Rygar Is a Non-Linear 8-Bit Masterpiece

By Peter Tieryas on at

I had no idea what I was getting into when I first put Rygar into my NES. I had borrowed the game, released in 1987 by Tecmo, from a friend who couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. He wished me better luck. I didn’t realise I was going to experience one of my very first Metroidvania games on the NES. Rygar, which is now available for Nintendo Switch Online, did a lot of things right, particularly when it came to creating an immersive world that felt interconnected.

You play as the hero of Argool, the eponymous Rygar. The first area starts off deceptively simple, with a sidescrolling segment where you fight off swarms of fast-spawning foes. Rygar fights with a Diskarmor, which is basically a shield on a chain; Captain America’s and Simon Belmont’s weapons fused together. It’s reasonably lengthy, can receive temporary upgrades, and can be strengthened over time.

Still, Rygar didn’t seem that different from most sidescrollers, and I expected it to be the usual thing. The arcade game on which it is based follows that traditional linear formula. But the NES version changed things up a lot. The subscreen gave me some indication that things were different, with several powerup options described as the player’s “potential.” I also noticed that as I killed more enemies, my hero’s “tone” (offence) and “lasting power” (defence) actually increased. Even better, the hero’s life bar increased too. It was the first time I’d seen an RPG mechanic incorporated into an action platforming game, and I liked that character stat upgrades remained permanent.

Rygar’s environments oozed with atmosphere. There’s a fading sun in the background of the opening area, the parallax of the mountains cinematically hinting at an ancient mystery. The music, by Michiharu Hasuya, is fantastic and fits the mood for each new region.

Screenshot: Tecmo (VGMuseum)

The strange bestiary of foes that confront Rygar were as freakish as they were deadly, including killer trees called Kinobles and bipedal lizards named Phollorakos that looked like they were dancing. The dragon called Epolcon, which resembled an insect with its trisected parts, would drop eggs on Rygar.

Argool was a utopian paradise run by the Indora gods, until the evil Ligar attacked and corrupted everything that was sacred. His army of “animalised men wriggling eerily” (the exact description from the game manual) destroyed everything that was precious in Argool. Unfortunately for its inhabitants, they couldn’t find anyone among the living to save them, so Rygar was resurrected from the dead to come to the rescue. That might explain why he’s so pale. It also technically makes Rygar a zombie game, except the zombie is the saviour instead of a bio-scourge.

Fortunately, Rygar doesn’t move like a zombie; his animation is smooth and his Diskarmor attack speed is as fast as Ryu’s sword swings in Ninja Gaiden. Rygar’s jump feels intuitive and landing on top of most enemies will stun them, giving him a higher boost as well that can be used to reach certain ledges. The Tecmo artists paid attention to little details in the animation, like the musculature of Rygar’s scapula, depicted by a few pixels on screen when he’s climbing ropes.

Rygar got much more interesting when I arrived at the Gran Mountains. The multi-levelled cliffs led to higher floors and I eventually wandered into an area with an impassable pit. I assumed it was a dead end. But near to the chasm was a hermit who told me I couldn’t go further until I had a crossbow. As I didn’t have a crossbow in my inventory, I realised I had to obtain equipment that would give me additional powers, making me curious to know more about what awaited.

Screenshot: Tecmo (VGMuseum)

It was when I entered Garloz that I realised Rygar was unlike any other NES game I’d played before. Garloz is a top-down hub world that connects to different parts of Argool via warp doors that made the world feel bigger than it actually was. My memory of Rygar before my recent re-play was that of a vast, sprawling series of locations. That included the floating islands of Lapis, guarded by killer robots firing wave beams, and the swampy forests where the turtle-monster hybrid Eruga lurked.

Playing it through recently, I saw my imagination had blown it a bit out of proportion. Rygar is still enormous for an early NES game, but I realised that the game’s sense of scale was primarily due to its nonlinearity and the freedom it gave players to go almost anywhere they wanted. Equipment restrictions did prevent players from going to two of the areas where they’d be easily overpowered; certain bosses had to be defeated before you could enter Garba’s Tower as well as the Palace of Dorago. But for the most part, Rygar encouraged exploration and going off the beaten path at a time when that very concept was still novel. That motif is further reinforced with the first permanent item you obtain, the grappling weapon or hook. It has no melee function, and is strictly for getting players to areas they couldn’t reach before, ascending or descending ledges off screen. My love for grappling items and their brethren like Zelda’s Hookshot was born with Rygar.

One of the most memorable discoveries I made using the grappling hook was in the Rolsa Valley. I climbed high up the emerald tower from the rocky lake, then veered up from the regular path, and saw a castle with a lion’s face floating in the sky. I assumed it was just part of the background art, a foreboding reminder of something enigmatic beyond. Within a neighbouring hermit’s door, I learned this was Ligar’s Castle, the fortress of the main villain. I knew this was somehow important and stored it away in my brain, wondering if there was any way to reach it. It stayed with me throughout the journey and the payoff for my exploration came after I gained the five sacred treasures. I realised I had to return to the valley and use the Pegasus Flute at that spot in the tower to access the final castle. As a kid, I was thrilled to uncover this path, making me feel like I’d solved one of Argool’s biggest puzzles on my own. It created a sense that this world was an organic one with secrets that I wanted to unravel by finding new items, which is one of the core driving forces of good Metroidvania games.

Screenshot: Tecmo (VGMuseum)

An area that I personally loved was the dark and dank cave underneath Mount Primeval, a labyrinthine cavern full of dangerous enemies with branching paths that were easy to get lost in. The segmented ripples in the background made it feel like I was inside some creature’s belly. All the enemies, from the shelled Ammolus to the trilobite-like Sunyougis, fit into the insectoid theme of the stage. Using the grappling hook, I descended deeper into the caverns until I spotted a gigantic spider web located just outside one of the doors. This was a visual warning that a boss battle most likely awaited. Inside, Rygar fought the deadly spider Sagila, which moved rapidly all over the screen. Victory mainly consisted of deflecting Sagila’s assault from all angles. As a reward, the liberated Indora god gave me a crossbow, which fired ropes over deep chasms so Rygar could cross.

I recalled the pit I’d spotted in the Gran Mountains and returned, firing the crossbow to get over it. I was excited that it led to a new area, Garba’s Tower. This kind of unlocking mechanic is commonplace now and a tenet of Metroidvanias, but unique for its time. The tower can be brutal depending on the extent of Rygar’s strength. One of the hermits in the mountains even warns you about how dangerous it is by daring you to climb it.

Garba acts almost as a boss rush, with tough enemies like the Demoro Bruzer (a stegosaurus on tank treads) and the Kuzeelar (a deadly snail) facing Rygar on every floor. In contrast to much of the game until that point, it was a linear ascent with only one way up. The music also becomes an ominous clash of notes that’s grating to the ear, reflecting the arduous struggle that awaited. I found it to be the toughest part of the game, even with Rygar buffed out.

Unlike some of its contemporaries, the adventuring in Rygar is straightforward. There are no obscure clues or strange item combinations required to access hidden areas (e.g. holding the red crystal in Simon’s Quest at a random wall). The hermits – those bald, buff old dudes hanging out on top of strange green columns – gave good and accurate advice. There were no lying NPCs to worry about or “errors” to confuse players. The Indora gods looked similar to the hermits, except they had a third eye on their forehead and usually appeared after defeating a boss. They hooked the hero up with items like a suit of armour which increased defence and the coat of arms that acted as a secret symbol granting access to medicine from special hermits. There were clear artistic cues indicating what equipment needed to be used, like tree stumps for the crossbow, and secret ledges that could be found in the walls. Hermits also advised players in case they weren’t able to discern the hidden path on their own.

Rygar’s not a perfect game. There’s a lot of visual flickering on screen, the jumping feels a bit floaty, and latching onto the pulley in Garloz is trickier than it should be, leading to cheap deaths as Rygar can’t swim and dies when he touches the water. There’s a lot of quirk to this game, and I can’t figure out if they’re mistakes or intentional choices, but they add to the charm. During boss battles, all the music cuts out and is replaced by the same roaring sound, which I initially thought was a problem on my Nintendo, as it seemed so out of place. You can actually exit out of most boss battles even after engaging in them, which means that if you’re too weak, you can just step away, powerup, and return. A big localisation mistake made during the translation process was that Rygar and Ligar are actually one and the same character, but became two separate characters due to a Romanisation mistake. One of the hermits pleads with you to save his daughter, but she’s never seen or mentioned again.

Screenshot: Tecmo (VGMuseum)

The biggest problem with Rygar is that it has no passwords or saves, so you had to beat it in one sitting. Fortunately, unlimited continues made the challenge forgiving, and also made sense from a narrative perspective – Rygar was already dead, so resurrecting himself wasn’t a big challenge. Still, the first few times through, I got to a certain point and due to whatever reason, whether it was too late or I had to finish homework, I was forced to turn it off. I mastered the first half to the point where I could speed through and retrieve the equipment I needed, but it took multiple tries before I gathered all the Indora treasures.

When I got to the final castle, I felt exhilarated to reach the area I’d been so curious about. Using the pulley, Rygar ziplined across floating islands and raced towards the endgame. Shadowy enemies defended the perimeter, as faceless as the evil they represented. Had their physical bodies been corrupted by Ligar? As I came in fully powered, the stage wasn’t that difficult. The overworld areas in general tend to be easier, as they lack the platforming the other parts have, and most enemies can be avoided by jumping past them. Ligar was a disappointing final boss, looking like a lion with snake-like arms and a statue base for a body. The use of the Attack and Assail power combined with quick jumps helped make the battle an easy one.

Even though the ending was underwhelming, it was the victory itself that mattered to me. Rygar remains one of the most memorable games of that time for giving me my love of Metroidvanias before I knew what they were. It sucked me into its world in a way few other games of that time did. Argool felt as real as possible for a game world from that period. I recall returning Rygar to my friend, who was amazed I’d finished it. I gave him some tips, explained its complexity and how it was different from other Nintendo games, and he eventually finished it too. For us both, it became one of our favourite zombie games of the 8-bit era.

Featured image: Tecmo (VGMuseum)