A chance find at a car-boot sale proved to be the start of a love affair that spanned countless years and three Master Systems – all because of the Gallic charms of Asterix.
How many shop-bought, brand-new, sealed, instruction-manual-included games were bought for you as a child?
Well, I’m saying “bought for you” – maybe you were smart, saved your money and bought them yourself. To you, I can only express my utter admiration and, of course, intense jealousy. You did well to put a little of your pocket money aside every week, or to go out and get a job – maybe a paper round – and learn the lessons of hard graft.
Not me. I was shy, lazy and shambolic. I was always told to save money but never did. I was stupid.
Besides, games were expensive back then, and I was at the mercy of my mum, who understandably wasn’t keen on splashing out a hefty amount of cash on such frivolous, disposable entertainment. Therefore, I’d usually be bought a brand-new game only once or twice a year: birthdays and Christmases.
You know what it’s like. One game can’t last six months, can it? Okay, my Sonic the Hedgehog 2 lasted probably four months, but the latter half of that was simply me trying to find one Chaos Emerald and finish the final bonus zone.
I do remember in the mid-90s, when I was doing work experience at the nearby toy and craft shop, they had SNES games behind the counter. I naively thought that once my two weeks were done, that they’d let me have one for free, or at least at a significant discount; I was turned down. Until the N64-era, I had to make do with what was bought for me, or what I could buy at bargain prices.
In the case of Asterix, it was the latter – and in circumstances rarely seen today.
First forays into second-hand games
The world of second-hand games was a much different world in the 90s. Before CeX, Game, Gamestation, eBay, even the whole bloody internet, options were limited. You were at the mercy of whatever game your mate no longer wanted, which is how I got a copy of Dynamite Dux on the Master System in exchange for some relatively new films on VHS and regretted it immediately when I completed it in a single afternoon.
There was also the likes of Cash Converters, where I saw a copy of Super Mario Bros. 2 for the NES, rushed home to get money for it, only to find it’d been bought by someone else when I returned.
Then there were car boot sales.
Car boot sales were fantastic. Back then, they seemed to be everywhere. Every school hosted one on weekends, and there were massive ones in random fields. My family even participated in some, selling off our old odds ‘n’ sods. Here you could find anything up for grabs. I regularly tried to find a fully working edition of classic MB game Operation, but I couldn’t find one where the patient’s nose lit up red when you touched a main artery or removed a vital organ.
Car boot sales were where I got most of my toys, including a much-desired Donatello (my favourite Ninja Turtle) and a Galvatron (the poor man’s Megatron), which was great except that his cannon didn’t light up; the perils of buying cheap. One of my happiest acquisitions was around 1988, when I got a stack of old Marvel Transformers comics from 1984-85. I got rid of them later because I was an idiot. That’s what happens, though: you dispose of things before you really realise how valuable they are to you.
As for video games, they were a lot more difficult to find and a far riskier purchase because you couldn’t tell if they worked right there and then. Still, when they were as cheap as they sometimes were, it was worth the risk. I remember going crazy with happiness when finding a copy of Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles for the NES, though that was nothing compared to the insanity I later experienced over how difficult the bastard game was.
Diamond in the rough
My ultimate car boot find was Asterix for the Sega Master System. I think it might’ve only been £5, which was phenomenal value back then, given that it would have been £29.99 new.
I bought it on a sunny Saturday afternoon sometime in the summer in Ponders End, Enfield, near the local reservoir – and in perfect condition. I was one of the few kids my age that liked the boxes and manuals – my jaw would drop in horror if I saw a friend buy a new game and throw what they regarded to be ballast into the bin.
What’s more, the bus back home always gave me the opportunity to read the manual, to learn the controls so I could get right into the game. In the case of Asterix, with its dependence on items that needed to be hurled at enemies or used to progress past obstacles, a little preparatory research was very helpful.
I was a massive Asterix fan when I was younger. Unlike periodical comics like Thundercats, Transformers and The Real Ghostbusters, each Asterix comic was an extended individual story. They were book-sized: you didn’t buy them from your newsagent, you borrowed them from your library.
And they were great too: beautifully illustrated, gleefully chaotic and gut-bustingly hilarious. They were set in 50BC in a small French village, the only settlement in the entire country that had managed to resist the almost-all conquering Roman Empire. So how did this tiny group of villagers manage to ward off the enemy?
Resident druid Getafix was able to grant superhuman strength to anyone who supped his magic potion. Of all the villagers, the most heroic was Asterix, a pint-sized, brilliant fighter who would undertake dangerous missions, often abroad with his faithful companion Obelix, an enormous, borderline-invincible tank of a best mate who fell into a cauldron of magic potion as a baby.
Over 25 or so books, Asterix delivered bright, brash and often stupidly hilarious adventures and were, to me and many others, the more irreverent, fantastic flipsides to Herge’s similarly globe-trotting and addictive Tintin books.
Asterix in the third generation
When I got Asterix, the Master System was already playing second fiddle to the superior Mega Drive. Yet Sega still took the time to create exclusive, brilliant games for the older console – it made behind-the-times saps like me still feel wanted and special. Also, it was around this time that the artwork for MS games had changed for the better.
While initial MS game sleeves boasted a neat, uniform, white graph-paper theme, they were often cursed with hilariously bad artwork. Compared to the NES line-up, they looked like the “no frills” line of canned goods from your local Kwik Save. When Sega adopted a new look for the MS covers, the improvements were instantly apparent.
By developing the artwork, Master System games began to look like fresh adventures, and were great alongside the similarly uniform approach of the Mega Drive titles, which were clearly more “adult” with their black graph-paper style. Asterix was unusual in that there were actual screenshots of the game on the front cover, albeit in the background. That’s understandable; the game looked good. I’d’ve wanted to show it off, too.
Because it was based on a comic, its visuals were going to be a lot easier than adapting a movie like Terminator 2: Judgement Day on the NES, where Arnold Schwarzenegger became a non-descript punching machine. Asterix and Obelix really did look like their comic characters, and the game felt like an Asterix book. The graphics were a little bit cuter and softer compared to the sharpness of the comics, but that’s 8-bit art for you.
Asterix started off surprisingly foreboding, with the plot detailing the kidnapping of Getafix, before Asterix and Obelix’s mission to find him. As soon as the heroes literally burst out of the fabric of the title screen alongside Obelix’s pet Dogmatix, the more familiar upbeat vibe of the comics kicked in.
Over eight worlds, you traversed the globe to reach Rome and save Getafix, and each level was wonderfully varied, colourful and challenging. The levels were nicely linked with lovely panels that could have come from the pages of the comics themselves, and they strung the action together beautifully.
On the map screen, there was an option to play as either character, although the first two levels forced you to play as Asterix and Obelix respectively: this way you could try both characters before settling on a later preference.
Both were tasty in a fight, although Obelix’s method of attack was clearly the more spectacular as, just like in the books, he slammed a fist directly down on his opponent’s head. Both characters could also jump and attack an enemy from above, though again, Obelix was more impressive as he literally destroyed the enemy with his massive arse.
There were also items that were essential for later progress: Asterix could obtain explosive red liquid that would blow up impeding blocks, as well as enemies. They could also be thrown into water to produce a temporary spring that you stepped on to walk above the surface.
Obelix could gain unlimited access to menhirs – those stone pillars he was always carrying in the books – which could be used for the same purposes as the red liquid, although they weren’t required to destroy blocks, as Obelix could do that anyway thanks to his sheer strength.
Later, you could also use beakers of fire to melt ice, or weird green gunk to walk over acidic sewage. Using these effectively took a little while to master, but they added great variety to the action.
Each level also had a key you needed to exit the level. Most of the time, these were hidden in blue vases (though some vases were booby-trapped), but in one exception a magpie had it, which you had to kill to retrieve it. Some early levels had bosses, but this was soon abandoned for no apparent reason.
There were also other items to collect, such as food and drink to replenish your life bar, bags of money to raise your point scores and, er, bones. If you got 50 bones, you accessed the bonus stage as Dogmatix.
Dogmatix was like Scrappy Doo, but nowhere near as much of an arsehole. You jumped from floating bubble to bubble, popping them but being careful not to fall from them. If you did, you had no choice but take the ground route while the bubbles floated out of reach. Given how long it could take to acquire 50 bones, you’d rarely see the stage more than once per playthrough.
As a real, rare blessing for the era, continues were unlimited. Starting off with four lives, you were likely to make it through a fair chunk of the game without needing a continue, especially since extra lives were regularly scattered throughout the levels or awarded for certain point scores. There were some challenging moments throughout the its early stages, but for the most part, the game was perfectly approachable and manageable.
My only issues were that the whole combat element was a bit slapdash. You couldn’t really approach enemies and punch them at the same time – the timing always seemed to mess up and I wound up losing a piece of life and not actually hitting my foe. Still, so long as I was happy to not rush my way into battle, this was easily avoidable. Also, swimming could be a pain; timing the jumps from water to the ground above could be difficult. Still, overall, it wasn’t too difficult.
That was until towards the end. Oh man, this game would just keep taking your lives. Luckily, you didn’t always have to start at the beginning of the level every time (there are unmarked restart points), and thankfully when using a continue, it would take you back to the start of the level, not the whole world.
Yet for Worlds 6 and 7, particularly their final acts, all the continues in the world only served to prolong the agony. It’s when Asterix stopped being a breezily delightful challenge and made you as crazy as Julius Caesar when yet another garrison of Roman soldiers came back from Gaul completely battered. It didn’t help that the music for these levels was insanely shrill and repetitive.
World 6-3 was evil. The odds were that you died almost immediately, as a layer of fire rose from the ground nearly instantly, which meant you got caught in the flames if you hesitated. As middle-fingers to gamers go, it’s up there with the poison mushroom at the start of the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2.
The level then offered up a horrendous section where you had to jump onto a moving platform that zigzagged up and down between spiked ceilings and grounds (it’s not made at all obvious that you can slow down the platform). What made it worse was that you had to temporarily jump off the platform in order to grab the all-important key, and then jump back on. If anyone managed to perform this first time round, I salute you. I mean, I hate you, but still salute you.
World 7-3 was even worse. Its second section began with a straightforward but bastardly series of jumps on descending platforms that required supernatural skill. With Asterix it was impossible. As Obelix, the jumps were positioned just differently enough to make it doable. Tricky is fine, but unfair is just, well, unfair. And I lost a lot of lives.
Speaking of relentless loss of life, let’s talk about death throes. Every platform game has them, and we all have our individual examples that burn us to the very core of our soul. Maybe it was Super Mario Land with its annoying rapid-fire music, or maybe GoldenEye 007, which replayed your death at different angles to really rub it in.
However, the deaths in Asterix were hilarious. Asterix’s death was brutal, efficient and justly mean; he flailed and let his hands and arms go limp in an act of absolute surrender. But Obelix… the way he died absolutely cracked me up. Instead of falling off screen, Obelix performed an acrobatic full-body swirl, creating the least dignified exit of any video game character ever. He fell arse over tit.
Yet, as horrendous as World 7 was, completing it delivered exhausted euphoria few games provide. Of course, there was another act to go, but that was a total doddle. Despite being credited as World 8-1, there were no follow-up levels. Throwing a total curveball to the game’s mechanics, you endured what should have been the deadliest chariot race since Ben-Hur, but was pretty much regarded by all as an anti-climax (there had to be an Asterix character with that name, right?).
As for me, I was just so relieved to complete the game after the horrors of the previous worlds, albeit emotionally bruised and mentally battered following hours scraping past levels with an unhealthy ratio of luck to talent.
Shortly after, I consigned my Master System II to the world of trade-ins, and I wouldn’t play one again for many, many years. Even then, I’d get rid of it again. Today, with what is the third Master System I’ve owned, I once again bought a copy of Asterix for a fiver from CeX, with the intention of revisiting it sometime.
Well, it’s been a few years since that purchase and thanks to the delightful incentive of GameTripper, I dedicated a day off work to party like it was 50BC.
Across a few hours, I managed to replay the entirety of Asterix in a single go, and wow, did I experience the whole spectrum of emotions once more.
Rollercoaster of emotions
Thankfully, Asterix is still a total delight, and plays, for the most part, very nicely. Memories of that sunny day when I bought the game, mixed with my happiness of owning it, playing it and working through the challenges all came to mind; it’s still bright, funny and full of personality. 2019 became 1991 and it was back to a time where even games on your average phone have more technical sophistication than the likes of Asterix, but the hell with it, I’m in my late 30s (practically Geriatrix) and still love the old school!
Unfortunately, those later levels were still horrendous. My hair’s receding enough as it is, I don’t need to be pulling out more of it due to frustrations over a nearly 30-year-old game. I replayed it a few days later with a good friend of mine and he was experiencing the same emotions. He even remembered that decades ago, he made up lyrics to go with the music of one particularly evil level just so he could keep his sanity intact long enough to complete the game. When he told me about this silly made-up ditty that he probably hadn’t thought of in over 25 years, we were both in hysterics.
So there you have it: Asterix, one of the finest 8-bit platformers, giver of much pleasure yet some pain too. I’ll revisit it again one day, but not for a while. Unless someone’s got some magic potion in supply, I don’t think I’ve got the strength to revisit Gaul any time soon…
- Wonderfully faithful to the original comics
- For the most part, a fun challenge with variety
- Lots of levels – you get your money’s worth
- World 6-3 and World 7-3. Go away, World 6-3 and World 7-3
- Combat and handling can sometimes be irritating
- Later music may drive you to madness
For all its minor flaws, Asterix remains one of the key games to have been based on a comic, TV show or film – the fact it was exclusive to the Master System made it even more special. It utilised the strengths and limitations of the console beautifully, meaning it’s barely dated at all. If it wasn’t for later lapses into unfairness, re-playing it would be a non-stop delight. Still, for the most part this is one of the most purely enjoyable games of its era.