By all accounts, Astro Warrior is unremarkable. It’s a competent 8-bit shooter; but being, as it is, a product of the 1980’s, it falls victim to many of the nostalgia-shattering tropes that plagued early consoles in their first strides away from their quarter-hungry arcade brethren. Unforgiving controls are the worst offender, with speed powerups making it simultaneously easier to evade enemies and more difficult to avoid crashing into them. Add to that the kind of relentless difficulty that justifies a game with only three zones. Every powerup is greedily and hastily accumulated, culminating in a multi-option death machine that slices through entire fleets of enemy fighters… until any single mistake strips you back down to the base ship, stranded in a now-overwhelming sea of enemy units and fire.
But I was young and oblivious to concepts like design and quality. I played the first stage over and over, each frustrated rage-quit lasting only a few minutes before my next attempt. (After all, my only other option was Altered Beast.) Glossed over as my memories are of the game, I’m sure I never conquered Zanoni, the first of the game’s three bosses; but that didn’t keep me from playing the game, nor did it keep me from remembering it as awesome twenty years later.
See, my mother worked part-time at the local hospital. A few days a week, after picking me and my brother up from school, she’d take us back with her to work the last few hours on her shift. That Master System in the children’s recovery room was the most advanced video game system we had ever seen. That we had never seen past the first stage was a detail as easily ignored then as the game’s design flaws are now (with the benefit of rose-tinted glasses, of course).
Playing through the game again now, I think about everything that was just a little bit beyond me at the time: about my younger self, always falling just short of getting to that second level, all the while blissfully unconcerned with the hard work that brought me there.
Today, Astro Warrior can only really survive through nostalgia. For some, that might strip the game of all value; but, in the end, nostalgia isn’t about the object of a memory as much as the context that it returns us to. Astro Warrior might be objectively unremarkable, but to me it will always be a reminder of my mother–a symbol of her dedication to her children and her family. For that, Astro Warrior will always be a classic in my book.