Thursday, March 18, 2010

Astro Warrior (Master System)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1986

The single oldest memory I have of being attracted to a shmup comes from this little game. I was probably 12/13 years old when I saw this TV show that aired stuff about new releases in video games, and I clearly remember how amazed I was when I watched a brief footage of Astro Warrior. That tiny ship dodging a series of bullets shot by a huge boss, an image that was so cool and yet so out of my reality, seemed like an awesome deal of fun. My old Master System console would never have the chance to run this game, simply because for all local rental shops the SMS library consisted solely of stuff like Alex Kidd, Double Dragon and Shinobi. That means quenching my desire to play Astro Warrior would only be possible after growing up. Better late than never, isn't it?

It's extremely easy to ditch this game at first sight. It looks primitive, shallow and derivative on the outside. We all know that, as the underdog system and forever in the shadow of the mighty Nintendo's NES, the Master System severely lacked third party support throughout its whole lifespan. This forced Sega to develop most of the games themselves from ground up. Astro Warrior was part of the initial development batch, and the influence from other vertical shooters of the time definitely shows. Everybody says it reminds them of either Zanac or Star Soldier, and everybody's right. The good thing is that, despite the simplicity of the title, Sega was capable of pervading it with a pleasing atmosphere and an overall tone that considerably heightens the seemingly lame fun factor. It's a fairly decent use of the 1 Meg cartridge, and I can't help but wonder what Sega could've accomplished had they given more ROM and development time to the game.

Outer space is now made of a blocky pathway surrounded by a sea of blood

In Astro Warrior, a lone spaceship fights a series of incoming aliens in three vertical stages. As such, there are three bosses that must be beaten. In order to increase the ship's power, the player has to destroy a certain number of ground targets to get icons for speed, power-up and up to two Gradius-like options. All these icons come floating right in the middle of the screen. There's nothing more than that as far as gameplay goes and, although the game feels a tad short and easy, the difficulty in the second loop increases dramatically. Recovering from a death during the 2nd or 3rd stages of further loops is a difficult task, and that's where the real challenge is. Powering up again is tough, so try to make the best of all extra lives obtained through scoring (for every 50.000 until you reach 200.000 points).

There are some details that contribute to the charm Astro Warrior possesses among those to have it in high regard. One of them is the name of the stages, as well as the bosses. First there's the Galaxy Zone, protected by boss Zanoni. Then there's the Asteroid Zone, guarded by Nebiros. And finally we have Nebula Zone and final boss Belzebul. Whenever a boss is beaten, a blinking message saying "SURELY REVIVE *BOSS NAME*" warns the player that the defeated enemy might somehow return, which in fact happens in the next game loop. Each zone/stage has its own BGM and carries a very specific set of enemies, in a touch of variety that demands a distinct gameplay style/strategy for each one of them. Though not outstanding in any way in the graphical department, one minor distinction here is that the ship's sprites "evolve" with each power-up icon collected.

Gameplaywise, Astro Warrior is also notable for not having any sort of enemy approaching from the lower part of the screen. None. If you want to just lay back and pretend you're in a Space Invaders environment, help yourself. The only real letdown while playing the game is the lack of an autofire function, so I seriously recommend getting one of those Rapid Fire units in order to enjoy the blasting in its full glory.

Going fully powered through Nebula Zone to face evil boss Belzebul
(courtesy of YouTube user VegasPoker)

Dear Master System owners, I urge you not to let the lack of flashy effects or the reduced number of stages mislead you. Despite all its shortcomings, Astro Warrior presents fluid gameplay in a simple albeit flawless execution. In the end, it's an addictive shmup that excels in two very basic concepts that a shooter needs in order to be good: (1) it's a lot of fun and (2) it encourages the pursuit of higher scores like few other games do. Definitely one of the best in the system.

My new high score represents a considerable improvement of 250% over the last one I had. This time I was able to reach loop 5-2.


  1. It seems that there's one version of this game that does not loop forever, ending after the third loop. They say it's the one that comes bundled with Hang-On (one of the Combo Cartridges), but I tried the ROM and got way beyond the 9th stage, and the thing just kept going. Have to try the Pit Pot version yet, I do like this game and would love to see a CONGRATURATIONS (sic) screen for it.

  2. Maybe the ROM location origin (JAP/US) has something to do with the ending after the 3rd loop? All sources do state that the finite one is the Hang On/Astro Warrior bundle.

    Let me know if you get to see the CONGRATURATIONS screen!

  3. Hey Edward,

    First off love you blog. I just rediscovered gaming in general and shmups particularly and this game, Astro Warrior was maybe my first exposure to the genre. Played this game for hours, although I don't think I ever 1cc'd it

  4. Thanks, and I'm glad you're rediscovering the genre! Being exposed to Astro Warrior is nothing less than great - I wish I'd had the chance back in the day. :)