Sometimes there are games that aren’t the most fun to play today, but remain significant from a historical perspective nonetheless. SNK’s 1986 title Athena, in both its arcade and NES incarnations, definitely falls into that category.
Acting as a spiritual predecessor to Psycho Soldier but having pretty much nothing to do with it — the “Athena” in this game is supposedly a distant ancestor of the “Athena” in Psycho Soldier, so it’s not even the same character — Athena is a monstrously challenging platform action game that does a lot of interesting things… and a lot of frustrating things!
Let’s take a closer look.
In Athena, you take on the role of the eponymous heroine, who has become bored with life in the castle of the Kingdom of Victory. One day she decides to open the “Door That Should Not Be Opened”, which is presumably named because it causes anyone who opens it to lose all their clothing and then fall down a big hole, and thus begins an adventure through a fantasy realm, ultimately culminating in a showdown against Dante, a Cerberus-inspired villain who is terrorising said fantasy realm.
Athena is an interesting game conceptually because it eschews a lot of arcade game conventions, offering both a non-linear progression through the various sections of its levels as well as an RPG-style progression system. As we’ve seen in a number of the other games from the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, mid to late-’80s SNK was fascinated with the idea of incorporating player progression into a variety of different game types, and it’s through the addition of these interesting mechanics — among other things! — that titles such as Alpha Mission, Bermuda Triangle and World Wars distinguish themselves from their contemporaries.
A game like Athena is arguably a more natural fit for RPG-style mechanics than your average shoot ’em up, and indeed this side of things works well here. Beginning with nothing more than a rather feeble kick attack, Athena can gradually upgrade her various capabilities by acquiring new weapons, pieces of armour and special artifacts, each of which increases her overall power level somewhat.
The nice thing about the upgrades is that they aren’t all simple things like increasing health or damage power. Some of them add additional mechanics and conveniences to the game — one item allows you to see which breakable blocks on the screen contain items, for example, while the various weapons run the gamut from long-range crossbows to short range but powerful slashing swords. In order to successfully clear the game, certain items are essential to progress; others simply make your life a little easier along the way.
The other cool thing about the upgrades is that they have an immediate visual impact on the game, too. This is most obvious with the armour, which covers up Athena’s near-nakedness and makes it clear that she’s a lot less vulnerable than she was. Each new weapon carries with it its own unique sprite and animation, too, and part of the pleasure of discovery in the game comes from seeing what the various items look like, what they do in practice and whether or not they have any special properties.
Make no mistake, this was an arcade title first and foremost, and it shows. As fun as it is to get these upgrades, it’s easy to lose them and find yourself having to start all over again. It’s extremely difficult to progress even within the first “world” of the game, and the mechanics are extremely unforgiving of mistakes.
The sluggish controls don’t help matters much, either, particularly with the seeming unpredictability of whether or not Athena will do a large or a small jump after she has collected the winged “Mercury’s Boots” item. There’s “challenging to sucker more quarters out of ’80s kids” and then there’s “doesn’t work quite as well as it perhaps could”!
As troublesome as it can be to play, though, Athena remains charming and oddly addictive. It has an immensely appealing visual style, emphasising the “cute” rather than “sexy” aspects of its heroine, despite the fact that her most iconic outfit is nothing more than a rather skimpy red bikini. The mythological inspirations of the various enemies are clear, and they’re all distinct from one another, allowing you to learn both their key behaviours and what items they are likely to drop on defeat.
The non-linear progression is neat, too, providing the feeling of a slightly different experience each time you play by allowing you to take different routes to your goal. While it’s not a truly open world per se, it gives each stage the feeling of being a coherent environment to explore rather than a simple assault course waiting for you to get from one end to the other. Interestingly, you can also change the order in which you visit the various worlds of the game according to the route you take — very unusual for games of the time.
Perhaps more significantly, one can also probably trace an indirect line from this game to later exploratory platformers such as 1987’s The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, since both those games incorporate similar ideas of combining conventional platform game mechanics with RPG-style progression and equippable items. This is what makes Athena a significant game; while there are most certainly frustrating aspects from a mechanical perspective, the potential that the overall game structure offers clearly shines through, and this is a big contributing factor to its addictiveness.
The desire to “just see what happens if I go that way instead” is alive and well in gaming even today, and while it’s foolish to suggest that Athena was exclusively responsible for that, it definitely played a contributing factor in the development of that side of gaming — as well as demonstrating how this concept might be incorporated into a genre of game that had traditionally taken a rather straightforward, linear approach to level progression up until this point.
So while in some respects Athena is a difficult game to go back to today — especially if you’re someone lacking in patience or prone to fits of controller-flinging rage! — it remains significant from a historical perspective, and a title worth taking some time to explore.
Plus, you know, if nothing else: cute girl in red bikini!
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