right way.  The sheer volume of enemies thrown at you reaches retarded levels and will make you tear your hair out.  The bosses as well also exhibit signs of this.  Cheap hits and ridiculous attack range mean you will defeat them with a sliver of life left, if at all.  You get three continues to beat the game and that’s it.

Even in spite of that this is still a phenomenal game for the system.  The issues I described can be overcome by moving at a slower pace rather than trying to run through the game like its Contra.  If not Bonk this should have been the pack in game for the TG-16 instead of the terrible Keith Courage.

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