Ristar and Astal share many things in common, they were both two-dimensional side-scrolling games developed by Sega for release in 1995, and neither managed to perform terribly well. Both series were lost to the nether of Sega’s gradual slip from the spotlight of gaming that occurred following the commercial failure of the 32X, whose failure was perhaps most clearly marked by the poor reception received by its flagship release Knuckles’ Chaotix, another 1995 Sega side-scrolling game.
Ristar, Astal, and Knuckles’ Chaotix were only able to get a chance to begin with as Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega’s hit side-scroller series, stepped to the back-burner while it prepared itself for a transition into the realm of 3D graphics that was intended to be fulfilled on Sega’s upcoming Sega Saturn platform—more on that tragedy later.
I even find Ristar’s and Astal’s main characters to be equals in design: while Ristar himself was a shooting star awakened by the Star Goddess Oruto, Astal was crafted from a jewel by the goddess Antowas, as was Astal’s lover, Leda. Though, in a trend common at the time, Ristar’s story was altered for its North American localization, omitting Oruto and his awakening at her hands.
At the same time, despite their equally charming protagonists, the games could not be more different. While Ristar was a Sonic Team game, Astal was simply a Sega title. Though released the same year, Ristar was released during the Sega Genesis' final days while Astal was released to the vacuum of a library that the Sega Saturn had due to its “surprise” launch several months early.
Both games were unable to garner the needed attention from gamers but for wholly different reasons: Ristar being overlooked as the Sega Genesis lost its appeal in favour of its upcoming successor, the Sega Saturn, and somewhat ironically, Astal being unable to gain traction with the Sega Saturn’s lackluster performance.
Ristar was largely acclaimed by critics, who noted both its similarities and differences to Sonic the Hedgehog, while Astal’s reviews were more varied, with an emphasis on just how short the game really was (something reviewers had, however, also noted about Ristar). In 2008 however, Astal did make IGN’s Levi Buchanan’s Top 10 Sega Saturn Games, where Buchanan noted that Astal was “a beautiful example of a fading genre”, just another indicator of Astal’s small, but devout fan base despite the game’s lackluster critical reception.
Despite their similarities, differences, and apparent weaknesses I adore both games to an extent that is perhaps hard to justify. They do both bear a resemblance to Sega’s beloved Sonic the Hedgehog series, Ristar much more so, and I can appreciate that about them but I love them more deeply than perhaps even my favourites of the Sonic games.
I have to admit I am quite partial to side-scrollers, I’ve been enamored with them since, as a toddler, I was introduced to Super Mario Bros. To be fair I do love video games more generally, but side-scrollers have always held a special place in my heart, with Klonoa: Door to Phantomile becoming my all-time favourite and more recent releases like Ori and the Blind Forest joining that list of favourites as well.
Maybe in part it’s the simplicity of what is specifically required of me going into any side-scroller. Each time I pick up a side-scroller I know exactly what I can expect as far as the core of the gameplay goes. There’s definitely a level of comfort in first taking control of your character and exploring that first level ahead of you as the screen scrolls along. Even if the mechanics of the game vary as tremendously as they do from a metroidvania to a run-n-gun, that familiarity’s comfort never subsides.
But there is something rather unique to these games beyond familiarity, they just exhume “charm”. Many side-scrollers do, the Sonic the Hedgehog series of games still has die-hard fans of its early days even after such a slew of questionable releases that Sega withdrew titles from its catalogue to maintain brand value. Characters like Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog rarely (if ever) go unrecognized and quite frankly their designs are uniquely brilliant.
Character design is an absurdly strong suit of countless side-scrollers, beyond even the standard fare fan-favourites like Sonic and Mario. Astal and Ristar are certainly no exception to this. Perhaps the character designs are so strong in side-scrollers because, for the most part, the game more or less is the character it centers on. When you play Ristar, you play the entire game as Ristar: you experience the story from Ristar’s perspective and the game’s mechanics can be boiled down to two aspects: Ristar’s abilities and the stage’s mechanics (which in turn, you deal with using Ristar’s abilities). The same is true for most side-scrollers, there isn’t a cast of characters or a “party” system, as often seen in RPGs, you simply are Astal or are Sonic. Though, to be fair, Astal’s bird partner does come out to help Astal and is available even in a two-player cooperative mode.
On top of the charm of the characters, there’s often an equal amount of charm in the presentation, and while Ristar is a great looking game, it’s impossible not to talk about Astal’s outstanding imagery. Astal used beautifully hand-drawn graphics to invoke an ethereal, amethyst landscape. Astal’s “crafted from a jewel” aesthetic is pushed to its limit, with most enemies bearing the same dream-like and crystalline appearances. Astal’s beautiful graphics were anything but unnoticed, Jennifer Diane Reitz of happypuppy.com, (at the time the most visited gaming website on the internet), called Astal an “ Exquisitely beautiful, lovely, wonderful fare”.
So Ristar and Astal are beautiful games, perhaps even pillars of a genre as it came to its final breaths, but what happened to them really?
Well, Ristar garnered enough attention to see the release of another title, also simply named Ristar, to Sega’s handheld Game Gear system, and later cameos in other Sega games such as the Japan-only release Segagaga or the more recent Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. Ristar has also seen a number of rereleases, including to PC and Android/iOS.
Astal, largely passed over along with the whole of the Sega Saturn was less fortunate, and has yet to see so much as a cameo or rerelease. If against the odds, you’ve managed to keep a copy of the original release for the Sega Saturn, truly cherish it, as it seems unlikely Sega will revisit this one any time soon.
Neither series took off. Perhaps in part, Sega couldnt afford either series much attention as it scrambled through the mid 90’s to try and get Sonic’s next mainline release out the door—this of course did not happen on the Sega Saturn at all, as blunder after blunder held the game to be known as Sonic X-treme back, leaving Saturn owners with rereleases of older Sonic titles, the spin-off Sonic R (an on-foot racing game with questionable controls), or the next best option, Nights Into Dreams which outshone both Ristar and Astal in sales with its unique design, gameplay and 3D graphics. That said, Nights hasn’t received much more love from Sega than Ristar has.
Had, perhaps Sonic X-treme not been ultimately cancelled after several failed attempts at a saving grace, such as the motion to obtain Nights Into Dream’s engine, Sega may have been able to afford more attention in their heyday to bringing these series to the forefront. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be and Sega struggled with Sonic’s 3D transition right through until the release of Sonic Adventure on the Sega Dreamcast towards the very end of 1998.
Surely there are other factors in not continuing Ristar and Astal’s respective series, in Astal’s case it likely made little sense with the very apparent lack of a fanbase. However, these games do live on through their (somewhat negligible) cult followings, which I’m more than proud to be a part of.