Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Rygar - Weekend Warrior
Why sticking with a game can lead to adoration you otherwise might never have had.

If there was ever such a thing as a slowly blossoming love between a person and a video game, my eventual adoration for Rygar would be proof of it. Rygar, like Trojan, was another one of those games my brother suddenly presented to me in our den in the early-middle portion of 1989 on what was a day of no great significance; he, also being an arcade-goer, had been playing games like Rygar essentially since they debuted and naturally thought that the NES conversions had to be direct ports of the coin-op games he knew so well. That's the way it usually went: He'd see a game in an arcade (like Gauntlet or Solomon's Key) or on his friend's computer (like Shadowgate or Doom) and jump right in, usually so impressed that he'd soon after track down the most easily accessible version for whatever platform currently had our attention.

So I found myself in possession of yet another game in which I had no real interest, and I wasn't particularly moved to where I could muster enough enthusiasm to load it up for even a quick look. See--I, too, had encountered Rygar a few times during my trips to arcades, and though impressed with its presentation, graphics, and imaginative interpretation of a mythological setting, I knew from only a few samplings that it was a brutal quarter-muncher, and I could remember how much I struggled to make it past even the first stage. Rygar was just another fairly common arcade machine I'd routinely avoid.

After some urging from my brother, who wanted to see it in action, I snapped it into the NES and gave it a whirl. Interestingly, I soon discovered, it wasn't much like the arcade game outside of art direction; there were no "stages," and the gameplay seemed more akin to what I'd seen in recent action-adventure titles like Metroid and Rambo, whose free-roaming formula was still something new and intimidating to me. I wasn't ready to dismiss it on that foundation alone, but I'd be lying if I said that I didn't make a snap decision that Rygar probably wasn't going to be my kind of game. (Chronologically, this was months before I came to appreciate and lovingly embrace the "exploration-based adventure game" for which Metroid was the template, which was why even this iteration of Rygar had a lot going against it.)

Though, a few of Rygar's gameplay mechanics actually managed to make an impression on me: It was fun to put to use Rygar's distinct main weapon, the Discarmor (or "giant yo-yo," as we called it), which was cool-looking and could be swung rapidly for maximum destruction. I liked that the nimble Rygar could bounce high off of enemies, which was surprisingly Super Mario-like and a welcome maneuver in a genre where enemies seemed to spawn out of nowhere, faster than you could input commands. And, uh, there were creepy shirtless hermits who sat atop green pillars and gave you cryptic-sounding advice! There were definitely some unique ideas here.

But the game's formula remained inexplicable to me, and I nothing that I'd accomplished in Metroid gave me the sense that I possessed confidence enough to negotiate the labyrinthine structure of this game-type. So I shelved Rygar immediately following that first sampling, not really knowing what I had.

After, say, four months had passed and August neared its end, I was already infatuated enough with Metroid to where I wanted more of what it had to offer. I found myself daydreaming daily about a sequel, even though such a thing didn't seem likely (even back then, a three-year span without a follow-up entry usually spelled the obvious). If that were to be the case, then I knew that there was only one place I could look: On the last Friday of August, as the summer began winding down and the dreaded school year approached, my friend Dominick and I returned to my house after a day of the usual last-minute summertime activities, and it was right then that I convinced him that it was time to figure out what this "Rygar" was all about.

Our initial experience reminded me of my early exposure to Metroid: We had no idea what we were doing, where we were supposed to go, or how the game's world fit together. We knew that the main villain was a tyrant named Ligar, whose name was mentioned to us by one of those bald, shirtless hermits, but that was about it. We deduced that the "Minds" we were collecting were useful for powering the the three special "Potential"s (Power Up, Attack & Assail, and Recover) and that our circular units of health (which Dominick called "apples") would increase by one after enough enemies had been slain, but we had no clue what any what any of the statistics in the inventory were supposed to indicate. 

There's a simple reason for this: Whenever my brother purchased a game, the first thing he'd likely do is toss either the box or the manual (or sometimes both) in the trash, which in this case he did to the manual before ever showing me the game. I didn't have yet have my Nintendo Power subscription or a friend who had previously played Rygar, so we were pretty much left to our own devices when it came to trying to comprehend what was a fairly complex game.

Still, we were finding Rygar to be particularly engrossing as out session extended into the nighttime hours. It was aesthetically pleasant, in general, but we were really impressed with the game's background work and particularly the very memorable opening scene with the setting sun seen hovering in the distance, its fading illumination painting the land with a purple-toned mountainscape and a lush blood-red sky. If Rygar had created an amazing sense of atmosphere for us to soak in, it did so mere seconds after I'd pressed the Start button; providing an all-important brush-stroke was the powerful tune that guided us past this opening segment, which much like Metroid's Brinstar theme tempted us to just stop and listen, even if reason for being there was fleeting.  

Rygar was flush with great music and rich visual imagery, but what put it over the top for us was the discovery that it also had overhead areas like the labyrinthine Gran Mountain--the game's main hub, which introduced an entirely different type of movement and combat! What other game did that? Even if we didn't know where we were going, we were content to hop around in three-dimensional space and explore every corner of this new "desert-looking area" (as we originally identified it) if only to find out where else it could provide us transport. Really, there's only one "first experience" you can have with those special games that would go on to become an indelible part of your essence, and we made sure to mark every ocassion; if we found ourselves suddenly enveloped by the captivating atmosphere of a newly located area like Rolsa Valley and Eruga's forest, we'd make sure to linger and immerse ourselves in a scene as rendered by a woodsy, stony or oceanic backdrop and an inspiring musical theme. If anything, Rygar was certainly satisfying my fetish for mountainous backgrounds in 2D video games.

We wound up enjoying our time with Rygar so much that we played it again the next week and then the week after, each time slowly inching our way further into its vast world. That's how it became our first "weekend game"--a label that remained exclusive to Rygar, to which we returned week after week, Friday after Friday, for what seemed like years. In one session, we'd make it as far as the Den of Sagilla; the next time, we'd reach the Palace of Dorago; before long, we were breaching all different manner of disturbing, spine-chilling fortresses and strongholds, which did in fact have names, as divulged by nearby hermits, even if we were too dumb to pay them any attention or make the obvious connections.

In time, we gleaned enough about the game's map structure, item-usage, and statistics to get a clear picture of what Rygar was demanding of us. Using our new-found wisdom, we eventually cleared the five main areas and eliminated all of the twisted-looking, menacing bosses, which opened the path to the final area--Ligar's floating Sky Castle, whose access point lay atop a tower in the already traversed Rolsa Valley (the "stony place"). That's as far as we ever got; no matter how many times we charged into Ligar's pillared boss chamber, we'd always meet the same fate: Cut down in seconds, kept at bay by his lengthy arms and overwhelmed by their infinitely spewed storm of sharp, toothy projectiles--even if we had enough Minds for Recovery and the activation of the normally helpful Attack & Assail (we ignored "Power Up" because we were oblivious like that).

Still, we had no intention on giving up, and one thing would remain certain: After the school day was over and we'd had our fun hanging around the neighborhood hotspots or Dyker Park, we'd always whittle away the nighttime hours of any Friday night continuing to try to take down the lion-like, dragon-armed Ligar.

As we became more and more enamored with Rygar, we began building a whole culture around it. Dominick went out and bought it for himself, recruiting his immediate family into the effort. They could only get as far as the Tower of Garba, which they called "The House of Horrors." I liked their naming convention so much that it became even my official term for it. We incorporated its characters into our outside-world games and weird creative activities; for one, we lampooned the crazy-armed bosses and the shirtless hermits/Indora gods in our "Master Criminals" series, wherein we'd cut out newspaper images, draw over them, and then tape square notepad paper to their backs, where listed were their character names, powers, and reward-for-catching sums. 

Wanting for once to be the guy who discovered a cool secret, I started a rumor based off of one of the glitches that always made us laugh: Jumping and flailing the Discarmor in any hermit or Indora residence would cause their pants to flash and flicker (or "be purposely discolored," as we'd joke); one day, I told Dominick that if you jump and flail, oh, a couple of hundred times, the hermit would eventually get so annoyed, he'd point his finger forward, and say, "You have insulted me!" So wanting it to be true, Dominick and half of the kids on the block spent a few days trying to draw this reaction out of Rygar's many hermits, who unfortunately would never oblige. Seeing their disappointment only made me feel guilty, so I had to admit that it was all a fib. Hell--I feel bad about doing it even today.

Sadly, we were never actually able to defeat Ligar. Though we knew our efforts would ultimately be futile, we continued playing Rygar every Friday, as had become tradition, and still had our moments with it. It just had a certain allure to it, as if we enjoyed its rousing musical score, its wondrous locales, and the joking banter the game inspired too much to stop. To keep things entertaining, we'd cling to our usual tropes, like the scene that would repeat any time we'd ascend to third floor of The House of Horrors; in that first room, I'd grapple up to the ceiling, above the arched window with its mountain view, and continue to perform Rygar's jerky climbing animation, claiming that I was "pissing on Lapis." For some reason, this always made Dominick and I chuckle, which pretty much gives you an idea of the type of material we found "funny" back then. 

Of course, we weren't aware that a mountain backdrop wasn't likely to be "Lapis," which was actually a floating island, but we preferred to continue interpreting Rygar's world as we imagined it (also, noting again that my brother threw away the game's manual, and we apparently had selective reading skills).

With the passage of time, as new games came to fill my collection, Rygar was eventually dropped from our weekly routine, broken out only more and more sporadically. The last time we played it was sometime in 1993, on another day I probably thought had no great significance. After we graduated from high school, I lost contact with Dominick and most of my other game-playing friends and never felt the need to return to the game, which just wouldn't have been the same without them.

Now, regardless of what you've seen on my Castlevania site, I'm not the type of fellow to leave things unfinished. Truthfully, though I came to like Rygar more for the experience than a desire to actually conquer it, a certain weight had been building on my chest over the years, as if those still-active fragments of my psyche were telling me that I had a job to finish. So in the summer of 2000, I loaded up Rygar determined to storm Ligar's castle, as I always had, strike down the evil despot, and finally see what the game's ending held for me. 

It was no use: I continued to fall to Ligar just as I did before, repeatedly trounced by his overpowering projectile storm and superior wingspan. I tried again and again, meeting only the same fate. It just wasn't going to happen. It was over. There was nothing left to do but switch off my NES and say goodbye to Rygar for the last time.

Just for sentimentality's sake, though, I decided to run around Ligar's castle for a bit, take in the sights, and have one final look at a game that was so important to my childhood before ultimately closing the book on that chapter of my life. I decided to mess around with the castle's  last guardian, a shadowy reskin of Dorago, when something happened.

*gooooom - booda-badoop*

Not only did my health meter increase by one unit (I'd never gotten it past nine), but I noticed that I had killed the shadow Dorago quicker than I did before. So I kept it at; I continuously scrolled the screen up and down, causing the creature to respawn again and again and killing it with greater haste each time. Before long, I was dispatching it in four or five hits, which made it very easy to max out my stats, and soon my health meter stood at the twelve-unit limit. "Could it be that I now have a smidgen of a chance?" I wondered. I entered Ligar's chamber curious but still doubtful; ready for war, I activated my "Power Up" potential, charged toward him, and started flailing away like a maniac.

*frooooom-frooooom-frooooom-frooooom-frooooom-frooooom - BOOM!*

Just like that, it was over. I had destroyed Ligar in almost comical fashion--a handful of hits executed over merely three or four seconds. "That's all I had to do?" I uttered to myself, quizzically, almost shocked by the realization. Though stunned by my ignorance on the matter, I quickly transitioned into a state euphoria as the Door of Peace opened and the abbreviated ending sequence began. I felt the weight being lifted away as I looked upon the white bird as it fly above Gran Mountain, whose opposing cliffs were now united by a rainbow. I was a "true hero," the game told me, and while probably a little short of that, I did feel a sense of accomplishment and closure.

I had completed Rygar, but I was still far from being "finished" with it. No--now that I had full knowledge of the game's systems and knew that I could complete it, Rygar had now taken form as a completely different type of experience. I resumed playing it regularly, as I once did, appreciating it more and more each time. Whether it was to fill a quiet Sunday or to continue trying to explore its Metroid-like secret world (found by jumping left on the first screen of Ligar's castle), I could always find reason to return to it. In fact, it became my new tradition to play it twice a year--once in the spring and once in the fall. It will remain as such until the end of my existence.

Since then, I've learned to love every inch of Rygar, flaws and all; I know the game inside and out and can blaze through it in under an hour, and yet I never grow tired soaking in its transcendent 8-bit atmosphere; I continue to enjoy savoring its wistfully drenched aesthetics, which always take me back. In that sense, Rygar is more than a game to me; its a vessel that carries along with it tender memories of the person I used to be. I feel comfortable when immersed in its world, as if everything is as it once was. I sometimes wonder if the people who made Rygar realize that all of the pixel-based assets and chiptunes they probably cobbled together over a weekend so strongly resonate with that kid from Brooklyn and all of the people who enjoyed the game with him.

For all the time I spent with it and the friendships surrounding it, Rygar will always be a special game for me. It's quite ambitious, really, for something that was released for the NES in 1987, which was only one year after the comparatively simple-looking Metroid with its black backgrounds and repeating environments; its music uses only two of the NES' sound channels, but the composer still somehow managed to create one of the best 8-bit soundtracks of all time (save for the Palace of Dorago theme, which has only four notes due to, I guess, a looming storage limit) and absolutely one of my favorites. 

Sure--Rygar has some issues: It's a little shaky when it comes to sprite-detection for doors, ropes and portals. You can displace Lapis' boss, Belzar, by grappling down to the room below and back up, making him more assailable than the designers intended. And that "secret world" I spoke of is the very definition of sloppy play-testing (someone on the staff had to know it was there). But there's nothing here I consider game-killing; it's all very forgivable when you realize that these glitches are more a byproduct of the developers' aspiration to push the NES beyond its current limits. Saying as much makes me sad that that Rygar lingers mostly in obscurity--not even appearing on any of Nintendo's Virtual Console services (while the arcade version does)--and I hope that it's one day made available for an audience waiting to experience and treasure perhaps the shiniest of gems.

The only true disappointment I have is that there was no worthy follow-up to Rygar, since there was so much potential for bigger things when you consider how the NES was evolving as a system. The 2002 PS2 sequel, Rygar: The Legendary Adventure, while a solid God of War-style action game just wasn't what I was looking for. To fill the void, I've since returned to the arcade version, which I've learned, due to putting in actual effort to increase my skill, is better than I gave it credit for. While it has a lot of amenities I'd like to discuss (like its impressive rope-shifting mechanic and its interesting between-stage intermission scenes), I want to save my thoughts for a future written piece dedicated to this version; though, I'll say in advance that I find it to be a nice companion piece to its NES conversion, particularly when viewed as a study for how technically superior arcade-game assets can be transferred over and used as the foundation for a wholly disparate 8-bit game.

Rygar for the NES exists because of an unpopular policy born from Nintendo's marketing strategies during the 1980s. While, as a result, there were people like my brother who were let down by the fact that it wasn't a straight port of the arcade game they knew so well, I'm actually happy that Nintendo had such a policy in place. The result is that we often got two unique products bearing the same name--two good-great games constructed from a single idea. It worked for Bionic Commando and Ninja Gaiden, and it was a godsend for Rygar, whose NES version is, to me, the most unforgettable of the bunch.

I look at it like this: For the $50 investment my family made in Rygar way back in 1989, I'm still deriving entertainment from it a quarter of a century later. That speaks of value. It speaks of craftsmanship. And it tells me that Rygar is quite simply one of the best.


  1. Thanks for taking the time and effort to write this - I enjoyed this immensely. Rygar (the Arcade version) is one of my all time favourite games, but you have just done me a potentially great favour by inspiring me to get out the abovementioned version and give it a go. Such a shame that there weren't more games like Rygar, Wardner and Black Tiger - and a real shame that most kids today will never have the pleasure of experiencing games the way we used to back in the 80's. Once again, I thank you.

    1. I regret that I never gave the arcade game more of a chance growing up, but it just struck me as especially cruel compared to other games (you don't want to spending two bucks or more on the first stage alone). I'm going to return to it one day--maybe check out some ports, like the Master System version--and try to solve its riddles without using MAME cheats.

      Have fun with the NES game. It's by no means a masterpiece of design, I admit, but it oozes that unforgettable 8-bit atmosphere, and you'll get a kick out of seeing how all of those arcade elements were remixed to create an aesthetically striking world.

      Thanks for the feedback!