Old video games are brutal. I guess they had to be, because the technology behind them was so crude. Rygar, from Tecmo, was one of the most savage. One life, no continues. Fall into a chasm? Game over. Die during the fight with the final boss?
I never finished Rygar as a lad – it was just too discouraging to have to start over from scratch after playing for four hours straight.
Despite all this, Rygar was and is one of my favorite games. It was one of the first titles I played that wasn't a hopelessly insoluble "graphic adventure" or a futile, existentialist sprint against death. Rygar is a story, in the truest sense of the word. Now, what with ROMs and emulation software and all, you can actually finish the game and know the ending.
Playing Rygar all over again reminds me why I loved the game when it first came out. It's so weird and imaginative. Your hero (Rygar!) is a Robert E. Howard-esque slayer, with a "Discarmor", a spinning shield of fire that lashes out like a yo-yo. Rygar searches the land of Argool for the five "Indoras", mystical sages who will bestow him with the power to kill the evil god Ligar and restore peace.
Despite the simplicity of the graphics, there are moments of true beauty and awe in the game – the rising sun in the background of the opening level, the mysterious castle in the sky, and the far-off mountains and trees in the backgrounds. Argool is a wild, vast and magical place.
At times Rygar feels like Norse mythology; at others, it feels Hindu. Or Greek. It's a delirious and wooly blend of prehistoric Indo-European mythologies, completely unrestrained in its creativity and imagination. The wonderful names of the monsters and places – Eruga's Forest, Garloz, the Tower of Garba – added immensely to the flavor.
Rygar was also special when it came out in that you could actually revisit places you had been – in fact, you had to. Argool was truly open-ended, every bit as much as Grand Theft Auto.
But Rygar's soundtrack is the best thing about the game. There are a few missteps – the repetitive drone of Dorago's Palace drives me a little crazy – but nothing can take away from the overall beauty and power of the score. Garloz and Eruga's Forest are my favorite tracks.
Tecmo remade Rygar for the PS2 in 2002. It was a great game, but they abandoned Argool for a Greco-Roman setting. It actually came out before God of War, so it wasn't a copycat, but I was still disappointed – I've always wanted to know more about Argool's myths and monsters.
I was surprised to learn there was a coin-op Rygar game, released about a year before the NES version, but it's one instance where the console version of the game is head-and-shoulders above the arcade. They're not even the same game, really. Although the graphics for the arcade version are better, the game is grindingly repetitive.
So there's no question: the version of Rygar for the Nintendo Entertainment System is the best of the bunch. It's crude, and it's brutal, but despite that it truly feels like a window into another universe. To play it, check out the Nestopia emulator. Rom-world.com is a great place to go for ROMs. I don't condone downloading ROMs of games you never owned, of course, but if you bought the original game, it's still yours!