I remember picking up the box for Astyanax in Woolworth wondering how to pronounce the title, let alone what it was.  If that was the marketing department’s intent it definitely worked on me.  Odd name aside the screenshots on the back of the box sold me on the game.  Had I known about the title’s connection to Greek mythology at the time it would have more than sealed the deal.  I love Greek myth; Battle of Olympus is one of my favorite NES games.  That connection is only surface deep but it doesn’t matter as Astyanax is a great game.

Astyanax is your typical teenager attending high school.  Except he has been having a recurring dream, a dream in which a woman is calling his name.  On his way to school one day he is transported to the world of Remlia and told he must rescue the kingdom’s ruler Princess Rosebud before he can be sent back.  With the fairy Cutey at his side Astyanax sets out to defeat the evil wizard Blackhorn.  While the story is a bit generic it is at least well told by NES standards through frequent cutscenes.

Astyanax is the brain child of one man, Tokuhiro Takemori.  There were two games in the series, an obscure arcade game and the vastly different NES title.  While it isn’t a sequel it does share many gameplay elements with his previous work, the TG-16 platformer Legendary Axe.  Actually the two games are similar to an almost scary degree.  That just means that Astyanax is a pretty good game although it also shares some of that game’s flaws.  

In many ways this plays like a freakish combination of Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania and it works for the most part.  Astyanax uses an axe at first but can “upgrade” to a spear and finally a sword.  I use upgrade figuratively when it comes to the spear as it is weak.  It does make spells cost less MP.  The sword is the most powerful, able to destroy most enemies in one strike when fully charged.  Your weapon choice affects the cost of your magic, oddly enough.  You have three spells, Bind, Blast and Bolt, all of which are strong.  Bind, which stops time even works on bosses.  While magic is incredibly useful it isn’t something you’ll want to rely on.  While the spear reduces MP it sucks otherwise.  The sword uses the most MP to offset its power but that is a tradeoff that is worth it.

The weapon charging mechanic of Legendary Axe is present and that is where the Castlevania comparison comes in.  Because it is best to wait to attack the pace is slower and deliberate.  It even has its own equivalent of Medusa Heads except here it is even more frustrating.  While similar it isn’t as tightly designed.  Hit detection is spotty but what really hurts it is how aggressive the enemies are.  The slow pace is at odds with the flow of the game as the screen can get really busy if you aren’t careful.  But what is more problematic is the platforming.

Despite the focus on hack and slash action there is a healthy dose of platforming thrown in the mix.  Large sprites like these are simply not built for precision platforming and the game bears that out.  It’s not so much that the controls are bad but more the designer’s habit of placing enemies on tiny platforms or filling the screen with too many bad guys thus leading to falling to your death.  It wants to be like Castlevania in that regard but fails spectacularly.  Honestly the platforming really isn’t necessary and just serves to slow the game down even more.

Overall this is a pretty lengthy adventure at 6 levels broken down into multiple sections.  There are no passwords to save progress but in my opinion it isn’t necessary.  Aside from some frustrating moments I found the game to be of medium difficulty.  It is very generous with magic and once you get used to the game’s pace it is very easy to plow through levels.  It picks up toward the end as some of the later bosses can be brutal but it isn’t anything most gamers aren’t used to by now.  For all of the trouble you’ll go through to reach the finale the ending is definitely worth it.

I found Astyanax to be one of the better looking NES games and it was released in 1990!  These are some of the largest sprites on the system and they sport decent animation.  The world of Remlia is varied with environments that contain some incredibly detailed artwork.  The bosses are undoubtedly the visual highlight.  Often taking up a portion of the screen there designs are really creative and in some cases a callback to the title’s Greek history.  There is a cost for all of the visual splendor however.  The basic set of enemies is incredibly repetitive; get used to fighting different colored skeletons and generic plants. 

Worst of all however is the slowdown.  There are far too many instances of too much crap crowding the screen to the point the game becomes a literal slideshow.  Unfortunately it has an impact on gameplay and will lead to many a cheap death.  They really should have shown some restraint.  Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

In closing

Despite a few missteps at most they keep Astyanax from being a 9 out of ten.  This is one of my favorite action games for the NES and sadly one that has a low profile.

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