I’ve always considered the Sega Satrun as my “Premium” console to collect games for. It typically has a much higher price tag per game, and many of the titles are just difficult to find in general. However, when I first picked up the Saturn 9 or so years ago, games were at least a bit easier to come by (and they were certainly cheaper). From the initial point of entry, I’ve had a few games I’ve been meaning to get too, including the exclusive platformer Astal.
Developed in-house by Sega, Astal is a side scrolling 2D platformer. Rather than speed Sonic is known for, Astal instead focuses on it’s precise controls and absolutely gorgeous presentation. The characters, enemies, backgrounds, and everything inbetween all look great, even now in 2021. I can only imagine playing this game in 1995 upon it’s first release and being blown away by how beautiful everything looks. There are modern games coming out that do not have as great a visual style as this game does!
“So the game is beautiful, but how does it play?” I can hear you asking. Well… It’s alright.
To give some context, after a brief introduction level, you drop into the game proper. You control the titular Astal as he ventures forth to stop an evil entity plaguing the world, and to rescue your kidnapped sister. Just like Mario and Sonic before him, Astal has to go from the left of the stage all the way to the goal at the right, dispatching enemies and collecting powerups along the way. You can grab and throw enemies when they are close, and you can also jump on some of them in certain occasions. Early in your adventure you meet a bird that grows particularly fond of Astal, and you can use said bird to aid in battle. Depending on the gems you collect you can have the bird clear the screen of enemies, find health, and more. It’s a nice addition to the gameplay, and gives some variety to what would otherwise be a fairly generic platformer.
Astal isn’t a very forgiving game. You’ve got a few hits before you go down, and only a few lives to complete the entire game (remember when games were like that?). I found myself getting stuck on a few tricky situations where I kept taking damage from incoming foes. However with better timing and awareness of the patterns, I was able to overcome most challenges with patience and practice. This idea of learning a game and anticipating what is coming is something you do not see as much of in today’s games, or at the very least not as aggressively so as it is here. The challenge is still worthy of overcoming, and I felt accomplished getting past those harder sections and seeing more of what the game had to offer.
Boss encounters were a big highlight for this game. From a tree-like venus fly trap enemy, to a charging bull-like thing, and this giant centipede-monster thing, these battles offer a big change of pace. As mentioned previously Astal can only grapple and toss enemies to deal damage (along with the bird, assuming you have the charges). This means getting up close and personal to these fearsome bosses. In the case of the bull boss, you have to straight up suplex that guy into oblivion! It’s risk-reward kind of, but since there’s no other option, it’s really more risk-necessity. Still, these sections were a joy to play through. Seeing what new enemies and viewing their character models were great, and a testament to how visually impressive this game is.
When thinking of the better games in the genre, Mario and Sonic definitely come to mind. Something those two legendary franchises have in common (along with many other great platformers) is tight controls. Steering Sonic through Emerald Hill Zone wouldn’t be near as fun if the hedgehog didn’t respond to your control input. Thankfully, Astal handles well. I played on the six-button Saturn controller and felt in full control of the little elf looking boy. This is a good thing: there are some difficult jumping and dodging sections that would be damn near impossible if you couldn’t get Astal to do what you wanted him too. Though this is something that should be standard in games, it is still commendable to have a game get this core mechanic down, even back in 1995.
Astal isn’t without its faults though. The game is relatively short, clocking in around an hour to beat. While it was enjoyable to play through today, I could see it being a bit of a letdown near the launch of the Saturn system. Between some stages are fully animated anime-inspired cutscenes. These are great, but the sound/voice acting is a bit… odd. Maybe it’s just a weird translation thing? Minor complaint, but it was noticeable. Lastly, the game’s physical box has an error: The spine of the box does not contain the game’s logo. Every Saturn game has this, but for some reason Astal’s is missing, and instead a large blank spot adorns the game’s spine. This has nothing to do with the quality of the game, I just wanted you all to know.
Though the game can be fairly pricey these days, Astal is an easy game to recommend to Saturn collectors. It’s still fun to play to this day, it still looks awesome, and it’s a unique experience. Also, the game has never seen a port to any other console, and remains a Saturn exclusive! This is something I find really rewarding about retro game collecting, but is likely the reason the price has been going up and up and up.
I wonder if we’ll ever see another Astal game. I feel like 25 years is enough time to have a series remain dormant, to then rise from the ashes and take the world by storm again. The gaming landscape has changed immensely though since 1995, and platformers are few and far between. But with the release and success of games like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon, maybe we’ll see some more franchises resurrected. Here’s hoping!