Back in December of 1996, SunSoft released a wacky and insane 2D fighter for the Neo Geo titled Waku Waku 7, this is the "sequel" to their 1995 title, Galaxy Fight. Now, fast forward roughly two years and meet the "supposed" ST-V based sequel to Waku Waku 7, Astra Superstars. I say "supposed" because, as far as I can tell, Astra Superstars has very little to do with Waku Waku 7, character wise or gameplay wise.
At first glance, Astra Superstars seems like your typical 2D fighter from SunSoft with its nicely animated colorful anime-esque characters. And yes, at its base Astra Superstars is just a 2D fighter. But, it's a 2D fighter that takes place in the air. That's right; both characters are floating for the entire match. Which basically equates to "Hey, you know how in fighting games pushing up makes you jump? Well in this one, you can do that, AND YOU CAN PUSH DOWN!" Indeed, Astra Superstars does present one of the most unique concepts I've ever witnessed in a 2D fighter, as the ability to jump either up or down does present an interesting twist to the genre. But of course, as most fighting game fanatics would be quick to ask, if you push down, doesn't that limit your special moves?
Like I said above, the game plays like most 2D fighters do, except it takes place in the air and pushing down actually makes your character jump down. So pretty much the entire screen is game for the fight, and if you don't want your ass handed to you, it should be used. Each character is given 6 basic attacks, obviously keyed to each of the 6 face buttons on the Saturn pad. Typically (but not always) the bottom buttons (A,B,C) are used for the punch based attacks and the top buttons (X,Y,Z) are used for the ... other ... attacks. Each character has their own style of fighting, in the sense that not everyone has the regular "punches and kicks". For instance, for Stella the top row is used for three different magic based attacks (beam, whirlwind, and star), whereas for Lettuce they are used for the straight forward power punches. I could probably spend the rest of this review going over what each character's set of attacks is, but lets just say none of them really share the same types of attacks.
So where does that leave us? Ah yes, combos, the pride and joy of many the 2D fighting fan. There's nothing quite like stringing along a bunch of complex moves and maneuvers to really dish out the damage is there? Well, out are the complex moves and maneuvers and in is the tapping of A and finishing it off with any one of the other attacks. Oh sure, you can "link" attacks, go into a rapid punch combo, knock the player down to the bottom of the screen, pursue, and whip out a special move. But the fact remains that the combos in this game typically consist of 4 buttons used on average.
Speaking of special moves, they are present in Astra Superstars. Well, not the standard fireball movements that most 2D fighting fans would be accustomed to, but more the simple B+Y and C+Z that button mashers would love. Yes, every character has two special moves and one power-up move (A+X) that they can use pending on how full their power meter is. The power-meter, obviously, fills up as you dish out or receive a beating and can fill up to 3 bars. Each "special attack" will use 1 bar. Therefore, if you have 3 bars, and time it right, C+Z, C+Z, C+Z, can turn into one hell of a combo. I guess the point I'm getting at here is that the "advanced" 2D fighting fans may be a bit turned off with the simplicity of Astra Superstars. Yes, you can get really good and learn the game and beat the crap out of most people, but regardless button mashers will still be able to make you sweat on their first play (more than likely anyways).
Now, there's no need to panic just yet as the game does have one spiffy little maneuver that can come in handy: Dash Behind (well, that's what I call it). Dash Behind works when a character gets close to another character, you can press forward and the C button, and your character will dash around the opponent, so you can lay waste to them from behind. This comes in handy when someone decides to go on a "special move" combo fest and you're blocking: simply dash behind them, and while they continue to hack away at the air in front of them you can unleash hell on their defenseless back (I would say ass but given the circumstances, well, no).
Speaking of blocking, blocking is absolute in this game. While you block, no damage will be taken. Of course, block too much and your character will start to blink, and if they get to blinking red and get hit hard enough, they'll flail about in the air giving the opponent an opportunity to "pinball" them. Pinballing occurs whenever a block has been broken, the character is rendered stunned for a few seconds, and the opponent knocks the hell out of them. The result? The character that gets hit will turn into a ball and bounce around the screen for a few seconds, taking damage every time they hit a wall as well as if the opponent hits them.
And that's the basic premise of the game. Technique comes in the form of knocking your opponent into the air with an uppercut and flying after them, beating the crap out of them at the top of the screen, then knocking them back down to the bottom of the screen only to pursue and repeat. In fact, truth be told this game seems to employ more of a "who can dominate the fight the longest" than anything you'll see in Street Fighter or King of Fighters. To some, this method of gameplay may seem a bit, well, simple. But I personally find it incredibly fast-paced and a fresh breath from the typical "block... block ... block ... attack ... block ... block ... block ... attack" tactics that most 2D fighters employ. Sure, you can block a lot in Astra Superstars, and then your ass will get pinballed around the screen a lot too. Overall, Astra Superstars provides a simple, yet engaging, alternative to the typical 2D fighting game that proves to be a lot of fun if you can get into it.