For the last two weeks, I've been writing about my experiences attempting to play through Athena on the NES, something I'd never managed before. I've always liked the game, and in some respects it's typical of the sort of games I like to this day: multiple routes through individual stages and occasionally a choice of stages; upgradeable armor and weapons with different strengths and utilities; and a final level that takes elements and lessons from all the previous levels and uses them to great effect (see also Rez, Braid, and Flower for great examples of this).
But here at the other side of my first successful playthrough, some of my appreciation for Athena has been tempered by a more complete understanding of the game as a whole. I've always thought that the average gamer could get to the third level, the World of Sea, where he'd probably be stymied either by losing the Shell Necklace before the narrow passage or by the difficulty of fighting the Boss. I think the skilled gamer could get to the fifth level, the World of Ice.
My main disappointment with Athena, now that I've seen all of it, is that it requires an incredible amount of fore-knowledge to be successful. Look at this list of things you *need to know* in order to get through Athena successfully:
World of Sea - You need to get and keep a Shell Necklace in order to pass through the narrow gap before the Boss. If you want to take advantage of the safe spot to attack him, you need a ranged weapon like a Wand or Bow.
World of Sky - You need to know that once you drop down to the lower level, you need to climb back up to the upper level instead of passing through the wall if you want to fight the Boss. If you don't have the Lamp and you fail to do that, it's back to the start of the World.
World of Ice - You need to have a Bow before you fight the Boss, or you will be unable to damage him at all. You'll need to die and restart the World of Ice from the beginning. Furthermore, when you kill the Boss you must be SURE to pick up Pandora's Box. If you don't, your game is over and there's no point in continuing.
World of Hell - You need to know that if you die on this World and don't have a K Slate, meaning that you lose all your items, your game is over and there's no point in continuing. You can't damage the Boss unless you have Pandora's Box from the previous World, and if you lose it there's no way to get another one.
World of Labyrinth - You need to know that there is no Boss on this World, so you're dependent on getting a Lamp if you want to finish the level. Furthermore, you need to know that the Harp of Protection is hidden in the World, but there's also a Fake Harp that will take away all your items. You need to know which Harp is fake and which one is real.
World of Worlds - You need to know not to pick up the Flaming Sword right before the Final Boss, or you'll be making life extraordinarily difficult for yourself. You also need to know the sequence of targets on the Final Boss (shield arm, sword arm, chest mouth, flying heads) and also that though it may seem like you're not damaging the heads, you need to trust that swinging your sword when they get close is in fact hitting them.
For all of these reasons, it's very clear to me now that I was never in any danger of finishing Athena during my childhood. Even if I had consistently been able to clear the World of Ice, there were still the undocumented pitfalls of the World of Hell and the World of Labyrinth remaining, not to mention an incredibly long final level (die once and it's all the way back to the beginning of the World of Worlds, not just the beginning of that particular section) and very frustrating Final Boss encounter.
I still like how complicated Athena is, and how much game there is that most people never saw, but from a design perspective it's incredibly obtuse and unforgiving. I'm glad I've seen the ending, such as it is, but part of me is a little sad that my positive impression of Athena receded somewhat the more I played of it.