Remember The Times: Rygar (NES)

Rygar
Developer: Tecmo
Publisher: Tecmo
Genre: Platform/Action RPG
Release Date: July 15, 1987 (North America)

I admit it: my criticism of Tecmo in my Unbranding the Sheep column was a bit depressing. One would assume I hate Tecmo, judging by what I wrote. The truth is, I don’t really like what they’ve become as a game publisher, but I adored their games as a child. Tecmo Bowl, Star Force, Bad News Baseball (My personal favourite baseball game of the NES era, despite what those Baseball Stars cultists might say)… heck, I even loved Mighty Bomb Jack.

With all that said, one game stood out for me, above all the others, and it’s complete box stands proudly on my personal Wall of Fame, along with games such as Super Mario Bros., the Lunar series, and my Fire Emblem collection; only the best games in my library make my Wall of Fame.

Rygar deserves it’s spot on the wall, and wears it proudly.

It’s funny that of all the games that gained prominence in the NES era, Rygar’s innovations, combined with it’s rock-solid gameplay, are so easily overlooked. The franchise is so moribund at this point that it might as well be retired – The Battle of Argus WILL sell poorly, I guarantee it – which is sad, because not only was the NES version of Rygar a forerunner of other genre-bending games, the Playstation 2 game The Legendary Adventure provided a nice little paint-by-numbers canvas for Sony to use on God of War. I come to praise a game that, in 1987, combined two types of game that, if my memory serves me right, hadn’t been combined to this degree, or with this level of success at the time.

First off, it should be noted that the NES version of Rygar is an extension of the arcade hit from the same name. The arcade title, by itself, was an unremarkable title that was truly notable for two reasons: the cheap deaths it put you through, and the most evil continue function I’ve ever seen. You were allowed to continue, infinitely, up until chapter 21 (out of 30), after which game over was game over; no continues allowed. I learned this the hard way, after putting in what would have been the equivalent of $6.50 worth of quarters (I played the original Rygar on one of those customized cabinets running MAME), then having my game just end. I wasted no money, thankfully, but I did blow an hour of my time, and I can’t imagine what it was like as a Japanese youth, blowing hard earned yen on the game to have it do that. Incidentally, the arcade version of Rygar is available in the Tecmo Classic Arcade collection, but that collection is horrible – Tecmo’s best games were all on the NES with no exception – and even at the current going rate ($5 at Gamestop), it’s not worth the trip.

The story of the game is that the evil king Ligar ended up usurping the Kingdom of Argus (transliterated in America as “Argool”) from the five Indora Gods, and established the Kingdom of EVIL (yes, it’s actually caps-locked in the instruction booklet), and took away the Door of Peace, symbolic of the everlasting piece of Argue under Indora. The Indora Gods, in response, the people of Argus prayed for the hero of legend to be resurrected from the dead, and sure enough, the legendary Rygar comes to save the day. Anyone with a modicum of Japanese knowledge will think “hey, Ligar and Rygar sound pretty close”, and they’ll be right; Ligar and Rygar are the same in Japanese, as the hero didn’t have a name in the original Japanese version.

Gameplay in itself is simple; Rygar has a weapon called a Diskarmor, which is essentially a shield on the end of a chain, like a very large yo-yo. It’s a standard melee weapon, that you use the B button to strike with; A jumps, and you can change direction mid-flight. What’s innovative about the gameplay is that there are RPG elements to it, as you beat enemies, you gain stats in Tone (attack power) and Last (your life; as you gain Last, you gain health bars, for a max of twelve; you also get one last hit if all of your health is white). Stronger enemies give more stats. Also, enemies drop either capsules (shown as stars) or life potions; the latter replenishes one life bar, but the former allows for magic spells that can make your life easier; three capsules is a “Power Up”, which extends the reach and speed of your Diskarmor, five capsules is what is called an “Attack and Assail”, which gives you ten shots of your weapon which will damage everyone on screen (this was great in theory, but useless in practise), and a full seven capsules could be used to recover all life. For a game released in 1987 – just after Dragon Quest hit in Japan, and before any significant RPG hit the console market in America – the infusion of RPG and platforming elements is mind-blowing, and I don’t think anyone at the time realized just how far ahead of it’s time Rygar was just based on this alone.

One of the first things that’s noticeable about the game is that the stage environments are gorgeous by 1987 standards. I consider the initial sunrise level shown in these pictures to be one of the seiminal first stages in video game history, and an indellable mark on gaming history. The rest of the stages look good as well, with vibrant colours and lush environments that got the most out of the limited NES hardware. It’s a good thing everything looks good, because backtracking is a necessity in this game, so enjoy the scenery.

Rygar is not just a side scrolling platform game, however; there’s also overhead sections, which add some variety to the gameplay. They’re not just there for window dressing; the main one – Garloz – is a key hub to every single relevant point in the game, and the last stage is overhead as well. They play differently than the horizontal stages; you can jump to avoid anything and everything, but you can’t jump on enemies (in horizontal stages, most enemies can be paralysed temporarily by jumping on them). It’s a great way to change things up without breaking the flow of the game.

A large part of the game is based around exploration; one of the key items you get in the game is a grappling hook, which you can use to shoot up to, or climb down from, some ledges. Since a lot of places you have to go are off screen, it involves a lot of randomly shooting up and climbing down to see what’s where, all while you’re being attacked. It’s a little bit like Zelda in a sense, because if you don’t know where you’re going, a lot of time can be used just seeing what leads where. Also, there are a lot of areas you can’t go without the requisite item; a crossbow for making it across certain large pits, or the flute to get to Ligar’s castle are two examples I can think of just off the top of my head.

At the end of every major area, there’s a boss fight. These rely on pattern memorization, twitch reflexes, and flat-out overpowering the boss through a built-up character. Some of the fights, especially Ligar, can be flat-out annoying, with your character taking some cheap hits, but ultimately, the reward for beating a boss, other than self-satisfaction, it an item that directly leads to your quest becoming easier, such as body armour to reduce the damage you take, or a coat of arms that allows you to get medicine from some of the various Indora gods you find throughout the game.

For all Rygar does right, there’s one major, unholy thing it does wrong: no save mode whatsoever. No battery, no password, nothing. If you shut your system off – or worse, if your game cut out, as old NES systems were wont to do – you lost your progress. This used to lead to us, as young gamers, leaving our systems on overnight in order to finish the game, and more than one instance of internal household strife, as our parents would notice the system on and shut it off. “You’re gonna burn it out!” was a common refrain from my own mother, until I got good enough at Rygar to beat it in one sitting. If anything is a proponent of the benefits of modern system emulators and their save state function, it’s Rygar’s lack of a save mode. Thankfully, dying wasn’t too much of a problem, as game over led you back to the title screen, where you’d restart at the beginning of the area in which you died, with three life bars.

In conclusion, Rygar is one of the greatest, most underrated games of all time, and a worthy addition to anyone’s collection, should they pursue it. I got my latest version to replace the old one I used to own – with box and instructions – for just over $10 on eBay, and without the box, a cartridge should run no more than $7, including shipping. I wholeheartedly recommend the NES version of Rygar to anyone that likes platformers, action-RPGs, or exploring non-linear maps. At today’s prices, you simply cannot go wrong, and I sincerely hope Nintendo puts this out on the Virtual Console eventually.