Updated: Dec 28, 2021
The Astyanax (known as The Lord of King in Japan) is a 2D action adventure game that was created by Japanese developer Aicom and released to arcades in various territories by Jaleco in 1989. According to Wikipedia, these are:
21st December - Japan
8th March - North America
13th July - Europe
The man most directly responsible for the creation of the game is Tokuhiro Takemori, who acted as both producer and director. Before The Astyanax, Takemori had already worked on Legendary Axe, a game that shares some similar gameplay mechanics, the details of which we'll discuss later on in this review. Sadly, Takemori does not seem to have worked on any games after 1991.
An NES version was released in 1990 featuring different levels and a completely changed backstory; it is beyond the scope of this article, although I might visit it at some point in the future.
I am not certain there's much of a plot to The Astyanax. There's an intro cutscene of sorts showing a blonde, long haired man striking a triangular shaped pile of rocks with his axe. This unleashes some kind of magical power that transforms him into the sort of hero that would make He-Man blush.
I'll just hit this pile of rocks for some reason...
That's pretty much the set-up, and so far so generic. The hero is your typical barbarian looking character that's been done many times before. More egregiously, he's not given a name. However, I assume he's some kind of legendary hero figure (the releasing of the magical power from the pile of stones has echoes of King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone) plus the name Astyanax comes from Greek mythology.
I have the power! Oh, wait...
In any case, our plucky hero is thrust into an epic quest to rid the land of the varied and deadly monsters that have overrun it. To do this, he must journey through forests, caves, lakes and ultimately a large castle, killing everything in sight with his mighty Fire Axe. The ultimate goal is to kill the man directly responsible for the evil roaming the land, a powerful wizard that wants to take over the world, and why not.
He-Man, eat your heart out!
Update: according to a translation of the Japanese flyer, the hero's name is Roche, the wizard's name is Argos and the castle is called Algerine. You can have a look at the flyer here. Amazingly, the game itself doesn't tell you any of this.
I'll divide this section into two parts, the presentation of the game itself and the package that the Arcade Archives edition provides as a whole.
The in-game presentation is very simple. The first screen you see is the title screen: the game's logo dominates the centre portion of the screen; the company's logo occupies the bottom-centre of the screen. I was expecting this screen to have some background music, but surprisingly it doesn't.
The title screen...
You're then taken to the credit select screen, and here you can add as many credits to the same as you wish. This is strictly a no frills affair, with different coloured text displayed over a black screen. Credits are added with the left bumper, and each one added makes a ding sound.
Choose the number of credits wisely...
You're then taken to the aforementioned intro cutscene; this again takes place against a black background. There's no music, only a loud thunder sound effect when the character is transformed into the legendary hero.
Couple of other things that are worth mentioning. After defeating an end of level boss, you get a nice screen where you see the hero dispose of said boss in a cool way, see the screenshot below for an example:
Cool looking image of Roche beating a boss... He takes no prisoners...
At the end of the game, you get a colourful outro cutscene (that includes the end credits) with some suitably triumphant music.
Beating the game leads to a nice outro cutscene followed by the end credits...
The player is then treated to the "GAME OVER" screen. This is again played over a black screen.
The "Game Over" screen... quite self-explanatory...
Finally, let's talk a little bit about the in-game HUD. This is divided into two parts. Across the top of screen you have the Player 1 score, the overall High score and the Player 2 score. Directly below the High Score number is the timer that tells the player how much time they have left to complete the Stage. During boss battles as well, an icon showing the boss's head along with its heath bar appears immediately to the right of the timer; the health bar seems to consist of many red jewels. In the bottom right of the screen you have a scroll that displays the following information:
Player's health - the player has a total of four health nodes
Power bar - this shows how charged up the Fire Axe is (more on this in the GAMEPLAY section)
Magic attack - the small square icon to the right of the health and power bar shows if/how many arrow heads a player has collected for the lightning force magic attack. A black square means that none have been collected
Finally, the bottom-right of the screen shows how many credits are left.
Kali ma, shakthi deh!
So that's everything regarding the in-game presentation. Regarding the overall Arcade Archives offering you get a fairly reasonable package that includes a few versions of the game, including the Japanese and International versions of the game that I played through for this review. You also get High Score and Caravan Modes, but I haven't tested those yet.
The main screen upon booting up the game...
Once you've selected the version of the game you want to play, you're treated with a nicely laid out controls table, which is another useful feature that Arcade Archives package includes.
The controls screen...
Overall, it's a fairly decent presentation, and I'm not sure what could have added to make the experience even more complete, apart from perhaps adding archival material related to the game's creation and release.
The graphics in The Astyanax are very impressive; indeed they are one of the game's main strengths. The sprites are nicely detailed and big; the monster designs are generally very well done, with the boss creatures being a particular standout. In general, there is a decent variety of enemies, including preying mantises, bats, skeletons, armoured warriors, humanoid looking frogs, gargoyles, archers, cyclopes and more. Some enemies are taken directly from various world mythologies. The cyclopes for example are taken from Greek mythology. The second level boss is taken from Eastern mythology, although the battle itself is actually inspired by 1974's The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
A nice stroll through the forest...
For some reason as well, some of the enemies remind me of Konami's arcade version of Castlevania, Haunted Castle. Stage 4 for example introduces a type of red skeleton that comes back to life after being struck down, in similar fashion to the enemies in that game, The skeletons also seem to be inspired by the classic 1963 film, Jason and the Argonauts. With regards to animations, these are fluid and smooth for the most part, though hardly revolutionary or ground-breaking.
The red skeletons remind me of Haunted Castle...
The big winner in the graphics department are the areas you visit in the game; the environments are not too big in terms of size, but they're varied, lush and colourful. For example, Stage 1 takes you through a deep, dark forest, past a ruined temple, over a waterfall, then into some caverns and beyond; at first the sky is bright and clear and sunny, but as you progress, it turns an ominous green; the forest gives way to distant mountains, and trees that stood tall and upright at the start of the level, become twisted and draped in vines. In Stage 3, distant green mountains are seen reflected on lake in the background while enemies are seen swimming in the foreground, trying to get up onto the bridge to kill you; by the end the mountains have turned into mere silhouettes and the sky seems to be on fire. Other levels don't offer the same kind of variety but are still nicely done (I particularly like the stained glass windows in Stage 5). In terms of music, each of the six stages boasts a different but equally memorable rocking score. The end of level bosses also have their own musical cues, and these complement the action well. The sound effects are functional at best, but don't detract from the overall experience.
Now we get to the meat and bones of the article. As mentioned above, The Astyanax (or The Lord of King in Japan) is a 2D hack and slash action adventure game, and it plays exactly how you would expect for a game of this type: the hero makes his way through several stages, dispatching enemies and fighting end of level bosses. So nothing too complicated.
You sure you want to go through that door?
Let's talk mechanics first. In terms of movement, Roche controls in eight ways using either the d-pad or left stick. He can jump using the B button and swing his weapon of choice, the Fire Axe, using the Y button. Roche can even use magic: pressing the A button unleashes a lighting force attacks that devastates all enemies in the way, assuming enough arrow heads have been collected. On the whole, the controls are tight and responsive, and I had no major problems with them.
More mechanics include destroying the small, rectangular pillars that come out of the ground at regular intervals during a level. These can reveal the following:
Pink jewels -restore Roche's health nodes (as mentioned above, he has four health nodes), and getting hit by an enemy depletes these
Arrow heads - Roche's can collect up to four of these for a powerful magic attack, the aforementioned lightning force attack; the fewer the arrow heads, the weaker the magic attack will be
Shields - very useful for blocking enemy attacks. They will crumble upon being hit several times, however, so Roche will periodically need to find replacements
Jewels - Roche can also pick up different coloured jewels, but these are mainly for topping up a player's points score
Pick up pink jewels to restore your health...
Another mechanic to look out for is the the Fire Axe's power bar, shown in the bottom-left of the screen. Hacking away at enemies will deplete the axe's power bar, and it will deal less damage to them. Leave it to charge, however, and the Fire Axe lives up to its name: it actually becomes alight with fire, and blows deal significantly more damage. The only issue is that there are normally quite a few enemies on screen, which means that fully powering up the Fire Axe is very tricky. Personally, however, I did not find this to be too much of an issue. Another note on the Fire Axe. There seems to be collision detection on all of the axe head. This means that if an enemy tries to hit you from above or behind you, chances are that you will hit it as long as you're swinging the axe in the opposite direction. This is very cool, although it doesn't seem to work on enemies that are directly behind you.
Destroying columns can reveal hidden goodies...
Let's talk about more general gameplay matters. The game is quite generous when it comes to adding credits. Players can add credits at the start of the adventure and at any time during the game as well by pressing the L button. Should players die during the game (Roche has three lives), pressing R will use up a credit, and Roche will pick up where he left off. I should also point out that credits are unlimited in this game.
Never give up... use another credit and proceed with your quest...
Few more comments on the gameplay. The combat itself is quite satisfying, if a little simplistic. Those looking for something a little more in depth might do better to look elsewhere, although I would say that the ability to use magic attacks coupled with the Fire Axe power bar mechanic do add some depth and variety to the gameplay.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the use of a single weapon plus magic attack put me in the mind of Sega's seminal hack and slash game, Golden Axe. It would have been nice to have different types of weapons and magical attacks, but this is not a deal breaker for me. Similarly, the stages are quite short and don't have the best level design in the world, although to offset this, they are pretty to look at and don't outstay their welcome. In a welcome change of pace as well, some stages allow you to walk right to left as opposed to the traditional left to right, which is a bit different if nothing else. The bosses are suitably monstrous beasts, gorgeous to look at (if you like that sort of thing) and not too difficult to beat. Check out my article here for a breakdown of these.
The collision on the axe head means that you can hit enemies above and behind you...
In fact, I would say that the game itself is on the easy side for an 80s arcade game. It took me 7 to 8 credits and around 20-25 minutes to fully beat the game, and I am not some kind of wizard when it comes to videogames. For further context, there a quite a lot of 80s arcade games and I haven't been able to beat yet. So again, those looking for a deeper challenge might be best served elsewhere.
He's on fire!
Couple of other thoughts. There is a section in Stage 1 that involves jumping over some platforms that pop in and out of a waterfall. The Astyanax is one of those games whose jumping mechanics are not really suited for platforming, so this section is a bit frustrating (although thankfully very short-lived). I also noticed a bit of slowdown in Stage 3 when the screen is full of enemies. Again, nothing immersion breaking, but they are slight niggles in an otherwise competent package.
The platforming can be quite annoying...
Overall, I enjoyed my time with The Astyanax, despite not finding out what the title actually refers to. Is it the Fire Axe? Is it the title given to the hero? Come to think of it, I never found out what the Japanese title, The Lord of King, refers to either. All joking aside, the game is competently made and quite fun to play through. The controls are responsive for the most part, you get a fair variety of enemies to chop your way through, and you encounter suitably grotesque bosses to fight at the end of each level. Speaking of the levels, these are very pretty to look and and are short enough so you never get bored of the simplistic level design. The overall Arcade Archives package, which collects several versions of the game, is decent too, and worth picking up whenever it goes on sale on the Nintendo eShop.
Roche makes his way through the castle...
When preparing this review, I played through the Japanese and International versions of the game. I did not talk about the differences between either because in all honesty I couldn't really spot any, apart from the title. What I did feel is that the International version is slightly harder than the Japanese version, but that could just be me. Whichever version you play, you'll get the same experience. Meanwhile, I am planning on playing through the High Score and Caravan modes at some point, so will report back when I've done so. I might also replay the game in two player mode if I find someone willing to play it through with me. In the interim, I recommend picking this up in a sale if you like this sort of game,
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