Wednesday 28 April 2021

Astal - An Old Star Is Re-Born!

They  say hindsight is 20/20. In other words, it's far easier to look back and make a correct judgement, than making it in the moment. When I first had my Saturn in 1995/96, I was interested in new and innovative games. If someone had told me that then Saturn would excel at 2D game presentation, it would have meant nothing to me. I had no interest in 2D fighters. They looked dated and cartoonish to me. I wanted the "gritty realism" of Virtua Fighter, the arcade thrills of Sega Rally and the cutting edge technology that allowed me to play Virtua Cop in my living room. These were the games that floated my boat. The graphics on Panzer Dragoon, were good enough to play in snippets, over and over again, as "visuals" when friends came back to my house, for post-rave chill outs. 

One thing I definitely was NOT doing, was looking back, with any nostalgia, at the 16 bit titles I had played on my Megadrive. I would have sneered at Street Fighter, scoffed at Sonic Jam, turned my nose up at the Sega Ages titles and looked past any sort of Arcade Collection that featured Defender, Robotron and Joust - all of which I now own.

I would have also snubbed Astal. 

Astal was released in Japan in April 1995, developed and published by Sega. In fact, owing to the absence of  a Sonic title on the platform at this point, Astal could have become the Saturn's mascot character, as his game was a Saturn exclusive. Astal is a 2D action platformer, the story, is far more convoluted than I care about and to be honest, has absolutely no significance to the gameplay. Wikipedia describes it thus:

"Somewhere in the universe, the Goddess Antowas created a world from a single jewel. On this world, Quartilia, she created the sky, earth, and air. To inhabit this world, she created two humans: from a green jewel, a girl, Leda, who has the power to make things live on Quartilia; and from a red Jewel, a boy, Astal, whose purpose was to protect Leda. Content with her creation, Antowas slept.

While she slept, the evil Jerado tried to take over Quartilia. To ensure victory, Jerado created a warrior: Geist. Geist kidnapped Leda, and held her at the bottom of the ocean. In an effort to get her back, Astal tore Quartilia apart, awakening Antowas. As punishment, Antowas banished Astal to Quartilia's moon. Leda took pity on Astal, and gave him her jewel. Once Astal and Jerado were dealt with, Antowas went back to sleep.

However, Geist was still free, and Quartilia was not restored from the changes Jerado wrought. From his prison on the moon, Astal witnessed Geist kidnap Leda again. Consumed with the need to protect her, he freed himself and returned to Quartilia. Now Astal journeys in search of Leda through a Quartilia transformed by Jerado's dark design, along with a strange bird who for some reason just won't leave him alone.."

OK. Got that? Good. Astal is a beautiful looking game. The art direction is original and highly stylised. It has a certain, "other worldly" feel. The creatures and characters are hand drawn, excellently animated and have a strange crystalline quality. There is absolutely no evidence that they were designed under the influence of the brain-warping psychedelic, DMT, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if I found out it was... 

The spaced out visuals, are hugely complimented and enhanced, by the dreamy musical score, written and directed by composer Tatsuyuki Maeda. This cannot be praised highly enough. It is an integral component of the game and can be credited with a large percentage of what makes this game special. The score would be something you could happily listen to, as a contemporary ambient composition in your headphones as you carried yourself through a lazy day. When coupled with Astal's sumptuous looking vistas, there is a certain synergy which elevates a "good game", to a "great game."

 Astal is a strong and brave individual. He can grab enemies and body slam them, he can summon his bird companion, to either vanquish foes, or collect health giving fruit. Astal can also take a huge breath, which swells his chest alarmingly. He then literally blows his foes away. Astal can also lift and throw large, heavy objects, such as boulders and trees. Finally he can strike the ground, which will send a shockwave through the platform to floor his opponents. As you can see, attacks are varied and as you progress through the game, you will have to work out which attack is most effective for dispatching each adversary and traversing the levels to the boss. The game can also be played as a two player co-op, with one player controlling Astal and one player controlling the bird.

And that's basically it. As Astal, you work your way from left to right, screen to screen until you reach the end of the level. Then you will be treated to a boss battle. One level has a sort of "shmup" feature, where you have to travel on the back of a large river monster,. avoiding or killing foes, by jumping on the creatures back and making him cough up a projectile. The game is beautifully coloured with pastel shades and tones, looking resplendent
throughout each level. 

"So, Father K..." (I pretend to hear you ask...) "If this game is so bloody fantastic, why wouldn't you have bought it, or even wanted to play it, back in the day?" And so, I shall now do my best to explain my earlier assertions, to the puzzled or cynical readers of this particular epistle...

When the Saturn came out, the very last thing I wanted to do, was play a 2D game. That meant no 2D brawlers, no side scrolling 2D platformers, no 2D puzzle games and no shmups. All of these genres didn't interest me in the slightest. To me, they were "old school" and "retro" at a time when neither of those things were considered cool. I couldn't have given a flying fuck about the Saturn being a 2D powerhouse. I wanted 3D depth, polygons, full motion video and uncanny characters formed from shiny computer graphics. Tomb Raider, Virtua Cop, Deep Fear, Burning Rangers, Panzer Dragoon - these were the games I would have craved or aspired to. Even Clockwork Knight, which was a side scrolling  platformer of sorts, looked a million miles away from the 16 Bit Era games, fitting perfectly into my expectations of 32 bit gaming. 

But Astal? Well that would have just looked  to me like a particularly pretty Megadrive game. (It didn't of course -  in fact it was graphically beautiful in a way that the developers using Megadrive hardware, could never pull off). But that is exactly what the 1996, thirty year old me, would have said and thought. I'd really enjoyed my experiences of the 16 Bit era - games such as Revenge Of Shinobi, Golden Axe, Sonic 1 & 2, Streets Of Rage and so on, had been played to death, over many hours, when my kids were small, and my days as a carefree raver, had long since disappeared. But I wasn't nostalgic for those days. I wanted the new systems to provide me with completely new experiences  - not a revision, remix or extended version of the past.

Fast forward to 2017. The rusty old gates of the Junkyard, had been blown away, and the website and Facebook page were up and running, and gaining some traction in the new scene. It was at this time, that some of the sweethearts at the Saturn Junkyard Facebook page, started sending me burned copies of games. Envelopes stuffed with blank looking cds, the names scrawled large across the disc in magic marker. The first genre I fell in love with was the fighting games - Vampire Savior, Street Fighter, King Of Fighters, Marvel Super Heroes and so on. These games looked so visually gorgeous and played so fast, that I immediately fell in love. Time had not been kind to Virtua Fighter -  and what had once looked amazing, now looked farcical - the sharp points and angular facial features of the characters, were cringeworthy. The same with the Shmups. In 1995, I wanted story driven games such as Resident Evil or Panzer Dragoon (or pure blasts of arcade pleasure such as Virtua Cop, Sega Rally or Virtua Fighter.)

Shmups looked hard! Plus very dated to me also - they are now one of my favourite genres. Platformers were not taboo for me in 1995. I played a few. But I was much happier with the arrival of the 1.5 D Pandemonium, when compared to a regular side-scrolling platformer such as Rayman or Astal, yet both games were visually fantastic, innovative and original

It was only much, much later that I got a copy of Astal. It's one of those games, that once experienced, I had to have an original copy of. A bought, factory produced disc was required. I've recently started playing it again and I have to say, whilst sometimes very difficult, the pleasure of playing very definitely outweighs any of the pain of playing. Only by practising, exploring each level and making mistakes, will you learn the enemy patterns and level pitfalls, to make it to the end of the title. It's a sublime and uplifting game, very Japanese, but also very accessible to a Western audience. 

Astal will run you about $80 in the US as a Japanese import. That's potentially expensive! I suggest you burn a copy or emulate it. But whatever you do, get playing.. It's a must play experience for the Saturn fan and a quintessential Saturn experience.


Peter said...

Excellent article, Father K! I was the same - I wanter my Saturn to show me 32bit gameplay, not tired old 2D platformers! Oh how time has changed my perceptions :)

MadPlanet said...

Great write up. Gonna check out Astal now.