RYGAR / Tecmo / NES

Context is usually a tricky thing when reviewing and scoring old games, but especially with the NES version of Rygar, because the designers opted to not include either a battery or a password system. Even though the full quest takes a good two hours or so if you know what you are doing (and easily double to triple that if you come in cold), the original release expected you to do the whole thing without powering down the NES.

That one major misstep could sink what was otherwise a very good game ... but if you're playing it these days, odds are you're doing it with some sort of emulator that offers save state functionality.

I actually had a copy of Rygar as a kid, and I enjoyed the game then, but that was solely due to already having a copy of the Official Nintendo Players Guide (which contained full maps of the game) before I got it. Kid Me without that guide, or Adult Me without the ability to save states, would be sorely tempted to give Rygar a 1/5 solely for expecting you to complete a sprawling maze-like open-ended adventure in one sitting.

There's also the issue of the game incorporating RPG elements well before that was a common thing. This port of Rygar is vastly different from the arcade game, which was a more straight-ahead linear action game, and I strongly suspect that the main influence on Tecmo's re-working of it for the NES was the runaway success of Dragon Quest (see also the Toriyama-like chibi artwork on the Japanese's version's box). Dragon Quest was still a Japan-only phenomenon at the time, however; the West wouldn't get a formal introduction to console RPGs until more than a year after Rygar hit shelves. So a lot of kids playing this on an actual NES in the 80's simply couldn't be expected to intuit that you might have to stand around killing enemies in certain areas to get powerful enough to not get savaged in later areas. A somewhat lacking translation effort didn't make things any easier on them, translating attack power as TONE and vitality as LAST for who knows what reason.

My feeling is to rate the game assuming the player is going to use save states, however, since everyone now has that option (even legally through various digital download services and re-releases) and that's the primary way people are going to be playing it. Players now can also be much more reasonably expected to understand that grinding and preparation is part of the deal, and you can't necessarily just bull right through it like a typical action game.

Feeling that way stems from the fact that this is a pretty impressive action-adventure for a 1987 release, and it still holds up pretty well. Had it been a garbage game I honestly probably would have been less lenient here, but this is really pretty good. The immediate comparison for modern gamers coming back to it would be Zelda II, but that didn't come out until well over a year after Rygar. There's definitely a little Zelda I in its composition, though, with the overhead-view overworld full of caves that links the game's side-scrolling levels together. Not to mention the emphasis on finding weird old hermits hiding out in caves to learn where stuff is.

Anyway, there's no in-game explanation of Rygar's quest, but it's pretty self-explanatory. Monsters have overrun his world, and he's looking for the head of their leader Ligar to put and end to it. Rygar's world is clearly an early version of what would become the Ninja Gaiden engine, and it's got similarly solid gameplay. Just picture an open-ended Ninja Gaiden with bigger floatier jumps, the ability to stun enemies and get a jump boost by landing on their heads, and a longer-range weapon, and you've got a pretty good idea how this one works.

It's also sorta-open-world, in the sense that you usually have the option of visiting a few different areas; however, you'll usually find everything but the current correct path is blocked off at some point. It's more recursive exploring/unlocking in the style of an early Resident Evil game than the typical Zelda with lots of secrets stashed everywhere.

The basic goal is to find a series of tools that gradually give you access to more of the game area; first a grappling hook, then a pulley to ride ropes, then a crossbow so you can shoot your own ropes between convenient posts. Along the way you'll also have the chance to pick up some armor that reduces damage, and a crest that makes certain hermits give you life-restoring potions when you visit. You wrap it all up with a flute that you need to get access to the final dungeon. Most of these items are tucked behind a boss somewhere, but one of the giant buff hermits (why aren't these guys out fighting?) early on basically gives you exact directions to the grappling hook - the only issue is that if you don't have the manual, you might not pick up that "Garloz" is the game's name for the overhead world map.

Though a map helps, you soon find the game world isn't as big or complex as it initially appears, and it's manageable without one. The only major complaint with the gameplay is that enemies spawn in continually in many areas, and maybe spawn a little too close at times. Their fast movement and relentless waves do keep you on your toes, however, helping to keep any of the game's stretches from getting tedious.

The only other bummer here is that it really feels like the final area was rushed. The enemies are all shadows; could be an intentional design, but ROM hackers have uncovered unused sprites for them, indicating they just didn't get implemented. They also aren't remarkably powerful, with challenge in the final area generated only by cheap placement (spawning next to you and rushing immediately after screen transitions). The final boss is also underwhelming; he just stands there and spams an undodgeable wave of projectiles, and your TONE and LAST just have to be high enough to tank him basically (if they're maxed you'll kill him in a few hits). The ending is also about as cursory as it gets.

Still, this is definitely one to check out for those who like the action-RPG hybrids and early Metroidvanias of the 8-bit systems. The gameplay and graphics are well above average for when it was released, it has a somewhat repetitive but fun little chiptunes soundtrack, and it's accessible to modern players.

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