Sonic Classic Collection: Jewels with rough edges

It’s time to reveal my dirty little secret: I love Sonic games. 

Not the late 3D abominations involving guns and human princesses, mind you, but rather the classic 2D side-scrolling entries—starting with the much-loved Megadrive/Genesis ones. I thoroughly dislike platformers as a rule, but the Sonic series is and has always been the feisty, high-octane exception: from the moment I discovered the Blue Blur on the then brand-new Megadrive/Genesis back in 1991, I became hopelessly smitten. To this day, classic 2D Sonic games remain a guilty pleasure of mine, never failing to treat me to a ravishing avalanche of sparkling colours, effervescent music and delirious fast-paced action. Oh, how I love these little darlings. 

As a matter of fact, I love them so much that it was the compilation of old-school Sonic gems mentioned in this post’s title that definitely tipped the scales and convinced me to get a DS a couple of years ago—and the rest is history. (Knowing the intensity of the 16-bit era feud between Sega and Nintendo, this is more than a little ironic.) Let’s now explore that scrumptious collection of classic Sonic goodness, starting with the usual bit of data: developed and published by Sega and released in 2010 in all regions, Sonic Classic Collection is, as its name implies, a compilation of all the canon Megadrive/Genesis Sonic games—bar the elusive Sonic CD and the much-maligned Sonic 3D Blast. Interestingly, these games are not strictly ported but rather emulated, using a special Megadrive/Genesis emulator for the DS; and as you may expect from emulated games, they feature numerous graphical glitches and collision bugs. To be honest, this compilation is rather lacklustre as a whole, but getting the opportunity to play these games on a portable system is such a treat that I’m definitely not complaining. I’ve been replaying the full package lately, as I often do at this time of the year: for some reason, dark and cosy autumn afternoons seem to be quite conducive to some Sonic indulgence as far as I’m concerned.  

Given how far-off the Sonic series has drifted in the last fifteen years, it’s easy to cast these early entries as monuments of gaming perfection, gems that nailed the perfect formula right away. It’s so easy, in fact, that they are invariably presented as such and hailed as the pinnacle of the series by hordes of wistful old-timers. However, Sonic’s debuts were not exactly as immaculate as nostalgia would have us believe. Quite appropriately for such a speedy gaming icon, Sonic’s early career was a relentless run against the clock: deadlines were challenged constantly and games were released at the speed of light—four in four years, which is quite a breakneck pace, even for those times. This constant rush created a number of issues that I will cover in that post; for despite being a rabid classic Sonic fan with a heart fluttering with nostalgia, my analysis skills are still alive and well, ready to be unleashed. Let’s do that right now!

Sonic 1: Adrenaline-filled debutant

Officially known as “Sonic the Hedgehog”, this is the game that started it all and single-handedly granted Sega a short-lived but glorious dominion over the gaming industry in the early ’90s, propelling the Megadrive/Genesis way ahead of the Nintendo systems in the console race. This was an achievement that went far beyond all expectations: despite the fact that Sonic was pretty much forced into existence by Sega in a feverish attempt to challenge and sap Mario’s dominance over the platforming kingdom, no one could have envisioned that the Blue Blur’s 1991 debut would be such a smashing success. 

This venerable first game established rock-solid templates that subsequent instalments would dutifully conform to in the following years, all the way up to the current gaming era. Indeed, everything was contained into Sonic’s debut: the bright and sparkling colours, the bouncing musical themes, the levels with strong and recognizable visual identities as opposed to the more generic-looking ones found in Mario games, the Chaos Emeralds that could be earned by taking a trip to a special stage with distinctive gameplay mechanics, the habit of kick-starting the game with a vegetal and /or tropical-themed stage, the booby traps by the truckload, the rings acting as life insurance, and so on. It was all there, and it worked beautifully. The lush introductory stage Green Hill is one of the most famous in platforming history, and hearing a few notes of the eponymous musical theme can send a whole generation of gamers into a teary-eyed bout of nostalgia. 

Interestingly, the legendary speed of the Blue Blur didn’t quite translate literally into that first entry; it was more of a publicity stunt pulled out by Sega, similar to the elusive “blast processor” supposedly hosted by the Megadrive/Genesis. Sonic the Hedgehog’s gameplay is not based on speed, but rather on careful exploration, precise jumps and sharp reflexes: this game is not about rushing your way through the levels, but rather about masterfully using the well-honed physics to dodge an endless stream of booby traps and uncover cleverly hidden items or shortcuts. In a supreme display of perversity, the Sonic Team went as far as to include a level in which the physics are altered and Sonic is dramatically slowed down, the infamous and nightmarish Labyrinth Zone. Far from being the norm, bursts of speed are granted sparingly as a well-deserved reward for the player’s toiling, a welcome handful of adrenaline-filled seconds before the next booby trap in line. The iconic loop-de-loops and long slopes that somehow became the series’ trademark are few and far between, to the point of being totally absent of half of the levels. Talking about the levels, they are carefully and cleverly balanced: the game starts off with the lenient Green Hill Zone, immediately followed by the more demanding Marble Zone, before cutting the player some slack again with the more forgiving Spring Yard Zone, and so forth until the end, creating a harmonious and highly enjoyable gameplay experience. The game is not that long, but it’s fun from beginning to end, and it aged so gracefully that it’s still very much worth playing today. 

The self-indulgent corner:

—Favourite level: Marble Zone, with its mix of challenging underground areas and more forgiving outdoors. Gee, that run against the lava terrified me when I was a kid.

—Favourite music: Marble Zone, again. Green Hill has a greater nostalgic value, but in terms of pure aural pleasure, Marble Zone definitely takes the cake, with its awesome bass line and gorgeous arpeggios.

Sonic 2: Harder, better, faster, stronger

Released just in time for Christmas 1992, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was probably one of the most anticipated games of all times. Sega and the Sonic Team needed to establish firmly that Sonic was an icon meant to last and not a mere fleeting sensation, and they did so by introducing more of everything: more levels, more colours, more features and, last but not least, more speed—both during the development process and in the game itself. This led to some mixed results, as we’ll see soon.  

Sonic 2 introduced the Spin Dash, a move that became so intuitive and popular that one can easily find themselves trying to pull it out in Sonic 1, only to be reminded that it was not yet implemented. Sonic 2 also kick-started the habit of introducing new sidekicks in every entry with the entrance of two-tailed fox Miles “Tails” Prower—a nice pun on the “miles per hour” expression. With the fox came the thrilling possibility of local multiplayer, which was much welcomed and acclaimed; and if you wanted to play solo, the game would still let you pick up Sonic or Tails alone—which was also quite welcome, since an uncontrolled Tails could occasionally get you into hot water by interfering during boss fights or triggering mechanisms without your consent. 

Sonic 2 is notably faster than its predecessor, with many more loop-de-loops and slopes of all shapes and sizes and feistier physics that let you run at a breakneck speed and jump higher and further. However, this extra speed comes at a price, which is the lack of much-needed precision. It’s notably harder to land precisely where you want and controlling your momentum is often entirely impossible, which regularly leads you straight into the open arms of the many booby traps littering the game. And let’s not even talk about the brand-new Super Sonic transformation, which is just a giant running glitch and simply cannot be controlled in any efficient way. 

Speed also hurt the development process. Sonic 2 is by far the entry that was the most amputated and butchered, with potentially interesting concepts and areas excised in order to meet the Christmas 1992 deadline. Such losses are already stinging enough, but this rush also led to some serious unbalance in the finished product: unlike Sonic 1 that cleverly alternated between lenient and demanding zones, Sonic 2 is clearly divided in two as far as difficulty is concerned, with the lenient areas lounging in the first half of the game and the demanding ones lurking in the second half. This structure makes the game very conducive to ragequits towards the end, especially since Sonic 2 is considerably longer than Sonic 1. Some inconsistencies can also be observed, like the fact that Metropolis Zone contains three acts instead of two like the other Zones: this third act was initially supposed to be an exclusive Zone, before being scrapped and recycled into a very unwelcome extension of the most annoying level in the entire game. (Was that really necessary, I wonder.) There is also an occasional lack of inspiration: areas like Casino Night and Oil Ocean suffer from a shallow level-design, and Hill Top Zone is nothing more than a copy-paste of Emerald Hill with a different colour palette and background.  

Because of these flaws, Sonic 2 is by far my least favourite of the classic Sonic games, and the one that I care the less to play nowadays. Ever since I started playing it twenty years ago, runs always unfold in the same exact way: I immensely enjoy the first four levels, before things start growing stale as I cross the generic-looking Hill Top Zone; and by the time I reach the end of Metropolis Zone, I’m just vomiting the game. When I occasionally forge ahead, I usually rage-quit at the end of Wing Fortress Zone or during the ridiculously hard final boss fight. And yet, because it’s Sonic, I would still play that game over any other platformer. It’s also worth noting that these flaws didn’t tarnish the game’s reputation the slightest bit nor stood in its way to greatness: Sonic 2 is a fan favourite as far as the classic entries are concerned and was anointed a cult classic nearly as soon as it was released. 

The self-indulgent corner:

—Favourite level: Aquatic Ruin Zone. A lush level full to the brim with nooks and crannies to explore, with a pleasant ancient vibe and gorgeous musical theme to match. Hearing the soft froufrou of the leaves as you make your way through the vines is just enchanting. 

—Favourite music: The 10th song in the sound test, which is widely believed to be the theme of the scrapped Hidden Palace Zone. A bit loopy, but very intense and evocative, with a solemn and poignant edge to it. 

Sonic 3/Sonic&Knuckles: 2 much, 2 soon

Oh, dear. Where do I start with these ones? Both released in 1994 a mere couple of months apart, Sonic 3 and Sonic&Knuckles were originally conceived as a single giant game that should have been the third in the series. But that was before time and budget constraints reared their ugly heads again and forced the Sonic Team to cut the game in two parts and release them separately. The two cartridges could be connected thanks to the so-called “lock-on technology” in order to play the game in its entirety, making way for an amazingly fulfilling gaming experience; in addition, the lock-on system also made possible to play Sonic 2 as Knuckles, offering a fresh new outlook on the game.

Sonic 3 and Knuckles or S3K, as I love to call it, is by far the most polished of the classic Sonic games. It introduces a fresh batch of innovations that are still used in 2D Sonic entries nowadays, such as the save feature, the music theme variations between the two acts of each zone and the final mega-boss fought in space while sporting your super form. Tails is playable and can fly at long last, while new foe-turned-sidekick Knuckles is treated to its own exclusive route, shorter yet harder than Sonic and Tails’ one. S3K contains a modicum of narrative, which was quite a new thing in the series: short cutscenes show our heroes progressing from one zone to the next and interacting with foes. The level design is at its peak, with colourful, rich and complex zones bristling with alternative routes and secrets and a near-perfect balance between exhilarating speed and tricky platforming. This is probably the only classic Sonic game in which you can get dangerously close to the time limit in some levels—if not break it entirely. The physics are just as polished: they are marvellously intuitive and perfectly blend the precision of Sonic 1 and the alluring speed of Sonic 2 while adding an extra layer of control and slickness. Fine-tuning your jumps and your momentum is easier and smoother than ever, even in your super form. And talking about this, Tails and Knuckles are also treated to a super form in that game, even though they are not allowed to take part in the final epic showdown in space. A lot of work went into designing specific abilities for each character in order to create different gameplay experiences: Tails can fly, Knuckles can glide, and Sonic has access to a range of double-jumps with various properties. 

It’s fair to say that the Sonic Team absolutely outdid themselves with S3K. This game is an amazing piece of Sonic goodness and one of the most brilliant entry in the series. It’s my favourite of the classic Sonic instalments and probably the game that I cleared the most runs of in my entire gaming life, and I have the fondest memories of some cosy afternoons spent playing it in co-op with my sister. And yet, despite that game’s undeniable awesomeness, it is far less popular and well-known than Sonic 1 or Sonic 2, and sold considerably less. And the reason for this lack of popularity and poor sales is crystal-clear: this game was sunk by its birth defect. Cutting it in two halves and selling them separately may have appeared as a brilliant coup at the time, a decision that would both reduce production costs and maximize earnings; however, it considerably tainted the game’s image and damaged its legacy beyond repair. Sonic 3 and Sonic&Knuckles have always been seen as two separate games because they were physically sold as such; and their reunion, which should rightfully be viewed as the real deal, is instead considered a chimera of sorts, a mere extra option similar to the possibility of playing as Knuckles in Sonic 2. That wouldn’t be such a huge problem if the two games taken separately were excellent; but unfortunately, they are quite unsatisfying as standalone experiences. For one thing, they are way too short to satiate the player’s cravings; for another, some excellent features are missing from both of them, like the save system and the possibility to play as Tails in Sonic&Knuckles and the possibility to play as Knuckles in Sonic 3. It’s quite a pity that the Sonic Team were not allotted an extra year of development time to polish this game and find ways to squeeze it into a single cartridge; had it been done, the legacy of S3K would certainly have been much more dazzling and memorable. 

The self-indulgent corner:

—Favourite level in Sonic 3: Ice Cap Zone. I love ice levels as a rule, and this one is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever played—and it has very few slippery areas to boot. What more can you ask for?

—Favourite level in S&K: Lava Reef Zone. A gorgeous crystalline area with two radically different acts, complex but not overly labyrinthine. I can’t get enough of this one, really. 

—Favourite music in Sonic 3: Ice Cap Zone. What else? The  ’90s techno-dance vibe of that track is just irresistible. I’m even fonder of the more subdued Act 2 version. 

—Favourite music in S&K: Flying Battery Zone. Oh, what a blast! Fast-paced and intense, this track is the aural incarnation of (in)trepidity, and both of its versions are awesome. I also have a soft spot for the mini-boss theme, which I find even more epic than the main boss theme.   

Here ends my love letter to the classic Sonic games. Of course, it goes without saying that as a rabid Sonic aficionado, I encourage everyone to try these old-school gems. They may have rough edges, but they are gorgeous and dazzling nonetheless. As you may expect, I own every single portable Sonic entry, and I will cover them all when the time is ripe. Now that my dirty little secret is out, I have no reason to hold back, do I? Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Astonishia Story-Addendum: The final showdown (SPOILERS!)

Here we are, back for more 8-bit-lite scrumptiousness. Astonishia Story’s final boss battle deserves a bit more exposure, especially on the strategic side. It can be a tough nut to crack: as I mentioned in my main post, I needed no less than five tries before I finally managed to eradicate this boss duo, and the whole ordeal was so painfully hard and unfair that I seriously contemplated giving up on that final fight and moving on to another game. My desire to quit was further fueled by a misconception that runs rampant on the internet—which I will address and dismantle for good, for it deserves to be buried forever. Despite seemingly having all odds against me, the idea of quitting so close to the end was so dispiriting that I decided to forge ahead until I succeeded—or got the unequivocal, painful confirmation that I couldn’t succeed. In other words, slaughter the bosses or die tryin’. 

So, here we go! We have two bosses to slaughter, but this is in fact a four-act fight. The preliminary phases are at least as important as the fight itself, if not more, so let’s start with them. 

Act 1: Preparations

It’s absolutely crucial to be well-prepared for that final boss fight. It’s so crucial, in fact, that neglecting the necessary preparations will unavoidably lead to a stinging defeat—which is not pleasant, especially if it happens after thirty minutes of arduous fighting. Tried and tested, folks. 

First, let’s talk about levels. There is no mandatory level to beat the bosses like in your traditional 8-bit RPG (think Ys, in which a couple of extra levels would allow you to slaughter easily a boss that previously beat you to a pulp), which is quite ironic given the heavy 8-bit flavour of AS. The very few FAQs available advise a solid Lv. 25, which is the maximum attainable level; however, it’s perfectly possible to tackle that final fight with a slightly weaker team. By the time I reached the bosses, my party members’ levels ranged from Lv.20 to Lv.23 only, but that didn’t hinder me the slightest. The five unsuccessful attempts that I mentioned above were only due to bad luck and strategic adjustments, all matters that I will cover later in this addendum. 

Let’s move on to the equipment. It’s highly recommended to have the sturdiest armours available, as well as the strongest weapons. The game puts you at such a high disadvantage with your foes in this final fight that any modicum of strength is good to take, even though it won’t massively bend the odds in your favour. 

Last but not least are the items. They are clearly the most important part of the preparations, and the most vital of them are the MP-restoring items. The reason is simple: you will need metric piles of MP in that final fight—so much so that you will spend much, much more time replenishing your MP than your health. Yeah, it’s that bad. For a smooth run, I would advocate stocking up on Super Ultra Potions—at least a good 30 of them, and up to 50 if you really want to play it safe. Grilled Eels and Magic Potions can obviously be used too, but they restore so little MP that resorting to them will drag on the fight endlessly. As for the HP-restoring items, 30 King’s Lunch Boxes should be more than enough to cover your needs, especially if you also own less nutritious items such as Meatloaves or Grilled Eels. Having a dozen of Seeds of Life cannot hurt either: resorting to them to revive dead characters instead of using Ylenne’s or Jenas’ reviving spells allows you to save your precious MPs for the eradication of the bosses. Last but not least are two items that could seem minor but are actually tremendously useful in the context of that final fight: the Red Pepper Powder and the Smoke Shell. The first will grant your attacks a welcome boost and thus shorten the fight, while the second will allow you to flee without fail from any random encounter in the final dungeon and thus avoid wasting some precious MP-restoring items on your way to the bosses’ lair. A good 30 of each should be more than enough to assure you a smooth ride. And since the final dungeon that I just mentioned happens to be the second preliminary act of the final boss fight, let’s move on to it with no delay!

Act 2: Fort Ganberg

Fort Ganberg is quite a pleasant place at first sight, with its beautiful purple walls and coppery floors full of antic solemnity and its soothing music. But don’t let that beauty lull you: this is actually a nasty place that can be tricky to navigate, and you will need all your vigilance to make it safely through that antechamber of doom. 

As you’d rightfully expect from a final dungeon, Fort Ganberg is the longest dungeon in the game. It’s not labyrinthine to the point of being nightmarish, though, which is quite a good thing. The difficulty of that dungeon stems rather from the fact that it pits you against annoyingly strong field enemies that are considerably faster or stronger than your party members and/or immune to a vast range of elemental attacks. The encounter rate is fortunately not higher than in any other dungeon, but these random encounters may still be a serious annoyance and considerably slow down your progression as well as deplete your precious stock of MP and HP-restoring items. This is where the Smoke Shell that I mentioned earlier reveals its full potential by conveniently allowing you to skip any unwanted battle. 

Some battles are mandatory, though: Fort Ganberg throws no less than five sub-bosses at your face, which is probably the highest number of these pests that I’ve ever seen in an RPG. These bosses are not particularly tough and shouldn’t be too much of a challenge; however, once again, they pose a threat to your precious stock of healing items. A good way to circumvent that inconvenience is to use the aforementioned Red Pepper Powder to clear these battles faster and use less restoring items. Of course, an even larger stock of restoring items can also do the trick; but at any rate, parsimony regarding the use of these precious items is the key. 

Last but not least, Fort Ganberg has an old-school puzzle in store for you. To open the door to Brimhild’s chamber on the 3rd floor, you need to visit the library first and probe all the bookshelves in a counterclockwise motion in order to find and read seven chronicles. Once this is done, a sub-boss fight will take place, after which you can proceed to the final fight. It’s time for the epic showdown, folks! 

Act 3: Brimhild

The magnificent and fearless Queen of Elves is a powerful foe that must not be taken lightly. After a bit of exposition, the fight per se will start, pitting you against Brimhild and four of her cronies. Despite being only the first half of the final showdown, this fight against Brimhild is actually the trickiest part of it; and it is so because luck plays a major part in it. This luck factor boils down to a specific attack wielded by the Queen, namely the potent Meteor Attack, which can kill your party members in one single shot. This spell has an uncomfortably wide range, and if Brimhild decides to march on your party and cast it, it’s death time. She doesn’t use it too often, however, so it’s worth taking the risk to approach her and pummel her to death with close range attacks. 

The best strategy for that fight is to concentrate first on Brimhild’s cronies and take them down with long-range attacks. They are particularly weak to Jenas’ Lightning Harken, so it may be a good tactic to devote the young Elf lady solely to the eradication of these meaner foes while the rest of your party gang up on Brimhild. The Queen herself has no major elemental weaknesses, so it’s really a matter of patiently wearing her down and eating away her HP bar while praying that she will not use Meteor Attack. Using some Red Pepper Powder will speed up her demise and lower her chances to do so, so don’t hesitate to resort to it. If you’re out of luck that day and if she does cast the deadly spell after all, chances are high that every party member involved will be eradicated on the spot. If only one or two characters are killed, you can afford to leave them dead and concentrate on Brimhild in order to neutralize her before she can get a chance to cast another Meteor Attack. A couple of dead party members are acceptable casualties for that fight, given that you’ll be given all the time you need to heal them when the second half of the final fight unrolls. And since I’m mentioning this…

Final Act: Kaisirak

This is the home straight, the last obstacle between you and the happy ending. Kaisirak may not look that terrifying at first sight: it’s stuck in place on the upper middle part of the screen and never moves from there, and it only has two attacks. However, the potent efficiency of these attacks makes up for their small number: one of them is 1st Barrier, which allows the already resistant white dragon to become even more immune to our pathetically weak attacks, and the other is… Heck, you guessed it: it’s the dreaded Meteor Attack. There is simply no way to escape the deadly spell in this fight, which forces you to adopt a completely different strategy. Beating Kaisirak is entirely a matter of range: you must position your characters at a specific spot so that they can be both close enough to use their attacks and far enough to stay out of the Meteor Attack’s range. This is easier said than done, as we’ll see soon.

But before we move further, I have to dispel a serious misconception about that fight, namely the notion that Ylenne’s Hell Fire spell is mandatory to beat Kaisirak. This is simply not true at all. Hell Fire is a hidden bonus spell that has the widest range of all attacks and can cover the whole screen, which makes it tremendously useful against Kaisirak. However, that spell can be found only at the Mage Academy, a place that becomes unreachable in the latter stages of the game. Hell Fire is thus a ‘lost forever’ item that can easily be missed, and to make such a hidden spell mandatory to beat the last boss would be a shocking case of fake difficulty harkening back to the old ’80s adventure games that no game would dare endorse nowadays—not even a shameless 8-bit pastiche like Astonishia Story

So indeed, Hell Fire is not mandatory to annihilate Kaisirak. If you don’t have it, three other long-range spells can replace it perfectly: Rudoug’s Chi Attack, Jenas’ Lightning Harken and Ylenne’s Pyra Storm. The safe—and sole— way to proceed is to position these three characters so that their respective spells will just barely reach Kaisirak. Finding the right spot can require some tinkering, but once you find it, you’re on safe ground: you will be just far enough not to be caught in the blazing fury of the Meteor Attack and just close enough to cast your spells. The involved area is quite small, so you must proceed with the uttermost caution: move one square too close to Kaisirak and it will unleash a deadly Meteor Attack on your defenseless characters in retribution for your recklessness.  

With that misconception debunked, here’s a quick strategy walkthrough. You start the fight quite far from Kaisirak, which gives you the opportunity to heal your party and revive fallen characters if necessary. Don’t bother healing Lloyd or Rendalf, though: they don’t play a crucial part in that fight, and it’s actually better to have them dead in order to speed up things. (Akra is not part of that final fight for reasons that I won’t spoil here.) Then, move your party to the middle part of the arena and start crawling carefully upwards while trying to cast spells in order to find the perfect spot to stand on. Do not try to approach Kaisirak from the sides: the Meteor Attack’s horizontal range is much wider than its vertical range, which will lead your party to an unavoidable death. Once you’ve found the correct spot under Kaisirak, take some Red Pepper Powder and start unleashing your spells. You can let Lloyd and Rendalf move closer to Kaisirak and pound it at close range until they are annihilated by the inevitable Meteor Attack; when that happens, don’t make the fatal mistake of trying to revive them and keep attacking at long range from your place of safety. From that point on, it’s just a matter of patience: use some Red Pepper Powder to boost your attacks and replenish your MP when necessary, and you will slowly but surely wear down Kaisirak and ultimately defeat it. Well done, you!

These will be my final words on Astonishia Story. I really loved that game, and I’m certainly going to replay it again sooner or later, especially after having sweated blood to figure out how to emerge victorious from that final showdown. At any rate, I hope this addendum came in handy. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Astonishia Story: A treat for retro lovers

The retro gamer in me is alive and well and needs to be fed regularly. My run of Seiken Densetsu 3 was not as fulfilling as I had hoped, leaving me unsatisfied and craving for a more nutritious retro treat. What I really longed for was a short and grindy RPG with sweet old-school graphics and as little narrative content as possible. And it turned out that my mammoth collection contained a game that perfectly fitted that description, namely the aforementioned Astonishia Story

First, let’s have the usual bit of data. Astonishia Story, or AS for short, is a Korean game developed by Sonnori and released in 2005(ko/jp) and 2006(na/eu) for the PSP. AS is not exactly a brand-new game: it was originally released for PC in 1994, in Korea only, and subsequently remade for a Korean gaming system in 2002—the PSP version being a port of that remake. Knowing the game’s origins tarnishes its image somehow: instead of being the tongue-in-cheek homage to the 8-bit era that it seems to be at first sight, it is actually a lazy port of a lazy remake of a game that was already outdated at the time of its initial release. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for not noticing that the PSP version of AS is a remake, for it oozes 8-bit-ness through its every pixel. Most reviewers were not exactly happy with such a lazily retro game, which led AS to be universally panned and reap the shockingly bad scores of 48 on Metacritic and 50.76 on Gamerankings. 

By all accounts, this is a horrendous game; and yet, I totally liked it. I definitely think that AT could appeal to a certain audience, namely the retro gamers who love their games on the challenging side and really don’t mind a crappy storyline. I’m one of them, and I’m sure that I’m not alone. To all my masochistic retro-digging comrades, here’s the perfect treat for you! This game fits our needs oh so very well, and here’s how. 

Game, what retro looks you have! 

Let’s start with the obvious: the presentation, folks. AS is as 8-bit looking as it can be, from the top-down view to the presence of a world map on which you can move your character. (Let’s remember that explorable world maps are very specific to the 8-bit era: while a couple of 16-bit RPGs would let you roam around on such a map, like Terranigma and the Dragon Quest series, most of them ditched the thing entirely in favour of short segments of land designed to accommodate the characters’ scale and increase realism.) In a nice nod to modern times, AS ditches the random encounter approach on the aforementioned world map and lets you see enemies instead. But fear not the dilution of 8-bit-ness, retro aficionados: the dungeons maintain random encounters—with a fairly balanced rate to boot—and the enemies on the world map are so hard to avoid that you’ll be forced to fight a good number of them, willingly or not, as you make your way through the game. 

The looks are a hit-or-miss: they are basically 8-bit shapes and patterns that, instead of being pixelated like back in the days, look like they’ve been hand drawn and carefully crayoned with coloured pencils. I am totally fond of that style, but that is really a matter of taste, I guess. Just like Ys I&II Chronicles, AS bristles with lovely and intricate details, from the people’s crammed interiors to the animals running and flying all around the place in villages, forests, dungeons and even on the world map. To see cats and dogs strolling around and birds nesting in trees in every town is deliciously heart-warming, as well as encountering fluffy white rabbits in forests; on the other hand, discovering that you can crush mice to a bloody pulp under your feet if you’re not careful enough is bound to be a shocking surprise for every player. But the detail galore doesn’t stop there: while the world map is fairly generic and tends to look the same throughout the whole game, each and every town has its own architectural style, which is breathtakingly rendered through exquisite flourishes. The same goes for forests and fighting areas, albeit with slightly less variations. As for the dungeons, their design is obviously a trifle more monotonous, but they are still quite distinct from one another and made even more alive by the presence of scurrying mice, light beams filtering through cracks in the walls and various objects. There may have been very little money poured into that game’s development, but there was certainly heaps of love to compensate, and it shows gloriously in that opulence of details.

The only thing that harks back more to the 16-bit era than to the 8-bit one is AS’ linearity. The game pushes you dutifully from one place to the next and regularly prevents you from going back to already visited areas, which could definitely be irritating. However, that linearity is handled in a way that makes it quite palatable. For one thing, there is not the slightest hint of backtracking, which is incredibly refreshing; for another, the presence of the world map makes you feel less constrained, since you can roam large portions of land at once instead of going from one town to the next through a single path in typical 16-bit fashion. Even more interesting, this linearity generates an urgency that can magnify the player’s feelings: you’re on a desperate quest, moving ever-forward, and there is not coming back whatsoever until you’ve accomplished your mission.   

Interestingly, AS managed to stir in me a strong feeling of gaming fernweh: an acute desire to be part of the game world and explore it myself rather than just see it on a screen. I used to experience this kind of sweet aching wanderlust quite a lot while playing games in my younger years; but I had not felt it for a very long time, and it was quite the surprise to experience it again. This fernweh was stirred by the lovely villages and forests bristling with life, the world map teasing me with unreachable places and the beautiful soft colours of the sceneries, and it felt wonderful. I’d be curious to know if the ability to elicit such a feeling is a quality inherent to that game, leading other players to experience it while playing AS, or if this is just an idiosyncrasy of mine. 

At any rate, we’re talking about a confidently 8-bit inspired game here. It may not be an exact visual clone of the heavily pixelated games of the ’80s, but it looks and feels like an RPG of that era nonetheless. But the old-school goodness doesn’t stop here: not only does AS has the retro looks, but it’s also full to the brim with good ol’ tropes lifted straight from the ’80s. Let’s dissect them right now!

Game, what retro tropes you have! 

Let’s start this section with a few words about the narrative, which, in jolly good 8-bit fashion, is quite inexistent. The storyline is just a badly crafted excuse to roam the game world: it’s mediocre at best, and more often than not completely nonsensical. Characters make constant ad hoc references to events and lore that are never mentioned again, and by the time you clear the game, you will very likely have forgotten what the point of your quest was in the first place. The characters’ interactions are fortunately more pleasant, with many light-hearted moments, comical outbursts and sweet budding romances. There is no character development to speak of, but that’s perfectly fine: occasional romantic innuendos and random bits of dialogue are all the character development that old-timers need in their RPGs. It’s also worth mentioning that the game manages to compensate for its narrative mediocrity by being humorous and self-derisive: the Fourth Wall is being broken a couple of times in deliciously absurd and unexpected ways that I won’t spoil here, and the general tone is definitely light-hearted, with lots of goofy situations and replicas. This may not be the subtler humour ever, granted, but it’s still efficient. I’d rather have a crappy storyline that doesn’t take itself too seriously than a crappy storyline that tries to pass for a great one by being annoyingly serious. 

With this out of the way, let’s move on to meatier old-school tropes. It’s fighting time, folks! As you may expect from an 8-bit-ish RPG, you’ll spend most of your time fighting, fighting and fighting more. Apart from the regular exploration bits—i.e. finding your next destination or the exit of that dungeon—and the comforting dwelling in the safety of villages, this game is all about fighting. The fighting system itself is not especially reminiscent of the 8-bit era, and may very well be the most modern feature of AS: it’s a grid-based system with a strong S-RPG flavour that allows characters to move around in turns and to use attacks with various ranges. The whole thing is sprinkled with a touch of elemental complementarities that thankfully deepens matters a little bit. It’s quite simple in essence, but there are enough ranges and elemental variations to offer a good variety of attacks and make combat pleasant and entertaining. And that’s all for the best, because indeed, you will be fighting when playing that game. The good old RPG wisdom that dictates that you should never shy away from random battles if you want to be properly levelled-up is alive and well in AS, conveniently enforced by the fact that attempts at fleeing do not always succeed. (There is a special item that allows you to flee without fail, though.) In addition, you may need extra bouts of grinding on a regular basis in order to glean money. Everything costs a hefty price, from the healing items to the weapons and armours; and unlike in more modern games, it’s very recommended to have the strongest equipment and totally mandatory to have mountains of healing items if you don’t want to be wiped out in the middle of a dungeon or a boss fight. Rest assured that there is not risk of sitting on a pile of unused money by the time the credits roll; this is old-school territory, and if you want to get some much-needed money, you’ll have to sweat for it. 

You’ll have to sweat quite a lot in general when playing AS, actually. This game boasts another prominent trope of the 8-bit era, which is none other than mighty Difficulty. Interestingly enough, difficulty in AS does not take the classic form of sudden difficulty spikes: such occurrences are completely absent from the game, making way for a difficulty curve that increases in the smoothest way and should be easy to ride as long as you don’t run away from random encounters. Instead, the difficulty stems from your character’s limitations. Here’s a telling example: the game is heavily biased in favour of MP-consuming attacks—classic, shall we say. Unfortunately, your characters really don’t have that much MP, including the ones that are supposed to be the best magic-wielders. It’s thus not uncommon to run out of MP after two or three random encounters on the field—or even one, for that matter. Level-grinding doesn’t solve the issue at all, since it only grants your characters a fraction of extra MP; this limitation is very much a design choice, and one that is bound to be present throughout the whole game. The only way to circumvent that hindrance is to stock up piles of the resident—and rather expensive—MP-restoring items before venturing in dungeons or fighting bosses. (The world map is less dangerous, since the next town is always close by and fleeing from fights is a tad easier.) This is also true for your HP, albeit to a lesser extent: even the meanest field monsters tend to hit incredibly hard, and seeing your weakest characters lose 90% of their HP from a single hit is pretty much routine. Let’s also mention that your party is NEVER automatically healed after a boss fight, even when you’re in the depths of a dungeon and must still cross a mass of corridors to find the exit while hanging on to your last HPs. On a more strategic note, the game often attributes random elemental strengths to enemies AND keeps their stats hidden from you. As you may imagine, this can easily lead you to waste some precious MP by unknowingly casting spells that foes are immune to and trying to figure out which attacks are the most efficient through trial-and-error. All in all, the general rule goes as such: while never being downright unfair, the game always put you at a slight disadvantage by default—and sometimes at a massive one, which leads us directly to the next trope in line. 

Let me ask you this: would an 8-bit-flavoured RPG be complete without a ridiculously long and difficult final boss fight, in which all odds are against you? Yeah, you know what I’m talking about: an epic two-phase boss battle, with no healing in-between and a second phase that pits you against a megaboss that can pretty much wipe out your whole party in one hit while your strongest attacks hardly make a dent in its HP bar. That’s the pinnacle of 8-bit-ness, the cherry on top of the hardcore 8-bit RPG sundae. And it is in Astonishia Story, of course. You didn’t expect less, did you? Indeed, if AS had any modicum of popularity, its ultimate boss battle would probably be legendary by now. I needed no less than five tries to beat the two final bosses of that game, and it took me forty minutes to do so, despite the fact that my characters were only a couple of levels away from the maximum attainable level in that game—which, incidentally, is Lv.25. This is just ridiculous, it really is, and it’s a blatant case of fake longevity if I ever saw one. And yet, I lapped up the challenge and felt so incredibly sated and fulfilled when that overpowered second boss died at my hands, making way for a short yet lovely ending. O, sweet joys of the 8-bit era! The thrill of slowly wearing down and finally eradicating a mighty boss with your infinitely weak party is just incomparable, even more so when it is topped by a sweet ending sequence that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I will post an addendum especially dedicated to that intense final boss battle, for there is more to say on the matter. For now, let’s move on!

It’s worth noting that while taking its cues from the 8-bit era, AS still benefits from three decades of gaming evolution; as a result, it avoids most of the pitfalls of early RPG-dom. For one thing, it shows a modicum of welcome leniency in the saving department by allowing you to save at any moment and load a different save while playing, which is quite neat and convenient; in an era that still gives birth to an infuriatingly high number of portable games with no instant save feature, this is a treat that must be enjoyed to the fullest. Technical problems and glitches are entirely averted, and the most annoying thing that can happen in that game is to be temporarily blocked by a sprite standing in your way. The menu system is also much more intuitive than your typical 8-bit menu, which is quite a relief. Last but not least, a good number of annoying tropes of the 8-bit era are deflected entirely, such as fake difficulty due to bad controls, lack of information or cheating AI. The dreaded “Lost forever” trope is present, granted, but with no dire consequences whatsoever, which makes it a mere annoyance rather that a serious hindrance. (More on that in the upcoming addendum.)

All in all, Astonishia Story is nowhere near as horrendous as reviews painted it to be. Granted, it’s a complete throwback to an era that is long dead and gone and as such, it can definitely be panned as lazy and uninspired; however, I had a lot of fun playing it, and that’s the most important part. If you’re a dedicated retro gamer with a masochistic streak, a love for grinding and a high tolerance for mediocre storylines, this game may well offer you a couple of very pleasant gaming hours. These won’t be my final words on the matter, as the addendum to that post is on its way. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!