Paf! That's the sound of a small French man punching a Roman soldier. Get used to it, because it'll be cropping up a lot in today's game - Core Design's 1993 Megadrive these-Romans-are-crazy-em-up Asterix and the Great Rescue!
For those of you who don't know about Asterix - most European readers can skip this bit - it's a French comic book series, created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, that chronicles the adventures of the last village in ancient Gaul to remain unconquered by the Roman empire.
The indomitable village remains unconquered because Getafix, the village's druid, can brew a magic potion that grants anyone who drinks it superhuman strength. This is helpful for battering Romans, and the majority of the Roman-battering action falls to the village's two heroes, Asterix and Obelix.
Asterix (the little one) is shrewd, brave and gets the job done using a combination of brains and potion-infused brawn. Obelix (the big one, but definitely don't call him fat) fell into a cauldron full of the potion as a baby, and as a result is permanently super-strong. He's also super-dense, but well-meaning and cheerful. Together they travel the ancient world from Britain to Egypt, meeting the likes of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra while engaging in all manner of hi-jinks, comical adventures, Latin jokes and repeated brutality against this one really unlucky group of pirates.
I adored Asterix as a kid, where it served as an excellent bridge between kid's books and adult reading, with a wonderfully delicate English translation and beautiful artwork. Hell, even into adulthood I've been known to cry "come to my arms!" when sufficiently liquored up.
So, it's an early-Nineties console game based on something I loved as a kid. There is no way this is going to end without me being lacerated by the cruel shards of my broken dreams, is there?
Here's the map screen, and as you can see Asterix and Obelix will be travelling all over Europe in order to... hang on, what's happening? Oh, right, Getafix has been kidnapped and our heroes are out to rescue him. Not quite as compelling as saving a princess, but I suppose we have to keep that magic potion flowing.
Something else you might notice on the map screen is Asterix's portrait, where he he looks positively demonic.
I don't know why he's leering out of the screen like a street punk from an eighties exploitation film, but I think I'd better put him in front of some Romans before he starts taking his sinister urges out on poor Obelix.
This is the opening stage, and at first glance there are reasons to be optimistic. It's a colourful and accurate representation of the Gaulish village, Asterix himself looks hale and hearty and there's a Roman inexpertly disguised as a tree, just waiting to get paf-ed. So I walked from left to right, jumped around a bit and punched the Roman until he flew off screen because yes, shockingly enough Asterix and the Great Rescue is a platformer. Well, at least that means I shouldn't have any problems figuring out what I'm supposed to be doing, he said like a great fat idiot.
Indeed, the first stage posed no problems, and almost as soon as it had started I had reached the potion that marks the stage's goal. I really do mean "as soon as it started," too, because this first area is only about four screens long and you can get through it in the time it takes to let out an unusually brief sneeze.
Huts? Rooms? I have no idea what's going on, but let's press ahead and give Obelix a chance to shine in the second stage.
Platforms, chasms, leaping fish, collectable coins, crabs that have seen something in the sky that's shocked them into mid-snip paralysis - all things that are immediately familiar to anyone who has ever played a platform game before, and at the start that seems to be the well-worn path that Asterix and the Great Rescue is meandering along. Soon, however, the game's quirks become apparent.
Firstly, there are magic potions for our heroes to collect and use. Not the magic potion, because Asterix seems to have super-strength all the time and Obelix is, you know, Obelix, but a variety of other magical unguents to help them traverse the stages. The one pictured above creates a small cloud that can be used as a platform when thrown against a solid object, and there are exploding potions for breaking walls and attacking enemies, potions that make your character float and a potion that disguises Asterix for a few moments so that enemies won't bother him.
That's fine with me, it adds in a bit of a puzzle element. That'll hopefully break up the tedium of the platforming, which I can already tell after one and a half stages is going to be functional, solid and utterly unexciting.
Another point of interest: these stages are short. Really short, with some of them giving you as little as a minute to complete them. Every stage is timed, and they are not generous with the clock. That's okay, though, because the puzzling seems to be on the light side and I'm Obelix so I can just batter all the Romans aside while collecting their helmets and commenting on how crazy they are.
That's what would happen in theory, anyway. As it turns out, both Asterix and Obelix's punches have all the range of an anvil being fired from an elastic band, as you can see in the picture above. To hit anything you have to be so close to it that many cultures would consider you a married couple afterwards, and as the Romans tend to move around a lot you're going to be taking a lot of collision damage simply because your punches require split-second timing to connect.
Like a distant oil tanker spilling its cargo into the sea, you can see that these problems are quickly going to congeal into an unpleasant, sticky mess of a game, and so it proves about six stages in when the game produces such a vast, vertiginous wall of difficulty that even the most experienced Sherpa would look at it and say "fuck that." Having apparently left the Gaulish village and ended up in a huge brick building where the Romans store all their man-sized flaming torches and faulty iron-smelting equipment, Asterix and Obelix are tasked with making it through this maze of a stage under a ridiculously strict time limit and no opportunity for forward planning.
To progress, you must learn the exact route you need to take, and then follow that path precisely and without falling into one of the many traps that line the route, because any lost time will cause you to fail and lose a life. You won't pass it first time, that's for sure, and I nearly gave up playing Asterix and the Great Rescue after I ran out of time with the final potion in sight.
Maybe switching to the other character will help, I thought, but then I quickly discounted such notions because Asterix and Obelix are functionally identical. They can jump the same height, they take and dish out the same amount of damage, their walking speeds are equally slow and leaden and come on the exit's right there you lazy French bastards. They're not identical, though. Asterix is small enough to walk through some passages that Obelix has to crawl through. There is no reason to ever play as Obelix, unless you get some kind of perverse amusement from seeing a man of his grand stature taking damage from a dandelion seed. Yes, really.
The problem isn't that the game is difficult - the problem is the way that it's difficult. All the basic errors that make an action game frustrating to play put in an appearance, from blind jumps to new mechanics being thrust upon you without any hint about how they work, to elements that behave differently each time you interact with them. Is this platform going to fall or not when you jump onto it? Who the hell knows. You'll just have to try it and remember the outcome. Then do that for every platform in the stage. Then do it for each of the fifty-or-so stages in the game. Then tear your clothes off and run screaming out into the rain, railing against the pointlessness of it all even as the police tase you over and over again.
Enough ranting for now, because it's time for the first boss. It's the village bard, Cacofonix! Those of you who used your knowledge of linguistics to deduce from Cacofonix's name that he's a bloody awful bard, congratulations. He is indeed a painfully bad singer, and that makes up the core of his boss battle. Cacofonix stands at the top of the screen, singing his deluded little heart out, and you have to avoid the deadly musical notes he spews out until a man carrying a shield runs by, allowing you to stand on the shield and throw fish at Cacofonix until he shuts up. See what I mean about new mechanics just being thrown at the player? I never had to throw a fish before, and I never will again. Still, compared to some of the later area this is wonderfully intuitive and I had no trouble stopping Cacofonix's mad warbling with a haddock to the face.
That's how Asterix and the Great Rescue works, then. Six "worlds" made up of several short, semi-puzzle-like stages with a boss fight at the end. I suppose I had better show you around the rest of them, starting with the Roman Encampment that Asterix and Obelix are so gleefully destroying.
Ah yes, that famous architectural style found in Roman fortifications throughout the empire. You know, the one they copied from a Sylvanian Families play set.
Alright, so that's a little harsh. One thing I can't fault this game for are the graphics, which are clean and bouncy throughout. I wouldn't go as far as saying they're like the comic books come to life or anything, but they're above average.
Also finding itself in the crosshairs of the VGJunk Praise-Cannon is world two's music, a pleasingly goofy march (complete with footsteps) that honestly does a good job of capturing the slightly dopey militarism of the Romans of Asterix, sounding both triumphal and also like the soundtrack to a overweight clown in full makeup walking to the dole office.
In fact, the soundtrack as a whole is one of Asterix and the Great Rescue's better features, maybe even its best feature, and that alone made the painful experience of playing the bloody thing just about worth it.
An example of the above: just as I was warming to the game, thanks to the much lower difficulty level than the previous stages and the music, I encountered a catapult.
Well, this is easy enough to figure out - jump into the catapult and be propelled across the level. Great! Hop in, Obelix!
The catapult duly launches you into the air, up to a previously unreachable platform. That platform on the bottom right, in fact. Can you see a problem with that platform? That's right, there's a bloody legionary on it, and as you can't alter the path of your flight once you're in the air, there's no way to avoid hitting him and taking damage. I tried it several times, both with Asterix and Obelix, and each time I was unavoidably docked some health simply for using the mandatory catapult. Unavoidable damage is really starting to become a pet peeve of mine, but it seemed even worse in this case. That legionary just had Obelix fly through the air and land on him. He should be dead, not poking me with his spear.
I never thought I'd be writing this, but I've already made a joke about The Castle of Otranto in a different article, so I'll have to settle for saying "blimey, I'd hate to see the Roman who needs a helmet that big." Obelix is looking miffed because he can't add it to his collection. I'm miffed because I know I'm going to end up falling into that lava.
Did I mention that the collision detection in this game is of... variable quality, to say the least? The kicking horses animations seem to have nothing much to do with where their hitboxes are, and the Roman soldiers frequently seem to take up much more space than their sprites imply. I can't say I'm surprised by this, given that Core seem to have managed to get every other aspect of the gameplay just that little bit wrong.
At least the boss works as intended. No big surprises here - the fort in the background catapults boulders at you, and you have to stand beneath them and punch them back at the fort. You'll notice that even the boss fights have a time limit, so there's no time to wait for the perfect opportunity. You've really got to get in there and throw yourself upon the mercy of Asterix and Obelix's extremely short-range punches. Will you get flatted by a rock or will you swat it back? Who the hell knows. All I know is that I'm ready to move on to...
...The Forest! That's right, a platform game that didn't start with a forest level. I take back everything I said about Asterix and the Great Rescue's lack of originality, this is a shining moment of innovation in the sixteen-bit era.
Pictured here: Obelix about to take damage from a dandelion seed. I know, I know, Superman Syndrome, it's hard to transfer Obelix's characteristics directly into a videogame and all that, but Core could have at least used this kind of thing to make Asterix and Obelix play anything other than identically. Asterix could have been faster and more agile, while Obelix has more health and cannot be harmed by drifting spores. Nothing like this was included in the game.
Here's an example of the kind of unavoidable, unknowable bullshit that Asterix and the Great Rescue will throw at you. See those three blue flowers? They're platforms. Two of them are stable, but one of them will plummet off-screen the moment you set foot on it. Can you tell which one will fall? No, that's right, you can't, and I'm faced with I Wanna Be The Guy levels of frustration before I can escape this forest.
Oh look, a stage where you ride floating leaves through a world of cobwebs and cartoon spiders. I know what you're thinking, and I'm thinking it too - this level was much more fun when I played it in Castle of Illusion.
It probably goes without saying, but Castle of Illusion is a far superior game to this.
Then, just as I think that I've seen all the bad decisions that the developers had up their sleeves, I'm dropped into the boss fight. Literally dropped, and then instantly killed. Drop in again, die instantly again. The problem here is logs.
That GIF is a real-time representation of this boss fight. You're dropped onto the log, which immediately, and with no clue what you're supposed to be doing, flies off screen and kills you. Nothing in the preceding stages has worked anything like this, and in the end I actually had to look up what to do in order to continue. It turns out for that for this boss fight and this boss fight alone, the game turns into Track and Field. To win, you have to hold right on the D-pad and hammer the buttons as fast as possible. Then you'll move to the right and win, assuming you've dedicated your life to training the muscles of your right arm through a gruelling exercise regime. Again, this is not explained to you anywhere in the game. I'll cut Core some slack if it's mentioned in the manual somewhere, but even so it's poor form.
I managed it eventually, and once I'd taken an hour or two to let my fingers recover I pressed on into Germany. I didn't need this screen to tell me I was in Germany, because Core kindly scattered plenty of visual clues around the stage.
Clues like these rotating Iron Crosses. Good job there's not a stage set in Britain, it'd be even harder to navigate platforms in the shape of spinning tea cups and crumpets. Oh, and because this is Germany, there's a stage made entirely from sausage.
I wouldn't say it's the wurst stage, but that might be the most painful pun I've ever made.
That's pretty much it for Germany. It only has five stages, compared to the twelve-or so of most worlds, and it doesn't even have a boss.
According to it's title screen, the next world takes place on a Roman galley, a galley of course being a type of ship.
Yep, that definitely looks like a Roman galley. It's the snowman that does it.
By this point, Asterix and the Great Rescue has lost any pretence of cohesion, the developers seemingly getting as bored of it as I am and slapping random levels together on a wildly varying difficulty curve and with no apparent theme. I'm convinced that this snow stage was supposed to be part of Germany and Core accidentally put the world transition in the wrong place.
There are at least a few areas set on a boat. That eagle's putting one hell of a shift in, lifting Obelix like that. I should probably forgive it for dropping me down a hole with no warning. Poor thing probably had a massive coronary in mid-flap.
The boss is a crocodile who pops up out of the water and tries to eat you. To defeat it, you have to get behind it and punch it in the back of the head. In fairness, this sounds exactly like something Obelix would do, and the nonchalance with which he smacks the croc is nicely in keeping with the source material.
The final world is Rome, the Eternal City, cradle of European civilisation and base camp for a race of intergalactic settlers who have disguised themselves as mopeds in order to blend in. Mark my words, Italy will be the first to fall when the Scooterians rise up to claim our planet.
Rome is probably the best of the worlds, the most enjoyable to play with a few interesting stages and a more stable difficulty level. The middle worlds feel superfluous and disjointed, but Rome does seem to have a consistent theme and even some things that are just plain, well, Roman, like the aqueduct in the first stage.
Another interesting stage is this one, which takes place on a banquet table. I have no idea whether Asterix is supposed to have been shrunk, or whether those are some truly enormous Romans throwing food at me, but it's a nice change of pace. It's also possibly the easiest stage in the game beside the very first one, which should give you an idea of just how unbalanced the difficulty level is.
Speaking of difficulty, there's a Game Genie code out there that lets you freeze the timer. If you plan to play this game, use that code. It make the experience a hundred times more enjoyable, turning the game from a crazed dash to beat the clock into a relatively respectable platforming romp, albeit one full of baffling design decisions.
Here's the final boss, and Julius Caesar himself has turned out to watch two tigers try to take on Asterix. Much like the crocodile fight, you just have to wait for them to poke their heads out and then punch them. I don't care what game it is, I can't be completely negative about a game that lets you punch a tiger in the mouth. That kind of thing is what videogames are made for.
Getafix is rescued, and your reward is this shot of the Gauls celebrating with a feast. Cacofonix is, as always, tied to a tree lest he start singing. All is well in the indomitable Gaulish village, which is fine for Asterix and Obelix but I feel terribly drained after all this. Asterix and the Great Rescue is a tiring experience, a fairly decent platform game suffocating under a heavy blanket of awful design decisions, incoherent aesthetics and some truly pulverising difficulty spikes. Turn the clock off and take it slowly and you'll get more fun out of it, but there are plenty of Megadrive platformers more deserving of your attention.