Astyanax wasn't always such a boring game. It was worth playing for a very short time back in 1990, perhaps after you'd come down from Super Mario Bros. 3 or Ninja Gaiden II. A port of Jaleco's barbarian-fantasy arcade title, Astyanax may have been clumsy and tedious, but it didn't look half bad for an 8-bit Nintendo game. Its cinema sequences, which deliver a generic tale of a normal high-school kid warped to a medieval fantasy world, were entertaining in an era where games seldom had stories, and even a flat conversation between a displaced teenager and his fairy-girl sidekick could captivate us. How naïve we were.
Nothing helps Astyanax now. The visual appeal is gone, the gameplay seems even more repetitive, and the narrative has grown far more hackneyed and slow. Astyanax remains notable only for its catchy title screen music. And its ugly cover art.
Unpronounceable as it may have been to American kids, Astyanax had an even less convenient Japanese title: The Lord of King. It's not a translation glitch; on the original flyers for the arcade release, “The Lord of King” sits there in plain English, free of kanji subtitles. The coin-op flyer is important for another reason, as it provided the box art for the game's Famicom port.
This cover might work if someone made a live-action Castlevania movie starring Tom Berenger, but for Astyanax, it's . . . inadequate. There's our title hero, wearing a grimace fit for a Ninja Turtle and hefting a torch with a bloated, out-of-focus arm nearly as thick as his torso. He also seems unaware that he's set his hair on fire, as it'll take a while for the flames to eat through his coiffure. That leaves more time for manful grimacing.
Those who've played the Famicom/NES version of Astyanax will recall that the game was significantly different from its arcade original. The graphics were altered and the hero changed from a faceless barbarian to a bland high school student. (Neither is faithful to the Homeric Astyanax, who died an infant during the fall of Troy.) Jaleco's American branch noticed this discrepancy and decided that they needed a more accurate box illustration.
Their efforts resulted in a rosy-cheeked, wavy-haired Astyanax wearing a modest schoolgirl's skirt while kneeing a dragon in the crotch, a tactic that seems to have shocked the creature to the point where our hero can grab its arm for some convenient slicing. The drifting yellow haze in the background may be there purely for effect, but I could see it convincing some children that Astyanax is, in fact, killing an evil Puff the Magic Dragon. Green scales shall fall like rain.
Is this cover good? No. Is it accurate? Surprisingly, yes. Astyanax looks almost exactly as he does in the game, with a Shazam-like “A” added to his chest for that frat-sweater charm. The dragon is the first level's boss, and the backdrop includes the captive Princess Rosebud and Asty's fairy helper. I think her name's "Cutie," but I hope I'm wrong. I used to like this game, after all.
Next: Lost in the Gaming Market.