There's always one thing I think of when I hear the name Jaleco, and that's the phrase "not quite". The Japanese developer seemed to only produce games that fell into this "not quite" category - games that were well-presented but not quite as good-looking as the very best, games that had interesting ideas but could not quite put them into practise, games that were simply good but not quite great. Maybe this one'll be different, though. Maybe the 1989 arcade axe-em-up The Astyanax will be that one great game that Jaleco always threatened to create but never quite managed.Honestly, though, I'd say the odds of that are pretty slim.
The Astyanax, then, and the most important part of this title is the "ax" element as we shall see soon. For all you lovers of semi-mythological Ancient Greek trivia out there, Astyanax was the son of Hector of Troy. As with every story of ancient myth there are thousands of versions of Astyanax's tale, but very few of them end well for the wee tyke - they usually feature his murder by being thrown from the walls of Troy by the victorious Greeks, although one cheery variation involves Priam, King of Troy, being beaten to death by a Greek using Astyanax's dead body as a club. None of this has anything to do with this game, of course, but I'm unlikely to get another chance to recount a tale of death by toddler-inflicted blunt force trauma. The developers of today's "ultraviolent" videogames have got nothing on the Ancient Greeks.
All this talk about The Astyanax's historical namesake would be lost on the Japanese, as the game was released under the rather grandiose title of The Lord of King over there. I'm sure it was supposed to be very majestic and everything, but to me it just sounds like two kids trying to one-up each other. "I'm the King!" "Oh yeah? Well, I'm the Lord of King!". Unless it's a reference to Jesus. This seems unlikely: my R.E. lessons may have been a long time ago but I'm sure I'd remember any stories about Our Lord hacking his way through a race of mantis-people with a fiery axe.
Where was I? Oh yeah, The Astyanax. Time to get started, and what better way to begin a grand adventure than by pulling a bladed weapon out of a rock?
Followed by a quick transformation into Simon Belmont. No, of course not - Simon Belmont would be a much better choice than this guy. Other than the brief axe/granite interaction of the attract mode there's not much else, story-wise, that Astyanax deigns to share with you. That's okay though, because playing a late-eighties arcade hack-and-slash title for the story is like reading a novel for the font. I'd wager a large sum of money that an evil force has arisen - possibly a dragon, but most likely a wizard - and our hero is the only one who can stop this villainy. A woman may also have been kidnapped at some point.
Yup, that looks like the tower of an evil wizard to me. It's never a bungalow with wizards, it is? Although you'd think that would be a sensible option given the elderly nature of most dark sorcerers. I don't think Stannah make stairlifts in a "Forbidden Citadel" scale.
Enough stalling, here's the game itself and I'm sure just by looking at this screenshot you've figured out the basic gameplay and controls. You move the hero - he probably does have a name but the game never tells you what it is, so I'll call him Astyanax - through the monster-infested stages, clobbering anything that gets near you with that axe you extracted from the rock. One button for hitting things, one button for jumping and a third button that's used to activate a screen-clearing magic attack. The Astyanax is not a complicated title. You know how this works, and I'm fairly certain that because this is a Jaleco game it'll be a decent but not quite good example of the "leather-skirted warrior vs. evil overlord" side-scrolling chopathon.
It does get a gold star from me for including mutant mantis men. One of their mutations, not as obvious as the scythe-like forearms and giant red eyes but still odd, is their bizarre metabolism. It must be weird if they have scrawny upper bodies with thin arms and visible ribs but huge, muscular green legs. They look like the top half of Kif from Futurama on the bottom half of the Incredible Hulk.
Astyanax is looking a little more prepared for the upcoming deluge of enemies, because I found a shield and my axe is now on fire. The shield is a collectible item that can absorb a few hit before it breaks, but the axe's sudden Richard Pryor impression is a little more complex. You see, The Astyanax's major gameplay gimmick is that your weapon becomes more powerful the longer you wait between swings. There's a green bar on the bottom-left of the screen. When you swing your axe it empties, gradually refilling as long as you don't press attack, your attack doing more damage the more full the bar is. If it fills all the way up, your axe bursts into flames and the next hit will inflict the maximum amount of damage.
It's something a little different, at least. It's not good, as I'll explain later, but it's different.
Then out of nowhere there's a Mega Man-style disappearing block jumping section. The platforms move in and out of the waterfall and a fall leads to instant death. I nearly walked away from the game at this point because platforming sections shoehorned into arcade brawlers are almost always deeply unpleasant experiences that work about as well as a stealth-based version of DooM, but I struggled past it and to my relief this was the only platforming section in the whole game. Just this solitary screen of jumping, which is a little bit weird in itself. Maybe it's the work of a rogue programmer and his insane platforming rampage was (fortunately) caught early on.
Here's the first boss, a big insect who uses his veiny red appendage to fire hot loads of molten death at our hero. Your mission is to get as close to this monster's face as possible and hit it with your axe - this will cause the front of the monster to fall off, revealing a second face behind it, then a third face and so on, like Lucifer's own matryoshka doll. It's not an especially difficult fight, although it can get a bit dull waiting for your axe to power up enough to make hitting the bloody thing worthwhile.
That looks like a really awkward and unwieldy way to chop a monster's head off. I mean, isn't Astyanax swinging his axe through the monster's neck (sensible) but also straight toward his own face (not so sensible)? I guess the rock he pulled his magic axe out of didn't have any instructions carved into it.
Oh look, some caves. How exciting. At least the enemies are a pretty groovy bunch of ghouls - there's something about green skeletons that's hard to dislike, y'know? I think it's because I'm assuming they glow in the dark like a Lego ghost. Plus they just look so darned happy, overwhelmingly so, excited enough to see Astyanax that they couldn't decide whether to throw a surprise party or try to kill him. They went with murder, of course, but I'll let them off. Again, green skeletons: there's nothing I can do but feel happy that they exist. Even the rather more serious-looking armoured demons are performing some kind of traditional jig.
I'm at the boss already. The Astyanax is not an epic of grand and sweeping scale, that's for damn sure. An angry Hindu-type deity/guardian thing (look, I'm not up on my Eastern religions, okay?) is blocking my path, and she's got more swords than the average anime nerd. Luckily I've got a shield and the boss doesn't seem able to figure out that hitting the shield isn't really getting her anywhere. This battle is even easier than the first boss, probably because she's made of rocks and has all the intellect associated with that particular material.
Or maybe she wasn't made of rocks, because Astyanax Belmont seems to be carving through her with relative ease. I think she's actually composed of biscuit with a gooey fruit center.
Stage three - The Bridge on the River Die. That's not Astyanax lying prone to avoid the flying snake-fish, he's just dead. I died a lot on this stage, and that's only partly (okay, significantly) down to my lack of arcade gaming skills. The problem with this stage, and any of The Astyanax's stages beyond the first two, is the axe mechanic. There are lots of enemies about, all bounding around the screen at a variety of different angles, all in desperate need of an axe to the face. The problem is that you end up getting swarmed, because repeated axe attacks means each successive swing has the devastating power of a feather duster. All you really end up doing is moving the enemies around the screen and (one would assume) getting on their nerves. If your axe was at full power all the time it'd be... well, it'd still be hard but it'd be much less frustrating. The recharging axe-power mechanic might be interesting in a slower-paced game, but in a full-on enemy extravaganza like The Astyanax you just end up wishing you had a weapon that did a set amount of damage.
The level design isn't helping, either. It can't help, because it's wandered off to take part in a different game. This stage is one flat plane, interrupted only by the occasional piece of bridge crumbling beneath your feet. Enemies appear at seemingly random intervals, with no thought given to pace or flow, and the whole thing feels like Jaleco got bored of making the game and just copy-pasted a few enemies in and went down the pub for an early lunch.
It looks nice, at least, particularly this stage. That's what's keeping me plodding through at the moment, because the artwork is impressive - the statues and stonework are nicely realised, and the enemies may be a bunch of irritating, ricocheting nuisances but at least they're dynamic.
There's a dragon too, because dragons are mandatory. At least this one has two heads... hang on a second, I've just realised what The Astyanax reminds me of. It's a lot like Athena's Dragon Unit - a blue-armoured hero battles his way through land made up of short, uninteresting stages, destroying skeletons and dragons and every other monster that graces the pages of The Big Book of Fantasy Arcade Brawler Clichés. Graphics aside - Dragon Unit looks like the crayon scribbling of a child who's read too much Conan - I think The Astyanax is the slightly inferior game. At least in Dragon Unit you could collect different weapons and move into the foreground occasionally.
Oh yeah, and I killed the dragon. Here's a tip for if you're ever locked in a life-or-death struggle with a two-headed serpent: walk right up to it, kneel down and wave whatever weapon you have to hand around like that dragon was a piñata filled with fifty-pound notes.
Right, now what? We've had forests, caves and lakes, so maybe a castle? A snowy mountain peak? Downtown Minas Tirith on a Saturday night?
Oh come on. At least every other hack-and-slash or beat-em-up game that used the lift as an excuse to have an enclosed arena did so by pretending it was part of the stage itself. No such hollow deception from The Astyanax, however! You're in an elevator. Enemies will join you in the elevator, and you will all stand around feeling uncomfortable and avoiding eye contact.
I think I would have actually preferred that. As you can see, some of the enemies that inhabit the Lift of Unknowable Horror (hey, someone's got to spice this thing up a bit) have a tendency to fly above you. This is a bit of a problem because Astyanax's jumping attack is unwieldy, to put it lightly. If I was being blunt, I'd say it was shit. Yep, I'm going with that. He moves through the air in a strange arc, which is fine and just takes a little getting used to, but you can't attack during the first half of your jump. Once you're past the apex you can go axe wild, but before you've hit your peak all you can do is move through the air. This lead to a few embarrassing incidents where I leapt toward my foe with the intention of burying my blade in their skull, only to realise that I'd jumped too early and could only watch as Astyanax, helpless and unable to attack, hopped right into the bad guy and lost some health. These magical axes really must start being more selective about who they allow to pull them out of boulders.
This stage has no boss, either. I figure Jaleco realised that if I'd slain the twin spectres of Apathy and Boredom to get this far, putting another dragon in front of me wasn’t going to slow me down any.
Happily the next stage is more interesting, as Astyanax storms a castle. Even the mix of enemies and the way they're laid out is more engaging: there are slow, powerful ogres, nimble female fencers and snipers positioned on the battlements (and you can chop their arrows out of the air, which is helpful). It's still a somewhat tedious job to hack your way through the castle. There are two ways you can play The Astyanax - you can take your time, try to lure the enemies in gradually and avoid their attacks until your axe is flaming and ready for some serious smiting, or you can move more quickly, get overwhelmed by the monstrous legions and die a lot. Neither of these options is much fun.
Jaleco, possibly aware that they'd be losing their audience by now, decided that they needed to re-engage the player's attention through a method that's time-tested and true: gratuitous nudity!
If you hit the swordswomen hard enough, their shirts fall off and they run away in embarrassment. Cheers, Jaleco - now I'm bored and I feel like a creep, playing as a warrior endowed with a mystical weapon that he uses to unbutton girls' blouses.
Time for a boss, and it's a giant wizard. I mean an actual Giant Wizard, as in a Giant who has studied the dark arts. His enormous, voluminous roves must cost a fortune. Astyanax has decreed that this wizard must die for his unspecified crimes, and the picture above shows you the best way to put paid to this foul mage's ambitions: kneel down in front of him and interact your axe with his shins. This is a surprisingly effective tactic for all the bosses, in fact. The boss only has one attack, and the whole fight feels rather reminiscent of Dracula's first form in most Castlevania games - he fires his projectile attack, (in this case some Emperor Palpatine-style lightning,) disappears for a moment, reappears in a different part of his throne room, fires his lightning, repeat until axed to death. I was genuinely surprised by how easy it was. I think this is because the wizard knows that the whole fight is meaningless, and I believe this because when you die he pops up on the continue screen to mock you via the medium of synthesised speech.
I'm not one hundred percent certain, but I think he saying "Won't you give up playing this game?" (also, "HA HA HA HA HAAA."). He definitely knows it's a game, though. There's nothing at stake, so why not gloat a little? I like this wizard. I wish he was the main character. Sadly he's dead now, but in a shocking twist his death does not signal the end of the game! Astyanax senses danger nearby and smashes through a nearby wall to find the final stage.
Hang on, what?
Does H. R. Giger know you've just jumped through a wall and into one of his paintings?
So yeah, the final stage is... inspired by the biomechanical horror of Giger's work, or more specifically his work on the Alien films. I've got to say I did not see this coming, and The Astyanax has gone a long way towards redeeming itself in my eyes with its sudden switch from a stock fantasy kingdom to ichor-dripping, bone-and-sinew freakery. If nothing else I have to appreciate the sheer balls-out cheek of directly ripping something off so thoroughly, and if I'm honest I kind of miss it in modern games, that tendency for (particularly Japanese) developers to include thinly-or-not-at-all-veiled versions of pop-culture icons in their games.
One thing that is kinda fun about the final stage is that when you die, the wizard doesn't appear on the Continue screen. Because he's dead, cause of death: your axe. I just thought that was a nice touch.
Unfortunately this stage is as short as all the others, and soon enough you'll reach the (actual) final boss.
How can I describe this guy, apart from the obvious way of going HEY LOOK A XENOMORPH? How about a little diagram instead?
It's just an Alien with stretchy arms. Arms that stretch diagonally downward, creating a safe zone right in front of the creature, a safe zone just big enough for a warrior to kneel down in without getting hurt. Alright, so he jumps around a lot and you can't just stay crouched in front of him forever, but it's the same basic "duck-and-chop" tactic that saw all the other bosses fall. It's a good job Mega Man wasn't the one who landed this mission.
And lo, with a few swings of his Magical Axe of Varying Damage Astyanax defeats the out-of-place alien from behind the castle wall and the game is over.
Looking at the size of that tower, I retract my earlier complaints about Astyanax using the lift.
I'm disappointed with The Astyanax, because I really want to like it more than I actually do. It could have been a simple-but-fun romp through a nicely-illustrated fantasy world, but the axe mechanic and the hero himself conspire to ruin the fun. Astyanax is just too slow and cumbersome (and bad at jumping attacks) to be any fun to control - if ever there was a hero who needed an emergency dodge or a back-dash or something, it's this guy.
The sudden appearance of the Boneship from Alien, or wherever the hell that stage was supposed to be taking place, means I at least feel I didn't completely waste my time with The Astyanax. Not that it would have been much time wasted, because on my second playthrough I completed the entire game in less than fifteen minutes. In conclusion: Jaleco couldn't even step up to their usual "good but not quite great" benchmark, but I'm still kinda glad I played The Astyanax if only to add "axe" to the list of things I've used to killed videogame Xenomorphs, be they licensed or otherwise. It's a surprisingly long list.