Monday, May 20, 2013

NES Replay: Athena

Developer: Micronics
Publisher: SNK
Released: 1987
Oh, SNK. I trusted you. I trusted you, and you let me down.

SNK's games mean quality. While they're mostly known today for their fighting games, throughout their storied history they made so much more than that. We already reviewed one SNK game, Alpha Mission, that demonstrated that they had a sturdy handle on shooters. They've made other games that were spectacular, like the Art of Fighting series, King of the Monsters, and a platformer that's a personal favorite of mine called Spinmaster, among many others.

Athena was an early effort, a game ported from the arcade to the NES. You play as Athena, a scantily clad warrior woman who fights with kicks and picks up weapons from fallen foes.

It's shockingly bad, far worse than I would expect from SNK.
What makes Athena bad aren't the underlying mechanics of the game. Those are beyond reproach, as befits an SNK game. The problem is that it appears like SNK tried to cram the whole game into an NES cart without regard for the NES' myriad limitations, which makes Athena painful to play. It's an early NES game, so maybe they didn't understand quite how much they could put in before causing the system to grind to a halt, but I would think SNK should have known better. Let's look into Athena's sins:

1) NES games tended not to have a lot of enemies on screen. The NES could only handle 8 sprites on any horizontal line, and anything beyond that would cause one of the sprites to vanish. That meant that developers had to manually put in code that would cause the sprites to flicker or else lose one of the sprites entirely.

Most games would go out of their way to avoid having a lot of sprites onscreen at once. When they needed to have a hectic situation with a lot of sprites onscreen, developers would usually give the sprites different behaviors, like put some in the air and some on the ground, to hopefully eliminate some of the flicker.

The makers of Athena completely didn't care about sprite flicker. It flickers more than any other game I've reviewed, and that's precisely because there are far too many enemies on screen at once. You're constantly mobbed from a stream of enemies coming from both sides of the screen while tree slugs will pour out of trees at you. Now, in the arcade game, this would be just fine, but since the NES can't handle that much onscreen at once, the whole thing is a mess.

2) They tried squeezing too much detail into the sprites. The arcade game obviously had a higher resolution, so sprites that are really detailed look awesome. The NES, with its lower-resolution sprites, can't deal with that much detail.

I had trouble figuring out the details on Athena herself. She has hair and a face, obviously, but the rest is a jumble of black lines and some colors mixed in. I also had trouble figuring out the details on everything else. The enemies have heads and then a bundle of scribbles for bodies that move in vaguely humanoid ways.

You'll notice that the great games on the NES stuck with broad strokes and exaggerated features for the characters. For example, the reason Mario has a mustache is because it was easier to see than just a mouth. SNK tried to cram too much detail into Athena and it didn't work.

3) There are too many types of enemies in Athena. Within the first couple of minutes, you'll see one group of enemies with pig heads wielding clubs, another group of enemies with horse heads wielding blue swords and pink swords, and you'll see the aforementioned slugs pouring out of trees.

The problem: They all behave the same way. They all just walk at you. The have no special attack behaviors and no special death behaviors either. Sure, sometimes they'll leave their weapons behind so you can wield them yourself, but they're redundant.

I'm sure that this is a holdover from the arcade game, but once again: It didn't work on the NES. The NES had a limited amount of tiles that you could use in a game. SNK used so many tiles on enemies that were useless that it led to another problem: Athena herself is really poorly animated and moves jerkily. Maybe with fewer redundant enemies they could have improved her animation and made the game more fluid. Who knows.

4) With all this stuff they crammed in, the game takes a really long time to load up. The whole benefit of cartridges is so that you DON'T have load times, but there are pauses between levels and pauses when Athena dies, which means that something is loading.

5) Finally, the NES sound chip could do an awful lot and it sounded great when it worked. However, it couldn't handle high-pitched noises very well without sounding really chirpy. Well, a lot of the sound in Athena is very high-pitched, so the sound itself is grating.

So, yeah. I expected a lot more out of SNK, but every company has one or two stinkers on their resume. I mean, Nintendo made Stunt Race FX. Capcom made Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. I'll forgive SNK this time, but they better not let it happen again.

Final Rating:

Next Week: Athletic World