Monday, May 13, 2013

NES Replay: Astyanax

Developer: Aicom
Publisher: Jaleco
Released: 1990
Astyanax: Back That Astyanax Up
There are a lot of NES games with positively awful names, but unfortunately, I can’t pick on Astyanax for that. Astyanax is a name from Greek mythology, the son of Hector who was thrown from a tower in Troy. Also most unfortunately, Astyanax (the game) isn’t so bad that I can make some joke about wanting to throw it from a tower.

Astyanax is an arcade port, but it’s completely different than the actual arcade game. The arcade game was about a warrior who receives a message from God and goes to fight demons. The NES game was about a 16-year-old boy who is summoned to a different dimension in order to rescue the ruler of Remlia with the help of a fairy named Cutie.

So let’s talk about Nintendo of America’s censorship policy in the US.

Nintendo was really rough on companies for a very long time. There was to be no mention of God in games, no mention of demons, no religious depictions, nothing. Do you have a cross in your game? Has to go. Even if it’s on a grave? Don’t care. Get rid of it. Curiously, these policies were only in effect in the U.S. In Japan, you could still put in whatever you wanted within reason. That meant that great games like Terranigma didn't get released in the U.S., and probably never will.

So why did Nintendo react this way? Was it just being uptight? Well, there were actually good reasons that they made the decisions that they made, if you examine the situation closely.

The Japanese audience for games is completely different than the American audience. The Japanese adult audience was primed to accept games because adults were used to playing games like pachinko. Therefore, when video games started coming out, it was mostly acceptable for Japanese adults to play video games. Since the audience was a little different, more religious and adult content could be shown.

However, in the U.S., gaming wasn't the province of adults. The NES was originally marketed as a toy for children in order to get into toy stores after the video game crash of 1983. That meant that adult content didn't really have a place at the table.

But what about religious symbols? That can be explained easily. The U.S. has a tendency toward moral panics. They usually start when someone notices something that offends them, and then they start crusading to get rid of it, usually screaming, "Won't someone think of the children!" For example, Frederick Wertham crusaded against comic books in the 50's, which led to EC Comics closing all of their horror books and the institution of the "Comics Code," which meant that every book had to be as milquetoast as possible.

(The irony of the situation is that EC Comics also produced a magazine called Mad. With all the horror books closed, EC poured all their resources into Mad Magazine. Mad Magazine did more to warp children and force them to question authority than any horror comic ever would. I was introduced to tons of movies my parents never would have let me see through the pages of Mad Magazine. Thanks, Frederick Wertham!)

In the early 80's, the U.S. was in the throes of a moral panic over religious symbols in Dungeons and Dragons. Now, D&D doesn't have a lot of "religious symbols." I know it, you know it. But at the time, D&D got such a bad rap that a woman, Patricia Pulling, sued TSR for her son's suicide. There were movies about the dangers of D&D (one of them starring a young Tom Hanks). It was linked to "Satanic ritual abuse," which was a totally made-up thing that never happened. Parents were kind of freaking out.

All right, so you're Nintendo. Some of the games that people want to release in the U.S. have crosses and demons in them. You want to allow them to release those games, but you have a country in the midst of a moral panic over demonic symbols. It's also a country that's prone to hair-trigger outbursts of moral outrage, and offending materials can get legislated into oblivion. Games are viewed as the sole province of children, and parents are already a little leery of this grey box that has little Johnny and Suzie so enraptured. What do you do?

Nintendo's answer was simple: Take anything that could possibly offend audiences out. The last thing Nintendo wanted was negative publicity, and if the games had to be watered down a bit, so be it.

Games like Astyanax had to pay the price, unfortunately. Astyanax isn't bad at all. It's a fairly standard action game that feels a bit like Castlevania. The sprites are surprisingly huge and detailed and the backgrounds pop really well.

Astyanax has a lot going for it. You can choose between multiple different magical powers that have different effects, like freezing all of the enemies onscreen or shooting flames around the screen. If you use a stronger weapon you'll be able to use magic less, and with a weaker weapon you can use more magic.

It's a fairly difficult game too, but fair. If you use your head and don't rush headlong into combat, you'll survive, but rush in swords-a-blazin' and you'll get butchered. The bosses are easier than the levels themselves, oddly enough.

The monster designs are pretty freaky, which makes sense given the original arcade game's dark back story. If Astyanax would have been allowed to keep the backstory from the arcade game, those designs would have made a ton of sense. Instead, it feels like there's an odd disconnect. The introduction invites you into a magical world of heroes and fairies, and then the game brings you into a horrific demon-filled nightmare landscape.

Astyanax is still a good game, but it could have been so much better if they would have had to censor it so harshly. We can't really blame Nintendo directly for the censorship, since it makes sense why they would take such drastic measures. Good thing we're past that, right?


Final Rating:

Next Week: Athena

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