Now for the tale of three axe ‘em ups.
Tokuhiro Takemori is credited with designing a handful of games around the late 80’s/early 90’s. Amagon was a run ‘n gun that could become a run ‘n punch thanks to an interesting transformation mechanic… but it was not all that fun to actually play. A similar “transformation based” game worked a lot better with Avenging Spirit, but, unfortunately, it appears that was Takemori’s last game as a director. And before all that, there was RoboWarrior, which was primarily a Bomberman/Blaster Master kind of a top down adventure that failed to turn any heads. But if you are looking at the oeuvre of Tokuhiro Takemori, you need to look at the weapon that dominated three (maybe 2.5) of his greatest creations: the axe.
But before we get to the axe, let us look to the buster. Many claim that the “mega buster” that was introduced in Mega Man 4 ruined the Mega Man franchise. And, while it did lead to very different gameplay from its predecessors, it is important to remember its place in gaming history. Want to know the greatest weapon in the 80’s kid’s arsenal? It was never the power glove, it was always turbo. The greatest action games of the NES all required a whole lot of b-button hammering, so a turbo button that allowed for the fastest shots on the block was the key to victory. Contra, Mega Man 1-3, and even Super Mario (with his iconic fireballs) could all be conquered through liberal use of a turbo button. Mega Man 4’s “stop and charge shot” may have mucked up what seemed to previously be perfect gameplay, but it also meant that toggling on “turbo” did not mean an instant victory. Metal blades are not the answer anymore, children!
Three years earlier, Tokuhiro Takemori applied this same thinking to an axe. The Legendary Axe was an early TurboGrafix-16 title that was exactly what it said in the title. You are Gogan! Who kinda looks like Amagon! Who already looked like Tarzan! And you must rescue your Jane, Flare, from the clutches of the nefarious Jagu, a half man, half monster that is a generally offensive “witch doctor”. It is all very “jungle adventure”, and the monsters that inhabit this land are mostly Heart of Darkness stereotypes like spear-tossing orcs, or angry birds and/or bears. The boss of level 2 is just straight up a large, rolling rock, so… yeah… Gogan’s adventure is a bit unremarkable.
But! Gogan wields the magical axe Sting, and you’re going to remember Sting for every breath you take. Swinging the titular legendary axe could be your typical 8-bit “hammer that axe” situation, but Sting charges strength between every blow. Swing wildly, and you will do a lot less damage than if you just waited a moment for the legendary axe gauge to climb to its apex. Yes, this absolutely means that there was a game in 1988 where you could work out proper damage-per-second calculations to accurately slay a boulder! And there are powerups along the way that increase Sting’s charge rate and the maximum strength of Sting’s attack, so there is a baby’s first leveling system, too!
With one simple mechanic, The Legendary Axe made some revolutionary changes to the face of action games.
The Legendary Axe was well-received, but it was well-received on a system that was an eternal loser to big ol’ Nintendo. Additionally, this revolutionary system was married to a game that did practically nothing to distinguish itself from any other generic action game available. Was Kabuki Quantum Fighter revolutionary? No, but you damn well remember that dude whipping his hair around. Gogan was so forgettable, I had to check an earlier paragraph to confirm I properly recalled his name. If there was some way to marry the gameplay of The Legendary Axe to a plot that actually stuck in a player’s brain…
Enter The Astyanax, an arcade game released a year later. The Astyanax features much the same gameplay as The Legendary Axe, now complete with an axe that glows with flames when fully charged. It also added a “screen crush” magical attack that could be empowered through pickups, and… that’s about it. From a gameplay perspective, The Astyanax is almost an exact clone of The Legendary Axe, albeit with more straightforward levels more suited to the arcade.
But The Astyanax has one thing The Legendary Axe never achieved: something memorable. The first boss in The Legendary Axe is a bear (or two), the first boss in The Astyanax is some manner of caterpillar-scorpion. The second stage features a fight in the shadow of a floating island, followed by climbing aboard (and murdering everything on) said floating island. A two headed hydra guards an elevator inhabited by bloody skeletons that rises to a fight with a cyclops. And then you finally battle the wizard that is clearly behind all of this…
Only to find that it was all the plot of xenomorph aliens from the hit movie Alien. No, seriously! It’s weird!
The Astyanax does not explain itself in any way. We open with a scene of heroic Roche claiming a legendary axe, and we know Roche is trying to kill a wizard because said wizard will not stop taunting you on every continue screen. After said wizard is axed, those aliens pop up, but we still end with a shot of the wizard’s tower crumbling into the lake. Were the aliens really behind everything? Were all the mythological monsters creeping about the result of alien breeding? Did the wizard just punch through reality too hard trying to score a sexy lady minion? We have no idea! We just know that Roche beat up some monsters of dubious origins but good, and the day is presumably saved.
A year later we saw Astyanax (no “the”). A year later we received a Nintendo cartridge that couldn’t shut up.
In some ways, Astyanax is the inevitable arcade-to-NES step down from The Astyanax. There is an attempt to make our hero (now outright named Astyanax) bigger than other 8-bit heroes, but he takes up way too much of the screen. There is now an emphasis on platforming (or at least platform… hopping?), and a bevy of instant death pits do not work well with knock-back, slowly spawning monsters, and limited lives. And big, scary, interesting bosses return, but they necessitate the NES dropping any and all backgrounds for these battles, so enjoy fighting Medusa in the gaping void.
But where Astyanax falters in gameplay, it more than overcompensates with talky-talk. Cinema scenes reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden tell the story of a teenage schoolboy that is transported to a magical land, instantly gains armor, an axe, and a magical fairy, and then battles a legion of skeletons in order to rescue a princess from an evil wizard that is also a remarkably poorly animated dragon. Over the course of Astyanax’s adventure, Cutie the fairy sacrifices her life to break the curse of a magical general, but, when Astyanax saves the day and is sent back to his mundane world, Cutie is reincarnated as a teenage girl. This seems important, even if the princess is bored with it.
Xenomorphs are probably not involved, either. There’s one weird boss in Level 3 that appears to be some manner of alien, but it could just be, like, a particularly ugly monster. Whatever. Nobody talks about it.
So what is most important in Tokuhiro Takemori’s charging-your-axe trilogy? Well, the gameplay of The Legendary Axe is pretty great, but it is a clear first attempt, and its various opponents and locales are trivial. Astyanax for the NES has a remarkable story and bestiary, but the gameplay suffers in its translation to “Nintendo hard”. It seems like The Astyanax blends the charge-an-axe gameplay best with memorable locations and opponents. Oh! And you get a shield! It barely does anything, but it is unique to the arcade version, so it looks like The Astyanax is the winner.
So remember, kiddies, if you’re going to revolutionize action gameplay, include a shield. It worked for Roche, it worked for Alucard, and it can work for you!
FGC #614 Astyanax
- System: Technically, ROB chose the Nintendo Entertainment System version, but there was the arcade game, and The Legendary Axe was a TurboGrafix-16 jaunt.
- Number of players: The arcade version gets an unnamed, possibly-a-ghost second player. But the NES version is strictly solo.
- Straying from the Light of God: Technically, Astyanax on the NES can “upgrade” his axe to a spear and a sword. However, the spirit of a chargeable axe is still there, so let’s just pretend he sticks to one pointy object.
- What’s in a name? The Astyanax is known as The Lord of King in Japan. I guess it’s a King Arthur thing? The Astyanax is the one game in this trilogy where you’re not rescuing a princess, so the presence of royalty is wholly unwarranted. “Astyanax” still means “high king”, though, and is the name of a prince from The Illiad.
- Familiar Faces: The skeleton general that ultimately causes the death of Cutie really resembles a certain skull-faced fellow from Willow. This may be a coincidence of the time, but I feel like I haven’t seen a skelly-general since…
- Goggle Bob Fact: I received this (NES) game as a gift from my grandmother one Christmas Eve. It was chosen with the very particular criteria of “you like Nintendo games, right? Here’s a Nintendo game.” Regardless, since it was a Christmas Eve gift, and not actual-Christmas, I remember staying up “waiting for Santa” by playing Astyanax for six continuous hours. I am moderately sure I made it to the third level.
- Did you know? Some risqué rewards are available in the arcade’s fifth level, as you can “strip” some female monsters of their chest plates, and watch them run around while trying to cover their chests. Brings a whole new meaning to an arcade “attract” mode. This, of course, did not appear on the NES, where the Medusa boss received a breast reduction when being localized. Guess that’s another Castlevania parallel.
- Would I play again: The arcade version is a firm maybe. The Legendary Axe is a bit too hard once you reach the fourth level, and I do not feel like “memorizing” how to deal with an assault of fish people ever again. Astyanax for the NES is absolutely not happening, because screw Cutie, your life isn’t worth that many instant death pits. Go get a job with Link or something.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Cruisin’ Blast for the Nintendo Switch! Let’s go cruiiiiiiising! Please look forward to it!
Can’t imagine why I’m thinking about Tarzan…