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Astyanax (NES) artwork

Astyanax (NES) review


"Thankfully, the story told here can be skipped by pressing the start button. However, should you care to know, Astyanax is a young blonde high school freshman, selected for a world-shattering mission by fate (what else?) and accosted by a fairy from another world named Cutie (what else?). She drags you into her world to rescue a fair princess (Princess Rosebud of Remlia) - against your will. Despite her constant apologies and her help with magic during the proceedings, you can’t help but hate her for getting you into this mess. You were going to lose your virginity that night, and then this! "



Hey look! It’s The Legendary Axe! But it’s for the NES. A splendid thing really. For the uninitiated, The Legendary Axe is one of the best Turbografx-16 games ever, as well as one of the best of its genre: the side-scrolling hack and slash game. The sort of game that begins with Rastan and ends with Castlevania. Astyanax unabashedly 'borrows' from Axe in heaps and heaps. The title (which doubles as the protagonist's name) is supposedly a hero of Greek mythology - I slept through that class in University, evidently. Whatever they might tell you though, the developers really just wanted the name to sound like Axe, without saying so outright. The result was successful enough, though their stab at being clever may have been too good, for their own good. Because any game with a name that people stumble over in pronouncing can only help to obscure the title to the shadows - where this gem has no place being.

Besides being an above average Axe clone, Astyanax has thrown in some Ninja Gaiden-esque cut scenes in between levels. They shouldn’t have bothered. The graphics are so poor in these sequences, that they become laughable. And the repetitive music and silly scripting doesn’t help matters any. The only good that this half-hearted attempt at depth does, is make we Axe fans contemplate what might have been had Victor Musical Industries crafted some really worthwhile cut scenes for that game. Thankfully, the story told here can be skipped by pressing the start button. However, should you care to know, Astyanax is a young blonde high school freshman, selected for a world-shattering mission by fate (what else?) and accosted by a fairy from another world named Cutie (what else?). She drags you into her world to rescue a fair princess (Princess Rosebud of Remlia) - against your will. Despite her constant apologies and her help with magic during the proceedings, you can’t help but hate her for getting you into this mess. You were going to lose your virginity that night, and then this!

Anyway, you are whisked into a world of strange creatures all turned against you by the nefarious Blackhorn and his right hand man, Thorndog, doffing your unseemly blue and white striped T-shirt in favour of a suit of armour. What you should take notice of first is that yellow power bar at the base of the screen. It begins as a quarter of its eventual capacity. By collecting power ups, it will grow until it spans the width of the screen. Other power ups will inevitably change your acceptable axe into the most powerful weapon, the sturdy sword. Actually there is another weapon betwixt the two mentioned above - I don’t like the looks of it much though. Dubbed a spear, it appears to be some sort of deformed musical instrument. A Humvee went over a trumpet no doubt, and Cutie thought the resulting debris might equip you well. By gradually powering up these three weapons and boosting your weapon bar throughout the stages, you’ll be able to keep up with the increasing strength of your enemies. Soon you’ll find yourself more than a match for them. Each time you die however, you are downgraded a weapon, so that the more lives you lose, the more difficult success becomes. Though this is a level-by-level action game, it’s a 'plot your path carefully' adventure game as well.

This is illustrated most clearly by the weapon bar system. With each axe or sword (or trumpet) swing, the gauge drops down to zero, before climbing slowly up to its current capacity. This creates a bit of strategy. You must consider how best to dispose of a foe: should you strike with the full power, and wait for the recharge before striking again, or should you chop away furiously, with weak though relentless strokes? Results vary based on the situation and the type of foes in your midst. And the strange flying creatures, giant moths, sword-wielding skeletons and bubble-spewing mounds are only a few of the bestiary that will make your acquaintance.

In addition to your weapons, you’ve got magic. Or Cutie does. In any case, you are able to call upon energies that absorb magic power, which is indicated below your vitality bar. The magic spells will vary in the damage they do, depending on the weapon you carry. They range from the ever-popular 'all-damaging screen flash', to the 'stop all enemies with the clock icon trick', including also, the useful flame spread. The stopwatch is the best auxiliary weapon available to you. Unlike most games with this feature, Astyanax's timepiece stops the enemies and allows you to move freely through their inert forms. The function really makes itself useful in the more difficulty levels, like the purple-flavoured ''Marshy'', where a good amount of freezing and running facilitates escape.

It is also notable that there are six areas, and eleven stages in total. While each stage has a guardian (small fry like gliding golems and weather-controlling minotaurs), only the last stage in each area features the guardian, and immediately afterward, the boss. You face the bosses beneath a plain black sky, and they are usually large, as well as slow-moving, though their projectiles most certainly are not. Usually a good deal of hacking and charging, and smart stopwatch usage, will see you through.

There was an arcade version to this game, and amazingly, that game seems to contain a lot of elements from the Legendary Axe II - a much different game from the first Axe! These two series’ were intent on being gruesome bedfellows it seems, and only some Encyclopedia Brown-like investigation will ever discern the real truth behind all the similarities.

It’s really a good thing that this NES port is nothing like that arcade version. The coin-op is a frantic quarter muncher, while the 8-bit conversion is much slower and more deliberate - smarter, I would venture to say. Regrettably, the music is only average; the tunes are acceptable and expected, with too few standout tracks, and too much repetition. The graphics aren’t splendid, but they are competent, and the characters are quite large in comparison to say, the Belmonts and Company, of Castlevania fame. Everything is clear and well coloured, and flicker and slowdown is kept to a minimum.

Astyanax is a great, low-cost buy for 2D action-adventure fans. It’s challenging, contains some memorable scenes and foes, and has enough of its own personality (some of it gained by the kitsch-heavy interludes) to barely escape the Legendary Axe clone classification - though that distinction in itself, while marking lazy conceptualizing, also marks excellence and good taste.

Rating: 8/10

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Staff review by Marc Golding (December 31, 2003)

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