More noise than signal

Rings of Power — Sega Megadrive

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Role playing games never really took off in a huge way in the UK on the Megadrive, Western gamers seeming to prefer the offerings from Square and Enix appearing on the SNES. Things were a little different in Japan, where gamers happily tucked into Sega-based treats such as Phantasy Stars 2, 3 and 4, and the superb Shining series, starting with Shining in the Darkness, then Shining Force 1 and 2 (which appeared in its third incarnation on the Saturn, and looks to continue on with Shining Soul and it’s sequel on the GBA). It was perhaps a strange business decision for a western company to even think about programming a RPG for the western Megadrive market, but that’s exactly what relatively inexperienced programming team Naughty Dog software did. If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because the same team went on to produce the Crash Bandicoot series for the Playstation, before sensibly flogging the franchise off before it became totally stale and making Jak and Daxter.

Published by Electronic Arts, who were just starting the process of focusing entirely on sporting franchises and the annual updating thereof, it was initially scheduled for a release on the Amiga as well, where it may have fitted in quite nicely. In the middle of production, EA took the decision to can their Amiga division, and the aforementioned sporting slant ensured that only one print of the game was made. Clearly this limited both the sales of the game and any kind of widespread knowledge of the game. Which is a great pity, as it’s actually very good.

You take the role of Buc, a young sorcerer in training at Sorcerer’s Guild Academy the City of the Mind. Your master sends you on a few errands, firstly to meet the local priest of Nexus, the heavenly father and creator for this particular plane of existence. The priest warns you of the dangers of the dark side, here represented by the evil god Void, who wants to destroy everything because he didn’t receive enough attention as a child, or some other equally well thought out reason. You are a force for good, whether you like it or not. As will be discussed later, this game is very open ended, but it does have some limitations, which persist in game design to this day.

Your next mini-adventure is to retrieve the Guild symbol that has been half-inched by a hermit who lives up a hill just outside the city. During this little trek you’ll notice the game’s weakest feature – the animation, or lack thereof. When the game is sitting still, as the screenshots show, it actually doesn’t look too bad, especially for a Megadrive game. It has a nice isometric viewpoint that allows the world of Usha Bau to be far more realistic than the usual flat 2D maps with little rock and snow motifs to indicate mountainous terrain. However once the character moves through this world map you can’t help but notice that there’s only three frames of animation, those being left foot forward, standing still again, right foot forward.

This means that rather than smoothly scrolling around the map it jumps block by block, with the character taking a second after you lift your finger off the pad to stop moving. This is jerky and disconcerting on initial play. Of course it never stops being jerky, but if you can persevere with it for a little while you will become accustomed to it, and it’s well worth playing on. The music is also a brave attempt at producing a tune from the less than adequate Megadrive hardware, and for the most part it succeeds. There are certainly far worse sounding games on the system.

After chatting with the thieving vagrant it becomes apparent that he’s not going to hand over the symbol without a fight, so feel free to provide one. During battle, you are temporarily transported to another plane of existence, which is an unusual concept, but actually makes sense given the customary spellcasting powers of earthquakes and lava flows and the like, which are available in other games but magically (by their very nature) only effect the unfortunate target of the spell, but the land around them gets away unscathed. The technique in Rings Of Power side steps this, but at the cost of making every battle take place on an identical, and dull plain arena. Only magic can be used in these battles, so getting hold of new and more powerful spells and the experience with which to use them is vital.

Again this approach has its oddities, as you end up with archers casting an arrow and knights casting a knife, which makes little sense. After casting your one available spell, Stun, enough times to dispatch the tea leaf, you collect the symbol and head back to the Academy.

Your master takes you aside and gives you a spiel about being the most promising of his students, before an assembly of your fellow students arrives to hear an important announcement from the master. It seems that one of the legends of the land’s creation, that of Nexus creating everything using a Rod of Power, is in fact true. Also true is Nexus’ later decision to split the rod into 11 rings and scatter them throughout the land, by this point lost in the mist of the past. After a great deal of research, the master has found all the location of these rings and is going to dispatch his students to collect them before Void’s servants can and use it for their nefarious purposes. Before the location’s beans can be spilt, one of you fellow students attacks your unsuspecting master and kills him, his last breath being a spell to disperse the rest of the students, yourself included around the globe.

Your purpose is now clear, collect the rings and hopefully along the way get in some vengeance for your master’s death. While you could attempt this on your own, you will find yourself slaughtered in short order by the various wandering sources of evil, either wild animals, pirates or some other servants of Void. A better plan is to get a squad behind you for backup. And so you do, performing small sub-quests to prove your worth to the various guild masters throughout the world to assemble a team eventually consisting of a Knight, Archer, Enchanter, Conjuror and a Necromancer. This initial stage is the most linear part of the story, but even here there’s a little room for manoeuvre. The order in which the characters join your party is pretty much fixed, but if you want to wander of in search of some of the easier (i.e. less combat oriented) rings then there’s nothing to stop you. It goes without saying that by the end you’ll need a full complement kitted out with appropriately powerful spells to finish it.

Spells are not learned through leveling up in this game, which is unusual. While you still have to achieve a certain level to cast them, the spells themselves must be purchased through the guilds, or the one-stop magic superstore Magic-B-Us. This is effectively just a substitute for buying more powerful weapons and armour, a common enough occurrence in RPGs. Less common is having to continually purchase food and water for your journeys, or else you start to suffer the consequences and eventually die. Cash can be had from the usual killing, and also from trading, with certain places paying a premium for certain good and selling others cheap.

While this adds another string to the game’s bow, it can be hugely annoying when you’re forced to break off your pursuit of the rings to get some money together to feed yourself. To be fair, this is only ever a problem if you tire of wandering around on foot and decide to look at the alternate modes of transport available.

At some point you’re going to have to set sail to other lands, so boats and ships are available. Boats aren’t so good for sailing in deep water, claiming more food and water per movement, but ships can’t sail up most of the rivers. On land, you can get round the map in about half the time if you hire a Dino, which actually uses less food and water than trying to walk over deserts and swamps on foot. Fastest of all is the Dragon, flying over Usha Bau at great speeds at the cost of a ridiculous food and water penalty.

The quests themselves are varied. Many are the typical RPG fare of talk to someone, find out you need McGuffin[1], talk to someone who has McGuffin[1] and will exchange it for McGuffin[2], fight a bunch of creatures and a boss to collect McGuffin[2], return and get McGuffin[1], occasionally with a double cross and additional fight at the end. Standard fare, and nothing to be ashamed of. They’re all well crafted, with some showing a hint of quirky originality (Can’t think of the last time I was required to find a thespians moustache for a spell). Other quests merely involve answering a series of riddles asked by some gatekeepers, which will earn you the Ring of Thought. Most of the quests relate to the Ring they pertain to in some respect other than mere hack and slash quests to get at them, such as the Ring of Mutation having transformed itself into a woman, now living somewhere in a city, requiring it to be tracked down.

This game also has the distinct advantage that should you become stuck in one of the quests, there’s usually opportunities to pursue some of the other Rings until inspiration strikes you again. Most of the quests are well enough thought out that’ll there’s no great logical jumps that need to be made, although the one or two that do require it can make the game hugely frustrating. The quest for the Ring of Will is aptly named, as a section in a maze trying to find and walk over switches that are barely distinguishable from the ground requires enormous willpower to stop you throwing the cartridge out of nearest available window.

Still, patience is a virtue, I’m reliably informed, and it’s required here if you want to see the end. The open-ended nature of picking and choosing the quests is something that is rarely seen even now, and an impressive feat for an inexperienced coding team on the Megadrive. The only downside of this is the story’s narrative pretty much vanishes, reducing to just collecting the party, collecting the rings and then having a final battle to conclude the story. This contrasts with the more tightly focused games such as Phantasy Star 4, where it’s still a good vs. evil tale but there is actually some character progression built into the story as their quest continues, and makes the game that bit more personal, and therefore more likely to be finished.

Rings Of Power supplies a strong challenge and a well crafted game, but may not prove addictive and involving enough for many people to see it through to the end.