Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!



#137 – Shadowgate

Enter the castle and solve its mysteries, if you dare.

Such an inviting looking entrance.

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 10/17/19 – 10/27/19
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 5/10
My Video: Shadowgate Longplay

This is another first for Take On The NES Library.  Yes, these are still happening more than four years and over a hundred games in.  This time I have played my first NES point and click adventure game.  The only other point and click games I’ve ever really played are some of the Professor Layton games, though I like them more for the outright logic puzzles.  This kind of game is not really my style, but I was intrigued at the idea of trying one for myself.  I think Shadowgate may be the most popular NES game of this style, and it was an interesting playthrough that I enjoyed.

Shadowgate is the third game in the MacVenture series of point-and-click adventure games that were originally created for Apple Macintosh.  The MacVenture games all have a common interface design but are separate games story-wise except for the two Déjà Vu games.  While Shadowgate was the third MacVenture game released, it was the first of the three games eventually ported to the NES.  Shadowgate was first released in 1987, developed by ICOM Simulations and published by Mindscape.  It was ported to many different PCs before reaching the NES in December of 1989.  The PAL version was released in Europe in 1991.  The NES port was published by Kemco*Seika and I believe Kemco also ported the game to the NES.

Shadowgate has a basic storyline.  The evil Warlock Lord is set to bring destruction to the world by raising and releasing the Behemoth.  You play as the last of the line of kings, and per your lineage you are the only one who can stop the Warlock Lord from his evil scheme.  You start the game at the front door of Castle Shadowgate.  You will need to use your reasoning skills, as well as equipment found along the way, to infiltrate the castle and make your way through to the Warlock Lord to put a stop to his plan.  Do so, and you win the game.  But beware, there are plenty of traps and enemies along the way that are out to get you.

The first puzzle is just getting into the castle.

The MacVenture point-and-click interface seems to be well ported to the NES.  You control a hand-shaped cursor that you move around the screen with the D-pad.  The left side of the screen is the viewing window where you see the scene set ahead of you.  The cursor freely moves across this window and you can set it on top of anything you see.  The right side and the bottom of the screen contain different options for you.  These are little squares labeled with text.  The cursor snaps to these squares as you move the cursor toward them.  The programming here is good as you can move the cursor to whatever you want both efficiently and intuitively.  The A button is used to select either commands, items, or objects in the viewing screen.  The B button cancels one of the commands you have previously selected.  Both the Start button and the Select button display a hint during gameplay.

Interactions in this game utilize a verb-noun structure.  You need to select an action, your verb, and then apply it to an object, your noun.  The actions are all listed out at the bottom of the screen.  The objects are things either visible in the viewing window or in your inventory.  Select your action, then select the object you want, and see what happens.  Sometimes you need to select two objects, most commonly when you want to Use one thing on some other thing.  Actions stay selected until you choose a different one, so you can use the same command over and over quickly.

These are the commands you can perform:

Move: Lets you move from one screen to another.  This command has a small mini-map below it that is freely scrollable with the cursor.  It contains squares for each of the exits relative to their positioning in the viewing window.  Often you can Move somewhere using either the square on the mini-map or the location itself in the viewing window.

The mini-map shows entrances that aren’t immediately obvious.

Look: Lets you examine objects in the viewing window or objects you are carrying.  This gives a text description of the item in question that might give you some information on how to use that item.

Take: Lets you add an item in front of you to your inventory, which is represented by a card system in the window on the right.  Each item is on its own line and you can page through multiple cards worth of items using the Up and Down arrows in the Card section of the menu.  You also learn a few magical spells in the game which are kept on their own separate card at the end of the inventory.

Open and Close: These commands are mostly used to open and close doors, but they do have some non-obvious uses from time to time.

Use: This is primarily how you apply an item from your inventory to something in front of you.  As far as I remember it’s the only command where you have to choose what to use and what to use it on.

Hit: Smacks something!  You may want to tread carefully using this against the creatures in the castle, but there are other uses too.

Leave: You can leave an item behind.  In the right situation you can use this command to thin out your inventory.  Fortunately, you can hold as much stuff as needed.

Speak: Talk to someone!  Not everyone talks back though.

The final two options in the lower right are Self and Save.  You can use Self to perform a command on yourself, such as if you want to eat something or use an item on yourself.  You can even hit yourself if you want, the game will let you try whatever!  Save records your progress to the battery backup.  It doesn’t hurt to save often in this game.

Torches … torches everywhere.

This game also has a system involving torches.  To get anywhere in the castle you need to keep a lit torch on you at all times.  You can see two torches at the top of your inventory and how the flames are doing.  You can also point the cursor to the flame and use it just like an inventory item.  When the torches start to run low, the music switches over a very queasy tune reminding you to light up another one to keep going.  If both torches are out, it goes dark and you end up tripping to your death, every single time.  There are a finite number of torches in Castle Shadowgate, but if your torch goes dark the game gives you back a partial torch for free, so you are never locked out from completing the game.

Speaking of death, there is a lot of dying that goes on in the game.  There are plenty of creatures and traps to deal with and you can suffer a grizzly death if you do the wrong thing or aren’t careful enough.  When you die you get a visit from Death himself as you get to read the description of how you met your untimely demise.  It is fun to see all the different ways you can perish and to read all the text written about it.  Dying puts you back one screen and you will keep respawning on that screen if you die there again without leaving.  A little tip here: I put the respawning system to good use whenever I got into a room with a puzzle where I died a lot.  I would go into that room, leave the room, and kill myself somehow so that I would always respawn in the room I was trying to solve.  It saved me a little bit of time at least.

This was my first time playing through Shadowgate.  I know this was a popular game back in the day, but I didn’t own a copy until my adulthood collecting days and I didn’t bother playing past the first screen when I tested my cart.  I have owned a few extra copies of this game and I think I’ve sold them all.  It is an inexpensive game to buy, floating around in the $5-$10 range.

Tons of items, a ton of danger.

I’m sure you are wondering if I was able to complete this game without any outside help, and the answer to that is no.  I really like to give puzzles an honest effort, but I’ve also decided now that I’m getting older that I value my time more and I don’t feel bad about looking up something if I’m truly stuck and have tried everything I can think of.  Rather than looking up answers directly on an FAQ or something, I decided to try a more official approach.  There is an official Shadowgate Hint Book created by Kemco*Seika that you could mail order from a form on the back page of the manual.  It cost $5.95 plus taxes and shipping, but thankfully we have the internet so I just did a search online and downloaded a PDF scan of the hint book for free.  The structure of the hint book is quite good.  It is laid out in the form of questions roughly ordered to how you would solve those events in the game, or around where you would find an item and wonder what you could use it for later.  The book comes with three levels of hints, A, B, and C.  A hints are gentle, B hints are a little more direct, and the C ones pretty much tell you what to do.  The hints are numbered and are all mixed up as well so that you are less likely to see relevant clues for where you are stuck.  This was the only help I needed to beat this game.  I used several A hints, some B hints, and a few C ones.

It’s hard to talk more about this game without mentioning specific puzzles, so that’s what I’m going to do here.  If you still want to try this game for yourself, now is the time to look away and just skip to the end.

If I had to guess, I would say I solved 80-90% of the games puzzles completely on my own.  Some of those solutions I’m pretty proud of figuring out with only my intuition.  I solved the game’s final puzzle on my own, after re-reading the poem I found early on and piecing the parts together.  The puzzle with the sphere was pretty clever.  That’s one of the few uses for the Leave command and that’s because you need to Take the sphere back after releasing it from the ice it made with your torch.  For whatever reason the entire usage of the sphere was intuitive to me from the start.  Sometimes I solved a puzzle accidentally.  There’s a puzzle where you have to collect a flute from the top of a fountain that I think ends up killing you if you try to grab it unprotected.  You need to find and equip a gauntlet that protects you from the dangerous fountain water.  I figured out the gauntlet on my own before even getting there so the problem was already solved.  There’s also one place where you find a key under a rug that you burn away with the torch.  There are a few rugs you can burn up earlier in the castle to no effect, so it was nice to have that experimentation pay off later.

This was the first of several places where I got stuck.

Here are some of the puzzles I remembered needing significant hints on.  The first major place I got stuck was getting past the room with the high ledge that breaks when you try and climb up.  There are two torches in this room that you cannot take with you.  The secret here is you are supposed to Use the left torch on the wall, which causes you to pull on it like a lever, opening up a passage to another room.  Nowhere does the game indicate you can Use things you don’t possess, so I thought that was a little misleading.  I didn’t figure out the Epor spell because you have to Look at the writing of Epor on the wall twice.  (That spell isn’t mandatory, it turns out.)  I completely missed where you can pick up rocks to equip on your sling to take out the cyclops.  The most significant puzzle I didn’t figure out was near the end when you need to pull a set of levers in a certain order.  Several rooms back with the sphinx, there are etchings on a staircase that show the state of the levers at each move.  I know I saw something in the hint guide eluding to those etchings, but even then I didn’t bother noticing them and as a result I was completely lost on that puzzle.

Now that I’ve beaten Shadowgate, I have three observations about its structure that I hope I will be able to apply to Déjà Vu and Uninvited later in this project.  First, Shadowgate has a lot of room exits that you either cannot reach or die trying.  They are essentially fake exits.  I know I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to climb the broken ledge, or pass the dragon in the hot room, or break down the landslide in the waterfall room, among others.  The hint book helped me understand that these are simply red herrings.  Second, almost all items in the game are used exactly once, if they are used at all.  Some of the extra items were potential solutions to the sphinx’s riddle, but there were plenty of things that had no use whatsoever.  All of these things remain in your inventory.  It would have been helpful to know to stop trying to use items after they were already used.  There is one place in the game I found, the lake room, where you can toss unnecessary items.  Once you freeze the water over, there’s no other way I found to shed excess items.  That happens pretty early in the game too, limiting its usefulness.  Searching through your vast inventory for a puzzle solution becomes tedious at the end.  Third, the torch mechanic is completely useless and a waste of time.  When torches go out, you die, only to be restored with a partial torch good for a bunch of moves thereafter, and then you go back only one room.  The only good reason to light torches when low is to save you some time and avoid the annoying low-light tune.  I think the torch mechanic is unique to this game, which I certainly hope is true.

I am by no means an expert in these kinds of games, but in the end, Shadowgate was a fun experience for me and I enjoyed it, when I wasn’t stuck that is.  The presentation is really nice in this game.  The graphics are very detailed and there are a variety of rooms and settings you will come across in the castle.  The music in this game is top notch and a quality addition to the game.  The controls are excellent, giving you complete control of your cursor or locking it to the menu items when you need it.  I noticed the cursor speed slowed down intentionally in some rooms when you require more granular control.  This attention to detail is impressive for an NES game.  The puzzles in this game are mostly good.  Some were obvious, some were clever, and some were a little unfair.  It’s hard to pin a difficulty on this game, but I went down the middle with 5 because the whole game is a mental exercise with a well defined set of options.  The game becomes trivial to play when you know all the solutions to everything.  I can see why this game is more popular than I realized.

#137 – Shadowgate


#104 – James Bond Jr.

The name’s Junior … James Bond Jr.

Quite the wordy introduction

To Beat: Complete all missions twice
Played: 10/20/18 – 10/24/18
Difficulty: 6/10
My Difficulty: 6/10
My Video: James Bond Jr. Longplay

I have some strange memories around James Bond Jr., or more accurately, the idea of it.  I was only vaguely aware that there was an animated series of the same name, but I never watched it.  Ardent fans of the blog will know that a lot of that stuff passed by me as a kid.  I never played or even saw the NES game, although again, I was vaguely aware of its existence through magazines.  I didn’t know anything about the series or the game. When I got back into collecting NES games a few years ago, I must have seen the name in a list that tickled something in my brain.  The green cart label seemed so familiar though I had no real understanding of why. All I knew is that I had to have this game in my collection.  I know I was more excited to hold the game in my hands than I was to try playing it.  The human brain is a mysterious thing, isn’t it? Anyway, now that I’ve completed the game, I found it to be a mostly fun experience with some flaws holding it back.

James Bond is a character created by the writer Ian Fleming in 1953.  He is the star of many books and the longest running film series of all time, dating back to 1962.  James Bond Jr., this famous agent’s nephew, was created out of the 1967 novel The Adventures of James Bond Junior 003½, written under the pseudonym R.D. Mascott.  The author’s identity has never been clarified for sure.  There were plans to do more with the character, but they fizzled out until the idea was brought back in 1991.  James Bond Jr. the animated series ran for 65 episodes in 1991 and 1992.  This series was developed by Michael G.Wilson, Andy Heyward, and Robby London. There were also novels, comic books, and a toy line for James Bond Jr.  Of note here are the two James Bond Jr. video games, one for the NES and the other for the Super Nintendo.  James Bond Jr. on NES was released in November 1992 in the US.  It was developed by Eurocom and published by THQ. The PAL version was also released in 1992.

James Bond Jr. is a side-scrolling platformer.  You play the role of our hero as he is trying to stop the S.C.U.M. Lord over four missions.  Colonel Monty will guide you through the mission objectives.  First you must deactivate the S.C.U.M. missiles.  Next, you sneak into a complex to recover blueprints. Then you go to a weapons factory to destroy the World Domination Device.  Finally, you perform a rescue mission to save scientists, culminating in a final battle against the S.C.U.M. Lord.

This guy is huge but not that powerful.

For much of the game, James Bond Jr. uses standard controls.  You use the D-pad to move around, press A to jump, and B to fire weapons.  He can duck by holding Down.  You can use Up and Down to climb ladders or enter doorways.  The jumping in this game is long and floaty, mostly emphasizing the vertical and less so for horizontal movement.  You can control the height of your jump a little bit, but you really need a quick tap of the A button to perform small hops.  Most of the time you will do a full jump.  The B button fires your weapons.  The default is a simple gun with tiny, straight-shooting bullets. If you hold Down and press Select, you will cycle through James Bond Jr.’s weapons.

All the necessary information is at the bottom of the screen. Starting from the left, you will see the number of lives remaining and associated icon. Next to that is the currently selected weapon along with the ammo count. In the middle is your score, and underneath that is your health bar. To the right of that is a count of the number of objectives remaining in the stage. Finally, the far right shows the level timer.

The level structure straddles the line between open-ended and linear. Your task is to clear a certain number of objectives in each stage, such as disabling missiles or cracking safes. You explore the levels in search of these things and you can backtrack at will. Once you have cleared all the objectives, an exit door will appear to the next mission. The level layouts often involve branching paths, but there is typically one main path through the level with small branches that contain your tasks. There is no in-game map to help guide you, and if you miss something at the end you may have to backtrack a long way to find it. I navigated on my own just fine, though your results may vary.

Most enemies drop some kind of pickup.

There are pickups to help you out. These are sometimes found out in the open, but they are usually held by enemies. You can find an ammo box to restore your default bullet count to 99. You have unlimited bullets, but when you run out they refill slowly back up to 20. With the ammo box you go back to the max. You can pick up bombs which are a stronger, arcing weapon. Flares stun most enemies temporarily; bad guys wearing protective glasses are unaffected. A big bomb shaped like a nuke functions like a smart bomb that damages everything on screen. A James Bond Jr. head is worth an extra life. A spikey version of that head is a shield weapon. When equipped, it protects you from damage and hurts enemies by contact at the rapid cost of its ammo. You can find a clock that adds to your time. There are also two types of health-restoring hamburgers. There are a few other items that only appear in certain missions.

Each mission has at least one unique element to it, usually in the form of its mission objective. In Level 1, you disable each missile by playing a mini-game. First, locate the missile rooms and navigate up to the computer. Press Up to launch the mini-game. This one is a puzzle in the likeness of Yoshi’s Cookie. You have a four-by-four square grid of colored tiles. You can shift each row and each column around, and your task is to form the pattern shown on the right. Press A and B to point to a different row or column respectively, then press Left or Right to shift colors in a row and Up or Down to shift columns. These controls are not as intuitive as Yoshi’s Cookie’s controls, but they work well enough. These puzzles aren’t necessarily easy, but straightforward once you see how it works. One puzzle in particular is really hard until you see the trick to it.

The other thing you can do in the first level is don scuba gear. This is a pickup from certain enemies that lets you enter water. If not equipped, water hurts you like it is electricity and you bounce off it. Select the scuba gear as a weapon to wear it. You can’t attack or do much above water with it equipped, so dive right in. Underwater, use the D-pad to move either left, right, or down. Press A to swim upwards a short distance. If you need to rise, you have to tap out A many times. The B button shoots a bubble gun for underwater foes. Your air supply is shown as ammo. Using your bubble gun causes the air to deplete more quickly. To restore your air, you can find another scuba pickup or exit the water. You will find little pockets of air throughout the underwater screens that can also help. You have to tap A to float just underneath the surface which will increase your air supply. If you run out of air, then you start losing health quickly.

Who put puzzles in my action platformer?

In Level 2, your mission objective is to open safes to locate blueprints. You open these safes through another mini-game. There are four dials on the safe, each with a digit above it. Use the D-pad to highlight a dial, then press either A or B to turn the dial and change the number above it. There is a number in the middle for how many times you can attempt to open the safe. Pick a number for each dial, and then move the cursor over the door catch and press either A or B to try and open it. The individual dial numbers will glow if that is the wrong digit, and they will switch to solid gray if it is the correct number. If you don’t get the right combination, you can try again. Most of the safes hold the blueprints you need, but some hold bombs that hurt you. Unrelated to the mini-game, Level 2 is a door maze. You can sometimes see safes but need to enter the room from a different door to get access.

The objective for Level 3 is to destroy all the panels within weapon rooms. Go through the facility to search out the rooms. The targets are these wall fixtures with guns flanked on either side. You have to shoot them enough times to destroy them, and you have to break them all inside the room to consider it complete. There are other cannons and traps that get in the way, but you can leave them alone if you want. I usually clear out everything anyway for prizes. Some areas in Level 3 are unreachable without the jetpack item you can find here. Collect and equip the jetpack, then press and hold A to boost upward. Fuel depletes rather quickly. You can also press B to shoot fireballs while in jetpack mode, but this costs precious fuel. I didn’t use the fireball weapon in my playthrough.

Level 4 doesn’t have a mini-game either. You have to seek out scientists in rooms that are guarded by large enemies. Simply take out the threat to save the scientist. The potion item is another unique feature of the level, which turns you into a werewolf. This is another limited effect that consumes ammo, and this one lasts about as long as the scuba gear. As a werewolf, you can do a charge attack with B, which I found was effective against some enemies where anything else failed. You can also jump higher in this form, which is essential to reaching some rooms within the level.

Sorry doggie but you’re blocking the elevator.

Once you clear all four missions and defeat the final boss, you find out that he escaped. Then, for some inexplicable reason, you are asked to complete all four missions again to catch him for good. There’s no ending yet, and you go back to Level 1 as if nothing happened. I did not notice any difficulty increase in the second loop, but there is one difference. In the first loop, if you run out of lives, you can continue. This puts you exactly where you died with a fresh set of lives and all your equipment intact. As far as I know, you have infinite continues. Once you reach the second loop, running out of lives is Game Over and you can’t continue. There are passwords to help, with a simple format of six digits in length only zero through eight. After each stage, you receive a password. Using it puts you at the beginning of the stage with the starting amount of lives and the base equipment. The passwords do keep track of if you are on your first or second time through the game. This makes the first loop a dry run of sorts where you can figure everything out slowly without much penalty. Then the second time through you just have to remember where to go and execute properly.

This was my first time playing through James Bond Jr. I thought it might be one of the first games I sought out in the summer of 2013 when I got back into collecting, but I see I bought it later than that. I bought my first copy in early 2014 for just under $8. I bought it on eBay with a stock photo in the listing, and when I got the cart it had a terrible white smear on the plastic underneath the label. I bought a replacement copy for $10 a couple years later after I had finished collecting licensed games. I sold the messed up copy to someone on Nintendo Age. He determined that the stain came from using nail polish remover on the plastic, likely in an attempt to remove permanent marker. Pro tip: do not use nail polish remover on game carts because it will deform and discolor the plastic. The buyer ended up transplanting the label off the damaged cart onto a donor cart. I’ve never gone that far to repair a cart, and I’m not sure I ever will because it’s a little questionable to me. I guess it’s okay if all the authentic parts are there since games were assembled from a common supply of parts to begin with. James Bond Jr. is an uncommon NES cart that sells for around $25 today. I ended up with my current copy for free from prior pricing and sale of my duplicate.

My run of the game was ordinary. I spent a few days playing through the stages slowly with the passwords to get a feel for it, then I put it all together in one playthrough for my longplay video. A full run over both loops while knowing where to go took me a little over two hours, which is long for a game that only has four stages. I was lucky enough to get that kind of time the day after beating the game for the first time with passwords.

Blowing up the walls is kinda dangerous.

The first stage is the longest one, serving as the ideal implementation for what the developers were going for. There are several branching paths of several rooms each, many of them ending in the sliding puzzle games. Mini bosses are sprinkled throughout for a somewhat gentle introduction. The puzzles are well done and ramp up in difficulty aside from the one that’s a difficulty spike of its own. There’s even a boss fight at the end of the level. While the platforming and the combat later gets more challenging, the levels are shorter and less ambitious. That made the game seem easier the deeper I got.

The main flaw with James Bond Jr. is that just about every enemy in the game is a bullet sponge. The very first enemy you encounter is a mini-boss type that takes somewhere around 30 hits to defeat with the default weapon. Sadly, this is what you get for the rest of the game. Smaller enemies routinely take 10-15 bullets each before going down, and those values fluctuate all over the board. It’s good that you have unlimited bullets for your standard weapon, but the cool down period when you run out of ammo slows fights down even more. Compounding the problem is that your special weapons don’t help as much as they should. Bombs, for example, are two to three times more powerful than your standard shot, but they run out leaving you with just the pea shooter. Some items deplete rapidly, like the spike shield and the jetpack. Both are better used defensively than offensively. It feels like the game was designed this way intentionally to lengthen the experience. I think reducing enemy health would have made the game snappier and more fun to play while only decreasing the difficulty slightly. That’s a tradeoff I would have made.

I’m making a value judgment here based on limited experience and knowledge, but I’ll say it anyway. I’ve read a lot about what NES publishers were the worst in terms of the quality of games published, and THQ has some growing notoriety as the worst one. I’ve looked at the list of games from them, and from what I can tell I would agree with that sentiment. I have only played two of their games so far, the other one being Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. That game turned out to be fun, but I think James Bond Jr. is better and likely the best one of the bunch. The graphics are well drawn but a bit drab in the color department. The music is above average. The game play is varied and interesting with lots of weapons to use and several ways to play from puzzle solving to scuba diving. The controls are responsive as well. The downsides are too much enemy health and the wholly unnecessary but mandatory second loop. The good parts outweigh the bad ones since you can somewhat manage the detriments. This is a game that doesn’t stand out much but is better than you would expect.

#104 – James Bond Jr.

Astyanax Box Cover

#18 – Astyanax

Does anyone even know how to pronounce Astyanax?

The graphics are quite nice!

The graphics are quite nice!

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 2/29/16 – 3/4/16
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 5/10

With NES game prices still on the collective rise, there are plenty of inexpensive games remaining and a number of them are more fun to play than their price tag would suggest. Astyanax is a common game that runs around $5 and I think the experience here is good enough to justify the cost. It’s a bit clumsy at times, the story is pretty hokey, and it takes some time to get accustomed to the gameplay, but nevertheless I had fun with the game.

The Astyanax was released in arcades in late 1989. In Japan, the game is known as The Lord of King. It was developed by Aicom and published by Jaleco. The NES version was just called Astyanax and was released on the NES in March 1990. It was released in Europe and Japan around the same time as the US. This is the first Jaleco game covered for Take On The NES Library. Jaleco is one of the more prolific NES publishers with 22 games to their credit. Sometimes, Jaleco is also attributed as the developer for the NES game. It’s hard to say for sure who actually developed Astyanax. The NES game maintains similar mechanics to the arcade version, but it is a completely different game with a different story, levels, and bosses.

Astyanax is a side-scrolling action game. You play as a high school student named Astyanax who gets pulled into another dimension and you must save Princess Rosebud from the evil wizard Blackhorn. You are armed with a battle axe used to defeat enemies. You can also jump and use magic spells. One of the primary mechanics in this game is the power meter. The power meter determines how much damage your attacks will do. It charges up until it either reaches the max or you attack. Swinging the axe resets the power meter back to zero. The idea is that you can swing the axe constantly for little damage, or wait a little bit to perform a much stronger attack. Either approach can work depending on the situation.

Yup gotta save that princess

Yup gotta save that princess

You also have a magic meter that lets you cast three magic spells. You can switch the active spell at any time by pausing the game and selecting which spell to use. Spells are activated by holding up and pressing B just like the subweapons in Castlevania. The first spell is Bind which freezes all enemies for a few seconds. This spell is incredibly useful because it also lets Astyanax walk right through frozen enemies without taking any kind of damage or knockback. The Blast spell attacks all enemies within a pretty wide range and it costs more than the Bind spell. The Bolt spell is the most expensive spell but it does major damage to all enemies on screen.

There are also powerups you can obtain by destroying statues placed throughout the levels. Red potions recover a bit of health and blue potions fully restore health. The power supply looks sort of like a worm and it increases your maximum power meter. The wing lets you recharge your power meter faster. The axe powerup lets you change your weapon. You start off with the axe. The first powerup switches the axe for a spear, and the next one upgrades from the spear to the sword. The spear is weird in that is it pretty much a downgrade as it’s the weakest weapon. The default axe is in the middle and the sword is the most powerful. The stronger the weapon, the stronger the magic attacks are, but the tradeoff is that spells are more expensive when using stronger weapons. Sometimes it is to your advantage to carry the spear for awhile to be able to cast the Bind spell more often in order to clear tough sections of a level. Another powerup you’ll find is the fairy Cutie. She acts like your guide throughout the story segments of the game. When you find her in the levels, you can either have her refill all your magic or she will let you select which weapon you want to use. Finally, you can find a mini Astyanax figure for a 1up.

I know there's danger ahead but don't skip the powerups!

I know there’s danger ahead but don’t skip the powerups!

Astyanax has six levels and each level except for the first level has two sub-levels. The levels take place in typical locales such as a castle, the forest, the mountains, and so on. Most of the levels have you going from left to right, but a few levels are vertical. One of the later levels is a maze where you need to navigate a series of rooms while looking for the correct door in order to proceed. Along the way you will fight stronger ground enemies like skeletons or trolls as well as weaker airborne enemies like birds. There is some platforming involved as well which is pretty tricky given the onslaught of enemies. This is where plant enemies tend to appear up out of the ground and toss projectiles at you that will often knock you back into pits. The Bind spell is almost essential for these platforming portions since the spell effect usually lasts long enough to cross over all the pits ahead. If you run out of magic at any time it makes the levels quite a bit more challenging.

At the end of each sub-level you are greeted by a mini-boss. Each one is about your size and they have a lot more health than the average enemies. Some have more complicated movement patterns, some throw projectiles, and others even have magic spells that they cast against you. They are often accompanied by a full health powerup so they aren’t too difficult to deal with at full health. About half of the sub-levels follow up these fights with a real boss encounter. These bosses are much larger and they usually are as tall as the screen so they can be much more formidable just due to their size. There is no health recovery between the mini-boss and the level boss so that adds to the challenge. In a departure from most games, all the spells are equally as effective against the bosses as they are against the basic enemies. Even the Bind spell stops them dead in their tracks, so that alleviates some of the frustration. Dying against the boss is a real pain because any death sends you all the way back to the beginning of the sub-level, plus it degrades your weapon down one level. You do get unlimited continues though so you can just keep plugging away at it and make progress that way.

There is also an overarching story that is driven via cutscenes in between each level. This is very much like the Ninja Gaiden games in that you play some levels, fight a boss, and watch story cutscenes. The story itself is nothing to write home about, but it’s there and can provide a reason to keep going I guess.

Cut him in the face just like a hero

Cut him in the face just like a hero.

This was my first time playing Astyanax. I didn’t own this one as a kid but I remember reading about it in some gaming guidebooks I had. I ended up with several copies through buying game lots. That means I have had lots of opportunities to play the first three or four screens of the first stage! My first impression was that the game is really clunky. The jumping is slow and the attack is just a bit slow too. I had to play around a bit and get used to the timing, but it eventually clicked. Attacking enemies in the air is really difficult to get the hang of because you have to attack a bit earlier than you would think to make contact, and whenever the enemies are moving too it makes it all the more difficult. I got better at it but I still missed attacks a lot. Utilizing the spells makes the game so much easier. Pretty much any time I encountered a gap I would cast the Bind spell so that I could happily pass right through. I used Bind almost exclusively in the game though I made headway on some of the later bosses with the Blast spell. I didn’t use Bolt at all because I rarely had enough magic power to use it anyway.

It only took me two nights of playing to finish Astyanax. The first night was sort of a trial run to get used to the game. I spent the majority of my time clearing the first level. I found the game pretty challenging right from the start. The first stage is decently long and there was a lot of dying and restarting while I was getting used to the game. I died at the boss a couple of times and had to start all over. I think the game gets easier during Levels 2 and 3 before ramping up in Level 4 and beyond, but I believe that has more to do with getting acclimated to the controls than to the levels themselves. It was in Level 4 where I drew the line and stopped playing for the night.

I just now noticed that poor guy locked up in the background.

I just now noticed that poor guy locked up in the background.

I wasn’t able to play any NES for three nights in between my attempts. I almost didn’t play the night of my winning run either. I went to bed really early and got up in the middle of the night to do some stuff around the house. After I was done I figured what the heck, I’ll play for an hour and see what happens. I blasted through the early game without much trouble and then I decided to just go for it. The last level stumped me for awhile. That one is the maze level I mentioned earlier. I thought I had a handle on it but after awhile I realized I wasn’t actually getting anywhere. There’s a trick to the level that took me awhile to figure out and I’m a bit surprised I figured it out without any help. Even with that knowledge I still had to replay the level a few times to get through it, but that was my last real hurdle with Astyanax and I beat it soon after. I didn’t beat it in a single credit but I only had to continue twice, so that’s pretty good for my second try. The ending to the game is exceptionally cheesy too. I won’t spoil that one here! That one hour of playing turned into almost two hours but I have no regrets!

Astyanax seems to have a reputation for being a very challenging game but I found it to be right about average difficulty. The hard part is learning how to land your attacks, but the very useful spells and unlimited continues really evens things out overall. If I can clear it for the first time in a couple of days, then I think average difficulty is a pretty fair assessment. The music in the game is pretty good too. I don’t think I played it quite enough for the music to lodge itself in my brain, although I have heard the theme in the first level a few times before and I like that one.

Astyanax is a pretty good game to have on the cheap. It has nice colorful graphics and lot of large, detailed sprite work, as well as some nice music to go with it. The game plays fine too. It’s a nice little romp. I don’t think everyone will like it but at least it won’t be much of a loss in that case. I mean, I’d rather play Ninja Gaiden when choosing a game in this style, but I think most people would agree with that.

Astyanax Ending Screen

#18 – Astyanax