Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Search for the Ultimate Barbarian Game (Part 4)


In 1987, Taito created a classic arcade game heavily inspired by both Conan films, which they called Rastan Saga.  When the game made it Stateside, it was renamed Rastan and gave gamers one of their first tastes of sword & sorcery action.

It was around this period in time when arcade games were looking significantly better, graphically, and Rastan was no exception.  The lush vistas of mountain passes, forests, marshes, and lava fields that Rastan had to fight through were a feast for gamers.  The music, though limited even for arcade standards at the time, was perfectly fitting for sword & sorcery.  Each level had three parts: the varying wildernesses (forest, marsh, etc.), the fortress, and the boss room.  Throughout the entire game, the different parts all had their own "theme music," so the music in the first part of stage one would be the same as the first part of stage two.  Nonetheless, it sounded great, in a strange, almost otherworldly sort of way.

Gameplay can't be broken down any simpler: you traverse through different levels, slaying enemies, swinging on ropes, jumping from platform to platform; but the game is genuinely challenging.  It wasn't until last night that I finally got past this one area on the second part of stage one.  For a long time, the ropes swinging over the pool of fire were frustratingly unforgiving, especially with that goddamn swarm of bats closing in on you (you'll see what I mean in the video, though the guy playing makes it look easy).  Eventually, I cleared it and got to see a good portion of the game.  I think I finally got to stage four before calling it a night, so I'm glad I stuck it out.

There really isn't much more to say about this game other than it is a great arcade classic that I think helpled bring more interest in sword & sorcery games.  Of course, Capcom released Black Tiger in the same year, which also has a similar feel to it, but I think Rastan made a bigger impression on arcade gamers as a whole.

Nastar Warrior/Rastan Saga II

Taito decided not to rest on their laurels and immediately released Rastan Saga II in 1988.  The title was changed to Nastar in Britain and Nastar Warrior in the US.  This was possibly done to avoid confusion, as this actually seems to be a prequel to the first Rastan and not a sequel, as the Japanese title would imply.  I got the impression that this was a prequel because, after you beat the game, you find out that this adventure is where our barbarian hero got the name Rastan.  In the first game, it's pretty much assumed that the character was already known as Rastan, so that the events in Nastar Warrior lead up to him receiving that name implies that it takes place before the original.

Everything about Nastar Warrior feels like a step down from Rastan.  While the graphics are slightly better, the sprites seem way too cartoony.  Rastan looks like shit, seriously.  His body looks like it's wracked with hunger - muscle hanging precariously off of bone.  Was Rastan bulemic at one point?  What the hell is wrong with him?  The cinematic images between each stage look okay, but the graphics overall look worse.  In the first game, Rastan was fighting wizards and swordsmen in boss battles.  In Nastar Warrior, the bosses are more monstrous, with demons, mythical fiends, and what look like demigods fighting our hero.  Of course, the cartoony look still prevents us from taking them seriously.  The sprite animation is not as good either.  Instead of the smooth swing of the weapon from the first game, we have a laughable two stage animation where Rastan impotently stabs his sword (or whatever weapon he picks up) repeatedly.

This game is slightly easier than the first, only because you continue playing right where you die, instead of starting back at a checkpoint like the first one.  The platforming and bosses are actually tougher than in the first game, but this retention of progress every time you come back to life nullifies any challenge.

On top of that, this game allows two people to play cooperatively.  Player two looks exactly like player one, but with a darker skinned pallette swap.  Whoever the hell this guy is, though, is beyond me.  It basically looks like two guys are driven by stomach shrinking hunger to fight these demons and find a huge ass buffet at the end of the game.

While the game looks crappier, the music didn't take as much of a hit.  It's not as good as the original, but it's still enjoyable.  They added female voices, which you'll hear every time you begin a new stage or put a quarter into the machine, which sound a bit bizarre, but keep in line with the sword & sorcery theme.

Basically, it looks like Taito not only didn't waste any time putting out a sequel, it also looks like they rushed the production of the game immensely.  This could have (and should have) been a better game.  Nonetheless, it's not entirely bad.  I play it every once in a while on my Taito Legends collections.  You can still get some enjoyment from it, just not as much as the original.

Warrior Blade: Rastan Saga Episode III

When Taito decided to return to the Rastan series, they took notes from one of their competitor's arcade games: Golden Axe.  The result is Warrior Blade: Rastan Saga Episode III, which could be considered a rip-off of Sega's sword & sorcery hit.

This game has Rastan, along with Dewey, the martial artist, and Sophia, the sexy, whip wielding thief, fighting against the Evil Tribe and their hordes of armored warriors, horse riding barbarians, aztec-like tribesmen, chakram throwing ascetics, dragon riders, sorcerers, lizard men, fish men, shambling skeletons in ill-fitting armor, tentacled abominations, and oozing lava men.  Seems this Evil Tribe is not picky about membership.  Needless to say, if you can imagine it in sword & sorcery, you'll probably be fighting it in this game.

Thankfully, the graphics have been improved from their abyssmal predecessor, though the music doesn't seem to fit the game as much anymore, since they decided to go with more generic fantasy music instead of the strange but fascinating music of the first two games.

If you've played Golden Axe, this game won't show you anything new.  In fact, Warrior Blade doesn't surpass it's competitor in terms of gameplay.  The characters move pretty stiff.  It's actually amusing to watch Rastan dash across the screen, as if he's holding a marble in his ass, or something.  Trust me when I say this, this game does nothing that Golden Axe already hasn't done better.

So, instead of better gameplay, what does Taito use to entice you into playing this game?  Warrior Blade actually uses two screens, just like the six-player version of Konami's X-Men, to capture all the action.  Actually, Taito had used mutliple screen cabinets before with their 1988 game The Ninja Warriors, which actually used three screens.  Does this really add much to the action of game?  Not really.  It does give you a wider area to fight, though, and can be used for putting more enemies on screen without unecesarily flooding the area.  Also, the game cabinet has got to be one of the most impressive looking ones I've seen (check it out in the beginning of the video, below).

While this isn't as good as Golden Axe, it's not that bad of a game.  I actually remember playing it once.  I don't remember where or when, but I know I did play it.  It's not bad, but it's not as good as the original Rastan.

One last thing: one of the elements of this game series is that the stories are told from a much older King Rastan, as he reminisces about his adventures of the past.  In the beginning of Rastan and Warrior's Blade, we see him sitting on his throne, as he begins the stories we're about to play through.  It seems very similar to Conan's yearning for the adventure of his younger days while sitting on the throne of Aquilonia.

Tomorrow, I'm going to talk about a few standalone titles that I've come across.  Then, on Saturday, I'm going to end with an extravaganza, looking at every Conan game I could get my hands on.

Kaiser out

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