Graveyard: Astal

Out back of the Hardcore Gamer office you’ll find our Graveyard, where countless long-dead classics lie. We come here to pay our respects, to reminisce, and to wonder aloud what a passing mad doctor might be able do with all these corpses and some high-definition lightning.

Astal has been one of my favorite Saturn games since I first bought it in 2000 or so. Gamestop was clearing out their Saturn games, so I was able to get it for $10. Given that it now goes for $20 disc-only or $30 complete (which actually isn’t too big an increase all things considered), that was money well spent. In ’95, it was hailed as a great-looking game without a lot of substance to it, but now, it’s amazing how well it’s held up. The gameplay is easy to learn, but still has a bit of depth in there and even on a modern display, the graphics are impressive even if the Saturn’s composite output isn’t the best way to showcase them.

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As the title character, your goal is to save Leda, the (wait for it) princess you need to save. To help you in your journey, a little bird will be meet you, annoy you, and dispense items and/or attack enemies when needed. It’s a useful skill for longer-range combat, but up close, your most-used attack will be either a standing or leaping double axe-handle, leading to you tossing enemies either off-screen or into one-another. There’s a heavy emphasis on action here — more than the Super Mario Bros. game, but perhaps a bit less than Sonic given the latter character’s myriad of attack options. Running and then chucking foes speeds up the pace a bit, and Astal’s blowing attack buys you some time when the screen is crowded by enemies. The controls are easy to pick up since your main action use the bottom row, and the bird takes up the top – with nothing requiring the triggers. If you’ve got another person around, you can have them control the bird and help you out without having to juggle both at the same time. All of the controls are responsive – which is good because any platformer without at least that is asking to be eviscerated.

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The bird/bashing attacks are fun, but the most visceral joy that comes from playing Astal is when you lift up something massive – like a gigantic plant, and just chuck that thing at full-force towards a gaggle of enemies. They get squished, you get to progress, and let out a joyous cry of your choosing in the process. Whatever you choose is bound to be less annoying than the siren-esque warbling you’ll hear when low on health. You’ll be begging the bird to find something, anything, to replenish it so the noise will just stop.

Other than that problem, the audio in Astal is great. The music is quite relaxing and despite a fairly leisurely feel, still works to get the blood pumping. Violins, harps, and flute sounds are used heavily – you’ll not only want to save a princess, but perhaps dance a jig while drinking a pint of ale too. Some of the songs would be right at home in a Sonic the Hedgehog game — like the level 2 track that would be perfect in the Mystic zones in Sonics 2 and 4. All of the music works really well, fits its level, and adds to the game. The voice work adds some much-needed comedy because it’s about on par with mid-’90s anime stuff, but with gaming-level plots of the time. So yeah, none of the cast was probably used to their fullest here with that, but they did manage to take what would be a boring plot and make it funny by overacting. It’s far more professional-sounding than the Mega Man 8 voice over work, and doesn’t turn things into a complete farce.

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The most impressive aspect of Astal after nearly two decades remains its graphics – even if Astal appears to be rocking out to “Numb” from Linkin Park there. That showcases not only his angst, because I bet NO ONE EVER UNDERSTANDS HIM EVER, but also lush colors that you would rarely  see in a game at that time. Or hell, even now – look at how many games feature shades of brown, or just cake the screen in blue or red. Color extremes are used a lot, and it isn’t often that you’ll find a game with a lot of variety in its color scheme. Astal bathes the screen in either a ton of color or in very few for artistic effect. There’s one stage that strips the color away gradually by taking away light sources, forcing you to rely on the bird for light and making only Astal’s eyes visible. It’s striking and works well at making you appreciate the extreme colors when they’re on-screen.

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I’ve enjoyed Astal for quite some time now, but with so many re-releases and retro collections, it saddens me to see Sega never give Astal a re-release in any form. With its already strong base graphics, it would be ideal for an HD remake. The cutscenes could be cleaned up, everything would be super-sharp, and you’d actually be able to play the game as you can imagine it looking – rich colors, but without that wonderful smeary look the graphics have now.

Even with that, you can still see why Astal’s visuals were revered for their time and while the gameplay may be a simplistic in a way, the addition of the bird adds some depth and even when the game is at its most “just punch and toss”, it’s still very enjoyable. Anyone who loves a well-crafted platforming game should give Astal a shot. Here’s a quick play session that shows off a couple of stages and a boss battle, along with the general mechanics, the graphics, and music. It’s essentially a primer on just what makes Astal so enjoyable to play so many years after its initial release.