Other History Lessons posts can be found here. If you’re looking specifically for console games, those are here. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

For those just tuning in, I’m taking a detour from the nominal timeline of this series. I say “nominal” because I’ve completely failed to be chronological so far. While I started out focused on early console role-playing games, this quickly expanded to include action role-playing hybrids, and now early Metroidvania games (including Metroid and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest themselves). Having learned about some more early titles that experimented with this nonlinear open world platformer style, I’ve gone back to play a few. That means that of the 24 games I’ve covered so far, Rygar is actually the 9th in order of Japanese release date. It arrived in April 1987, almost exactly one month after The Goonies II, which I wrote about last time. It only took three months to get a US release, however, meaning it actually made it to the States about four months ahead of The Goonies II.

Rygar is a little confusing, because it’s based on a 1986 arcade game of the same name. Both versions are by Tecmo, but the version I played — for the Famicom/NES — changes the design drastically. The arcade original is a standard side-scrolling platformer, but the home console version lets players visit (and revisit) its side-scrolling levels in any order, connecting them all with a hub area explored in top-down fashion, kind of like The Legend of Zelda. Players must guide the hero Rygar as he collects items from reclusive mystics hidden throughout the land, each item opening new paths to other places. With them all in hand, Rygar can face the evil king Ligar in his flying castle.

Playing Rygar just after The Goonies II was interesting, because Rygar’s main weapon is similar to Mikey’s yo-yo from The Goonies II. Except instead of being a yo-yo, it’s a full-size spiked shield on a chain called the Diskarmor. Rygar flings this massive thing out in front of him to battle enemies, and it feels heftier and more powerful than Mikey’s toy. But Rygar (the game) also feels much less polished in comparison. Enemies constantly appear from thin air with little warning, and follow simple behaviors, usually just charging Rygar’s position. The pixel art looks rougher, the color palette less carefully chosen, such that it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate the foreground from background, or to see Rygar and his adversaries clearly. Animations are simpler too, particularly Rygar’s exaggerated running animation which feels like it has too few frames.

The music only uses the two square wave channels of the NES, which makes it sound odd, missing the triangle wave bass of typical NES music. Instead, one of the square waves takes up bass duties, making it sound very fuzzy and dirty. I found this harsh and grating, but the music does have its fans. It also means that the sound effects never “steal” voices from the music, and the triangle wave channel does add a really nice bass thrum effect when enemies are defeated. Even the English translation is rough, with sections in the manual called “First of all, go to meet the legendary” and “Animalized men wriggling eerily”. And the name of the villain, Ligar, is a sort of translation joke, since the names “Rygar” and “Ligar” sound the same in spoken Japanese.

But Rygar (the game) has some interesting things going on, like the hub area that connects the levels. Here, Rygar (the hero) moves around from a top-down perspective, although he can still jump and battle enemies with the Diskarmor, and it is one place where the pixel art shines. The landscape is colorful, its cliffs, fields and waters rendered clearly with large features. This is definitely where Rygar looks its best. The large size of both Rygar and his enemies in this area, plus his ability to jump, made it feel similar to The Magic of Scheherazade, but that game would not appear for another five months. So it’s more likely that it was inspired by The Legend of Zelda and its ilk, although the overhead sections scroll, rather than being limited to fixed screens. I thought this perspective would only be used for the open world connecting the side-scrolling platforming areas, but I was surprised to discover that some of the later areas in the game retain the overhead view instead of switching to platformer mode. Rygar is actually a fairly even mix of the two play styles.

The platforming sections have more going on than the simple enemy bashing at the start, too. Rygar soon finds a grappling hook, which lets him create his own ropes to climb upwards or downwards. Like The Goonies II, areas are only one screen tall but can scroll left and right, so vertical exploration is limited to climbing ropes to new areas above or below. Many ropes are already placed, but others are conspicuously absent, waiting for Rygar’s grappling hook. Later areas, however, are much more freeform. At one point I explored a swampy forest, jumping between branches above the water. I’d already climbed some ropes up into the canopy and back down again earlier in my travels, when it wasn’t possible to continue to the right without doing so. Now, however, I had a clear path forward, but I tried firing my grappling hook upwards anyway. To my surprise, it caught something, and Rygar was able to climb up into the canopy once again and travel through the high branches instead. Trying out the grappling hook often yields rewards like this, and sometimes these “hidden” paths are needed to proceed.

The grappling hook is really cool, is what I’m saying. As are Rygar’s other tools, like the wind pulley that lets him cross zip lines (although these can be a little finicky to mount in the overhead sections), or the crossbow that lets him create entirely new zip lines in key locations. Rygar also gains strength the more enemies he defeats, earning more maximum health (he starts with only 3 health) as well as more attack power and better defense (referred to in game as TONE and LAST, for some reason). More health is announced with a nice sound effect and and a visible increase in Rygar’s health bar, but Rygar’s other statistics increase invisibly as be dispatches foes. I just noticed higher numbers every time I visited the menu, and saw that enemies began to take fewer hits to kill. These “permanent power-ups” are a sort of fusion of arcade game mechanics (short-term power boosts) with role-playing design (long-term progressive gains).

Some of the power-ups involve the player actively, too. Enemies occasionally drop pickups that increase Rygar’s “mind strength”, up to a maximum of 7. Players can spend mind strength on the menu screen to do various things. The first option is a one-time upgrade that doubles the range of Rygar’s Diskarmor attack (the manual incorrectly says it affects the “grappling hook weapon”) that will last until he dies, so that’s an obvious first choice. But there’s also an option to imbue Rygar with powerful destructive force for a short time, such that all of his attacks hit everything on the screen. Or, perhaps most importantly, a option to heal Rygar, which costs the maximum of 7 mind power points.

That healing helps keep Rygar going in the tougher areas in the game, but honestly the game is very forgiving of failure. If Rygar falls, players can continue from the same area as many times as they wish, retaining any upgrades Rygar had obtained, except for his extended Diskarmor range which must be enabled again by collecting and spending mind power. Rygar also starts with only 3 health, even if his maximum is higher, but (again like The Legend of Zelda) there are places he can visit to heal up. This makes the game feel more welcoming, and I felt comfortable exploring places even when I wasn’t sure if it was the correct direction to go, because I knew I’d have a chance to retreat later if I needed to. The downside, however, is that there’s no password or save system at all, so players must finish the game in a single play session. Unless you’re playing using emulation, like I did (as with other NES games in this series, I’m using the Retroarch frontend and the Mesen emulator core to play), which let me use save states to continue the adventure later.

Even for players tackling Rygar on release, however, it wouldn’t have been too taxing to conquer the game in a single session. I made progress quickly, even when intentionally wandering around to see what else was out there in the world. The manual offers advice on the best order to visit the various locations, and the whole adventure isn’t too long. There are some boss battles, but most aren’t too difficult, and players can always fight some easier enemies for a bit to improve Rygar’s stats before trying a difficult section again. I feared that the final area in the game would be too tough, after dying and restarting with low health and without the extra reach of the Diskarmor, but it turned out to be quite manageable. I did backtrack a short ways to heal up before returning, but then managed to win the game without any more deaths. I might have even managed to beat this game as a kid, if I could convince my parents to let me play uninterrupted for long enough. But not only had I never played it back then, I’d never even heard of it until doing research for this series.

That’s a shame, because I found a lot to like about Rygar (the game), despite its lack of polish. The enemies are simple, but fun to dispatch, especially after Rygar (the hero) has increased his attack power and can eliminate most in a single hit. Rygar’s movements and, especially, strikes with the Diskarmor feel good and responsive. The levels are surprisingly imaginative, playing with vertical exploration in interesting ways. I already mentioned the forest with its high and low paths, but another area has a huge tower in the middle, requiring liberal use of the grappling hook to climb. Then there are some tunnels that emphasize descent instead, where Rygar must carefully lower himself into vast caverns to look around, until he can find a safe way to climb down. Or perhaps Rygar must leap across floating ledges high in the sky, connected via zip lines or smart use of the grappling hook. Traversing places with zip lines is always cool, whether it’s in the platforming areas or top-down sections, especially when Rygar created the zip line himself with his crossbow and opened up a new path in an earlier area.

Rygar (the game) grew on me. It’s not as finely tuned as some of the classics, but it has a lot of cool ideas that make its world fun to explore. It’s friendly too, avoiding the punishing difficulty or obscure secret routes that other games at the time often employed. Its locations are never too convoluted, they’re just varied enough to reward some exploratory grappling hook use. I had a good time heading back and forth across its world, using new items to reach each next goal, especially if it meant I could do some climbing. It’s worth a play, if you’re interested in some early nonlinear platformer design.

As for me, I’ve got another example of early nonlinear platformer design lined up next, so stay tuned for that! Just a few of these left before I’ll catch back up to my original timeline.

Next on Console History: Zillion