Asterix the Gaul (and his best friend Obelix) first debuted on 29 October 1959 as a serial in the French/Belgium magazine Pilote. Since then, the plucky Gauls have gone on to have many adventures in comic books, videogames, and feature-length productions and Asterix himself has become a popular and enduring character in his native France and around the world as Asterix’s stories have been translated into over a hundred languages across the world. I may be a day early in celebrating this anniversary as it coincides with the release of the SEGA Mega Drive but I’ll take any excuse to talk about Asterix’s amusing escapades.
A Brief Background:
It wasn’t long before the French comic book series Asterix made the jump off the panels and into other media; the first Asterix book was adapted into a feature-length animation in 1967 and Asterix cartoons and live-action films have been pretty consistent over the years. Similarly, there have been numerous Asterix videogames; the first was released for the Atari 2600 in 1983 and I had a lot of fun growing up playing Astérix (SEGA, 1991) on the Master System. One of my absolute favourites to play whenever I spotted it in seaside arcades was this cracking, colourful arcade title from Konami, one of the most prominent developers in the industry at the time. Sadly, Astérix was never ported to home console ports, but the game is fondly regarded as one of the most fun-filled, action-packed arcade titles, and it received something of a spiritual sequel in 2021.
Astérix is a super colourful, super vibrant sidescrolling beat-‘em-up in which players can freely choose to play as either Asterix or Obelix (or team up as both) and journey across seven stages, each one lovingly recreated from some of the tenacious Gaul’s most memorable adventures, ploughing through Romans and collecting their helmets to score points. Controls couldn’t be simpler; you move with the joystick, attack with one button, and jump with another. Both Asterix and Obelix can dash, perform a running and jumping attack, and will slap Roman’s silly, or kick or toss them away, when they get up close and personal.
The differences between the two characters are largely negligible; Asterix is smaller and slightly more agile, but Obelix doesn’t exactly seem slowed down by his girth. One difference between the two you’ll immediately notice is that Obelix begins with a menhir in hand, as is his trade, which appears to be the one instance in the game where you can wield a weapon (albeit temporarily). Both characters will also receive a brief power-up when loyal puppy Dogmatix wanders onto the screen with either a gourd of magic potion for Asterix or a crispy roast boar for Obelix; collecting either will send them into a brief frenzy that sees them immune to all attacks and taking out every onscreen enemy in short fashion, though this is only for a very short time. Players can restore their health by eating fruit or stealing a kiss from Panacea, who wanders to and fro in each stage, and swing from vines to take out enemies. You get two lives per credit and, while there’s no time limit, Cacophonix’s musical notes will damage you if you linger too long. Perhaps the oddest thing about Astérix, though, is that you do not have unlimited continues; even if you input ninety-nine credits, you’ll eventually run out of chances to spawn back in and be left with nothing else but your high score and beginning the game all over again.
As fulfilling and entertaining as the beat-‘em-up gameplay is in Astérix, however, the game excels in its visual presentation; more so than any other 2D Astérix videogame, this sadly forgotten arcade title pops with bright, cartoony graphics that are ripped straight from the original comic books. Sprites are large, fantastically detailed, and full of fun little animations; Romans can be rapidly slapped across the face, slammed by their ankles, and twirled around in the air just like in the comics, a bunch of cartoony sound effects punctuate the action, and there’s even a little bit of voice acting and onscreen text (in both English and French) to help tell the story. Stages are proceeded by both sprite-based cutscenes and comic book panels to track the pair’s journey to Rome, and you’ll be able to play a chariot race as a bonus stage for extra points. While enemy variety quickly begins to suffer (you’ll see the same Roman infantry and generals in every stage), they’re all exactly as they appear in the comics and can even be seen hiding in tree stumps and riding horses. Each stage also includes additional hazards and enemies, such as rolling rocks, mischievous Egyptians, and disreputable pirates; you’ll also battle a boss at the end of each stage, with a group of Roman’s gathered into the tortoise formation awaiting you at the end of the first stage and the mind-controlling Iris opposing you in Egypt,
I’ve played Astérix before, both in the wild as a child and thanks to the gift of emulation, and have always been thoroughly impressed with its graphics, gameplay, and fidelity to the quirky humour and adventures of the source material. The attention to detail here is astounding, even compared to other licensed videogames from the time, and it pleases me no end to see these fun-filled and colourful characters brought to life so well. While I’ve always enjoyed the platforming and puzzle-based mechanics of many Astérix videogames, the concept lends itself incredibly well to the simplicity of a sidescrolling beat-‘em-up and the game’s stages are packed full of gorgeous sprite work, things to see and interact with, and short enough to play through in action-packed bursts.
Having said that, though, Astérix is stunted somewhat by the fact that you cannot simply feed coins into it until you plough through to the ending. I can’t recall ever playing an arcade title that restricts you in such a way, meaning that even when you emulate the game you can’t just blindly charge ahead and just press a button to jump back into the action. Instead, your continues are strangely limited, which unfortunately limits your progress in a way that I have never encountered in an arcade title before, and that means that I rarely manage to get past (or even to) the pirate ship stage. On this particularly playthrough, I struggled to make it through Egypt before losing all my chances, which was a shame as I was hoping that the different ROM files I had available would allow me to just carry on like normal. However, if you are able to best the ever-increasing waves of cartoony and bombastic enemies thrown your way, you’ll eventually battle across the high seas in boats, zip through the air on a magic carpet, race along in a mine cart, and finally find yourself battling the game’s toughest enemies in Julius Caesar’s Colosseum.
Astérix is a quality sidescrolling beat-‘em-up that you may never have played, or even heard of. Sadly, this is one of a number of arcade-exclusive titles that never saw the jump to home consoles, and that’s a crying shame as this would’ve been a blast to play in the 16-bit era. While the game doesn’t really offer anything beyond the stand two-button combat you’d expect from an arcade title and is seemingly lacking in a few areas (a life-draining special attack and weapons amongst them), it excels in its absolutely gorgeous visual presentation to perfectly capture the look, feel, and humour of the source material. It’s just a shame that I can’t just keep pumping in credits to charge on through to the ending, but I always enjoy loading this one up when I have some time to kill. Have you ever played Astérix’s arcade adventure? If so, how do you think it compares to other Asterix videogames and beat-‘em-ups of the time? How far have you been able to make it in the game, and which of the stages was your favourite to play through? Which character, book, or movie is your favourite? How are you celebrating Asterix and Obelix’s birthday this year? Whatever your memories or opinions of Asterix, feel free to sign up and drop them below or leave a comment on my social media.