Astra Superstars (1998, Sunsoft and Santa Claus)

Wow! What a sensational videogame. I’m probably going to have brain seizures after playing this for more than an hour, but it’s totally worth it. I’ll be sent to the madhouse for sure, but I will have no regrets.

Sega Saturn has always been hailed as a behemoth for 2D videogames, but there were precious few examples in the USA to back up such boasts. We had Galactic Attack and Darius Gaiden and Street Fighter Alpha 2, all of which looked terrific and kept us glued to our television screens, but they weren’t exactly groundbreaking. They were the bigger and bolder cousins of what we played on Sega Genesis. We didn’t really see an example of a Saturn game that pushed its 2D powers the way games like Virtua Fighter 2, Burning Rangers and Quake were pushing the system’s 3D powers. But Astra Superstars delivers.

These are the best 2D graphics on the Sega Saturn. It’s certainly the loudest, the most brash, the most extreme, the most visually overwhelming. It doesn’t dazzle your senses, it assaults you from every direction, spins you like mad, knocks you to the ground, grabs your wallet and keys, then raids your fridge just for kicks. I’m not kidding when I bring up seizures. Marvel Super Heroes vs Street Fighter is probably its closest rival, in terms of animation quality and visual pizazz. But Capcom plays it straight, while Sunsoft and Santa Claus, the Astra software team, went completely gonzo. This is one videogame that truly deserves a Ralph Stedman cover illustration.

Astra Superstars is a 2D arcade fighting game featuring a very colorful cast of cartoonish characters with zany names like Lettuce, Maron, Coco, Rouge, Fooly. Their designs are completely, wonderfully ridiculous, either playing off or drowning in anime stereotypes. You have the spiky-haired hero, the stone-faced samurai warrior, a hulking giant with Charlie Brown hair, a small girl dressed as Santa, and two “hot chicks” whose wardrobes come straight from the Yandy summer catalog. Because, why not? We’re already overwhelming your teenage male hormones enough as it is.

The game plays out like a simplified Street Fighter, with the standard six-button layout and “special” and “super” attacks that are performed with simple button presses. There are no complex joystick rotations or button combinations. The fighting system is versatile but extremely simple to use, and it’s extremely satisfying to unleash a series of attacks that literally knock your opponent around the screen like a tennis ball. Because of this, Astra Superstars has a reputation for being friendly to “button mashers.” To which I say, fantastic, thank you very much, and it’s about damned time.

One rarely-discussed reason why video arcades withered and died out in the late 1990s is that everything became focused squarely on the “hardcore” or tournament players at the expense of everybody else. Every shoot-em-up was made specifically for those who could master Dodonpachi in their sleep. Every fighting game was made specifically for those who could pull off a Stun Palm of Doom blindfolded. But where did that leave the rest of us? Here’s a quick ProTip: most gamers’ only strategy in fighting games was to smash the buttons as fast as possible, and hope that something cool happens. Beer and alcohol were also present at most of these get-togethers, so we had to function with our brains half-underwater and our eyesight rolling endlessly.

Astra Superstars is just as rich and complex as anything created by Capcom or SNK (the floating concept is wonderfully played, as you hurl and bounce your way in all directions while staying grounded in a closed space), but this time anyone can pull off those super-flashy moves. It’s welcoming and liberating and makes for a lot of fun. Capcom did something very similar with the Wiimote controls on Tatsunoko vs Capcom, which is another breath of fresh air that desperately needs to be copied.

The graphics in this game follow a unique style, one I’d like to call “Spaz-Tastic Cartoon Overdose.” Characters bend, twist, warp and distort when performing attacks and receiving hits. Sometimes they become dizzy and fall unconscious. Sometimes they panic and suddenly realize they’re floating in the air, their feet scrambling in a panic. The greatest effects are reserved for the “super” attacks, as the screen explodes in a psychedlic cataclysm of color, flash and line drawings. Backgrounds also pulsate and pixelate, and you even see a few wireframe polygon effects. One character assaults you with Christmas presents. Another drops a moon-sized peach on your head. Another transforms into a giant monster who fills half the screen.

There are at least four bonus characters to face once you’ve defeated your main opponents, including a stick figure pencil drawing that has to be one of the all-time great “joke” characters. He perfectly fits the Astra Superstars style, and I can’t imagine the game without him. I’d like to see him go up against the Daytona car from Fighters Megamix and that big round cat from Zero Divide. We need more guys like him. Heck, we need more videogames like this. I cannot believe Astra Superstars was never considered for a Western release. This game would have sold. Heck, it would sell today. Tell Sunsoft to release this game on the Nintendo Switch immediately. Then hire Stedman to draw the cover art.

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