The NES had a lot of bad games. Most of them were lazy sports titles, licensed games based on mostly-forgotten TV shows or anything released by LJN. However, there were quite a few standalone releases that could fall under the category of “worst games on the NES.” Athena (launched in Japan in arcades and on the Famicom as “Psycho Soldier”; a title referencing the lead character’s psionic powers) is an action platformer from SNK starring a purple-haired heroine fighting game fans may know from the excellent King of Fighters games where she has become a staple fan-favorite Here however, Athena is a stiff, ugly, broken character who could have faded into obscurity if SNK did not later become one of the most prolific and successful arcade game companies of all time a few years after this disaster’s release.
As SNK had been making games since the 70’s, they had a few projects behind them that they could use to pad their resume, but before Ikari Warriors made them a household name, Athena was their ‘Mario’. Athena is a platformer in the vein of Castlevania where you swing a bat, stick, whip or some other weapon to fight off the game’s many baddies as you traverse a colorful world. Being from 1986, SNK was not able to harness the full visual potential of the NES the way Konami’s graphical benchmark Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse did a few years later in 1989, but they made an effort… a failed, miserable effort. The levels look half-finished, with attempts at adding lushness to the environment clashing with the background through contrasting colors. This color scheme can look quite good in other games (as is the case with the Mega Man and Super Mario Bros. series from the same period), but in Athena it just comes off as constraining and ugly. The use of browns and gold colors mixed with the flat umber or sky blue backgrounds create a strange visual effect making it seem less like being in a open space and more like the world is caving in on you. Additionally, play sessions are plagued with graphical glitches including (but definitely not limited to) flickering, scrambling and disappearing actors, all of which are worsened as the already cluttered screen further fills up with endless and seemingly-random enemy spawns and their erratic, impetuous attacks. There was seemingly little optimization done for the game’s NES port from the arcade release so playing Athena puts the console through a stress test it is not quite able to manage.
Worsening an issue already created by the visuals is the level design. The world is filled with cramped spaces, oddly-shaped roadblocks that have to be broken through or jumped over and enemies that fill every walkable area of the screen or appear out from the background or the sides of the screen suddenly and unexpectedly. Some of these design choices have worked in other, better games in the past, but not here. The crux of the problems faced when playing Athena manifest when you combine the feckless world design and the atrociously-inconsistent gameplay. The attacks are short and slow and the jumping is incredibly awkward. The jumping mechanics follow a three-jump-rule, where you do three consecutive jumps and the third one will be a high jump. In combat this proves to be incredibly frustrating when an attempt to attack an enemy on an elevated platform or even jump over a simple pit can send you soaring into an overhead threat if you do not count your jumps and space movements apart appropriately. In fact, the jumping is so bad that this one mechanical issue transforms Athena from a dull, bland platforming yarn to a dreadful, near-unplayable mess.
As if Athena weren’t frustrating enough, there are some good aspects to the game that could have made this a classic which only makes it feel like a miserable missed opportunity. It does a lot of interesting things with equipment, for-instance. Many enemies will drop their weapons when defeated and you can pick these weapons up. Their attacks vary in look, speed, range and damage adding welcome variety and strategy to the otherwise simplistic combat. Armor can also be found hidden in pieces in special breakable blocks scattered throughout the world, adding incentive to explore and break through the various roadblocks along the way and instead of just appearing as icons in your HUD, they are added to your character as if to give you a visual queue of growing strength. The boss designs are passable as well, being intimidating with mechanics that could be considered pretty advanced for their time. However, the bad controls, cluttered environments, awkward jumping and unattractive visuals drag this one beyond being just a mediocre platformer into the candidacy for one of the worst games on the NES.
Now, it is obligatory to address the otherwise positive legacy of the titular character. Most players in North America were introduced to Athena Asamiya by her appearance in King of Fighters ‘94, where she quickly became a fan-favorite fighting game character. Athena was part of the team “Psycho Soldiers” alongside fellow fighters Kensou and Chin and was also associated with the bouncing Psycho Ball launching kid-of-unknown-origin Bao (I will stop there in order to avoid opening up the towering can of sandworms that is the SNK character relationships flowchart). She has since become a staple of the storied franchise, featuring in just about every SNK fighter released since 1994. Sadly though, Athena’s humble beginnings on the NES still haunt gamers who may suffer flashbacks of the bitter frustration of playing this terrible game for the first time.