Greatest Heavyweights

Grade: A-

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 14th

Publisher: Sega

Year: 1993

Genre: Punching

Someone once asked me what the best fighting game on the Genesis was, and when I told him it was Greatest Heavyweights, he told me, no, Greatest Heavyweights wasn’t a fighting game, it was a boxing game. It was at that point that I began to wonder if I had somehow fundamentally misunderstood the sport of boxing. But I stand by my assessment – Greatest Heavyweights is the Genesis’ best fighting game. Given that the console’s emphasis on sports games, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that its best fighting game is also a sports game.

Now I could go on and tell you all about GH’s gameplay, career mode, and other features, all of which are brilliant. But let’s leave that to the experts. What really stands out to me about Greatest Heavyweights, and what I think helps put it near the front of the pack of so many other really well-made Genesis games, is just how unapologetic macho it is. This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise – it is after all a game about really strong dudes punching each other in the face for money, starring some of history’s most skilled face-punchers. That alone should already gives it a ranking of “Tom Selleck” on the Machismo Scale, and it only gets tougher from there.

Consider:

Steak is For Training, and Stamina is for Wusses

I love training with the Power Glove. It’s so bad.

How do you become a great boxer? Spend countless hours in the gym? Spar to work on your technique? Greatest Heavyweights says to hell with all that and gives you the only training option anyone should ever take seriously – eating a ton of steak. In the game, this is referred to as “Protein Diet” but what it essentially comes down to is eating a dead cow for every breakfast lunch and dinner, along with a side of a dozen eggs and a tall glass of milk. This is the way all the great boxers trained. Sure, the game gives you plenty of more “traditional” training regimens, like exercise bikes or wearing sneakers, but any boxer worth a damn knows you can’t get into fighting shape without devouring several hundred farm animals in the process.

See, you train your boxer in three different skills – power, speed and stamina, and all that steak gives you a big boost to power and speed. Which is the perfect balance, because stamina is pointless. Greatest Heavyweights doesn’t get all caught up with nonsense like “proper boxing technique” or winning on points. Sure, you could try to box effectively by keeping your guard up, waiting for an opening, and countering your opponents punches, but that approach is just going to get you killed. Instead, you need to learn how to fight like a man. By which I mean sucker punching your opponent in the gut, and then caving in his face with an uppercut while he’s doubled over.

It’s also not a bad idea to fight someone much weaker than you.

It Features Some of the Toughest Guys Ever…

As the title implies, Greatest Heavyweights features some of the most successful boxers of all time, including Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and Jack Dempsey. As somebody who is only old enough to remember the Mike Tyson era and everything after, it’s kind of interesting to see these guys in action. Although every legend has maxed out stats, the game still makes each of them unique by recreating their signature style. If the game is accurate, then Floyd Patterson was completely unafraid of being punched in the head, and Joe Louis was a boxer, not a Hall of Fame center for the Detroit Red Wings, as I had previously assumed.

But with clubs, while riding dinosaurs.

Each legend has unique taunts as well. Evander Holyfield quotes MC Hammer (seriously, saying “It’s Hammer Time!” is a coincidence. Saying both “It’s Hammer Time” and “You Can’t Touch Me” is not), while Rocky Marciano (not that Rocky) likes to tell his opponents “I’m gonna embarrass you” in what sounds like a bad Marlon Brando impersonation. While I assume he meant he planned to embarrass me by beating me up and displaying my lack of boxing skills, as opposed to, say, pants-ing me in the middle of the ring, it’s still not as effective of a threat as “I’m gonna punch you in the face a whole bunch of times,” which is what he actually ended up doing.

…And the Computer Isn’t Even a Little Bit Afraid of Them

What’s surprising is how little respect the fictional computer opponents give these legends. Imagine what you would do if you found yourself in a boxing ring with Muhammad Ali – and not modern day, wheelchair bound, crippled by Parkinson’s Ali, but the “I’m the Greatest of All Time”, George Foreman slaying Ali, in his prime. I like to think I’m not a total coward, but even so, I’m fairly certain I would spend the entire match apologizing and trying to find the softest part of the ring to fall down onto.

Not the computer, though. In one fight, a CPU controlled opponent by the somewhat less than intimidating name of Sleepy Crowe got into the ring with Ali and managed to get himself knocked down in about 30 seconds. Rather than doing what a rational person would do and staying the fuck down, Sleepy Crowe popped back up and began calling Ali a pansy. Ali, never one to shy away from trash talk himself, responded by punching all the knowledge out of Sleepy Crowe’s head.

Admittedly, what’s manly isn’t necessarily what’s wise. In fact that’s rarely the case. Which is something Crowe would do well to remember if he still had that capability.

You Can Hit Somebody So Hard That They Start to Like It

That brings me to the manliest thing Greatest Heavyweights – it’s sheer savagery. Generally, the violence in fighting games is either a bit understated, with guys shrugging off blows that would put a person in the hospital in real life. Or else the violence is so completely over the top that it’s cartoonish. But the violence in GH feels very real. Landing a knockdown punch usually results in a little grunt from your opponent as he crashes to the canvas, but sometimes you’re rewarded with a much more satisfying yelp that lets you know that your foe probably just received some significant loss of brain function.

But even that pales in comparison to the time I managed to land a right hook that sent my opponent crashing to the floor while he screamed “YEAH!” That’s right, in Greatest Heavyweights, I once punched a guy so hard that even he was excited about it. This is normally the point where a responsible referee would stop the fight, but the refs in this game are apparently paid by the round,so after an eight count, my opponent got back up and the fight resumed. A few seconds later, he was on the mat again, and did not do so much as lift his head.

I’m pretty sure I killed him.

Availability: Greatest Heavyweights has not been included in any retro collections or made available for download. If I had to guess, I’d say the licensing for the boxers probably expired. However, the game is relatively common, and a copy of Greatest Heavyweights should only set you back a couple of bucks and be easy to find online or at a decent used game store. If that should somehow become impossible, you can also scoop up the game that GH was a sequel to, Evander Holyfield’s Real Deal Boxing. Greatest Heavyweights is the better game, but if you’re not really into the legendary boxers, improvements between the two games are slight.

Wait, Dixon does what?

One side note, Greatest Heavyweights supports the Genesis 6 button pad, but we actually found it easier to play with the standard 3 button controller. So you might want to pick one of those up too, if you don’t already have one.

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Rings of Power

Grade: A-

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 15th

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Year: 1991

Genre: What RPGs of the 90s should have been

Before we get started, let me make one thing perfectly clear – Rings of Power isn’t a game for everyone. It’s unfamiliar, it’s difficult (especially early on), and it has a non-linear structure that is going to turn off some gamers.  There are quests that are laid out in such an inefficient way that you’ll start to wonder if the designers thought walking from one place to another was one of the more interesting activities in the game. It’s also one of the very earliest Genesis games, and suffers from some of the all-too-common ailments of games from that time – it runs a bit slow, the control is clunky, and the interface is somewhere between “unintuitive” and “actively trying to fight you”. Oh, and the combat is the same menu-driven stuff that I’m always slamming RPGs for.

In this particular example, I am a hideous fat lady, and “you” is most old-school RPGs.

And you know what? I don’t care. There are games you appreciate and then there are games you love. The games you appreciate are the really well-made games where a big part of what makes them enjoyable is that they don’t have any significant flaws. But the games you love, those are the ones that you keep playing despite whatever problems they may have, because the rest of the game is just so much more interesting, fun, and charming than the other stuff out there.

I love Rings of Power.

Rings embodies a completely revolutionary approach to role playing games. In a typical console RPG, you’re given some mostly useless party members, fight a bunch of random battles by picking “fight” off a menu, go to a town, meet with someone who needs an item retrieved or some monster slain, fight a bunch more random battles, retrieve the item, pick “fight” off a menu some more, return to the guy who gave you the quest, and then progress on to the next town to go through the whole ordeal over again. Sometimes you get some extra sidequests to go after at your leisure, but the main story is almost always a linear, point-to-point affair. Eventually you run out of items to retrieve and menus to choose fight off of, and the game ends.

Rings of Power is different, because the focus isn’t on the “traditional” aspects of RPGs like grinding through battles to level up and get new equipment. Combat is a sideshow, something to add a little variety while you go about the real business of exploring, picking up clues, and trying to solve the mystery of the rings. This is an old-school adventure game disguised as an RPG.

The isometric view adds a nice level of detail to the world map not often seen in other RPGs.

Rings of Power takes on a much less structured approach. Basically, there are eleven rings out in the world you need to find, and five other characters who will join you in obtaining them. You’re given a few clues as to where to start looking and… that’s it – you’re free to go explore the world, follow up on your leads, and track down allies and rings in whatever order you want too.  Each party member and ring requires you to go through a series of tasks, but you’re allowed to pursue most of them concurrently (though you will probably want to get those party members recruited first). This non-structured approach puts a lot more emphasis on exploration and figuring stuff out for yourself, which makes the whole thing feel like a real adventure in a way that few other games are capable of.

“I have a hot date for the seance…”

Interactions with characters in the game are handled in a similar fashion. In an ordinary RPG, you only have one possible interaction with most characters – townspeople will repeat the same phrase over and over, merchants will buy or sell things, and certain characters will give you quests. In RoP, all the conversation topics are available to everyone. If you want to chat with a merchant about life in the city, or try to buy things from some guy who’s just hanging out in his home, you can. Admittedly, it generally isn’t too useful to chat up a shopkeeper on what he knows about the legendary rings, and I was never able to convince a townsperson to sell me his furniture, but just having the option feels a lot more logical and less restrictive than the typical RPG. Not only that, you can also start a fight with just about anyone in the game, so for those of you who always wondered what it would be like if the guy saving the world was also a homicidal maniac, you finally have your chance.

Of course innovation is only part of the game’s appeal, and what was groundbreaking in 1991 is much less so today. What really makes this game hold up after two decades is that it’s just so damn likeable. From the characters, to the artwork and music, to the incredible amount of thought that went into the setting, the whole thing just oozes charm.

First and foremost, Rings of Power is funny. In fact, it might be one of the most humorous games made for the Genesis. Some of this is in the form of dialogue that fairly obviously was meant to get a laugh, such as city guards professing their love for marching around the city aimlessly. But a lot of it is of the more subtle, weird variety. The game is constantly breaking fantasy and RPG conventions by adding “modern” touches like a tavern that is actually a dance club with techno music and flashing lights, or a temple that hosts bingo. There’s also just something amusing about going on a quest to retrieve a fake mustache or asking a townsperson about his abilities and having him come right out and admit that he’s really not good at anything.

This humor creates a light atmosphere that the visuals support rather well. From a technical standpoint, the graphics look a little primitive, but that seems fair considering that the game came out so early in the Genesis’ life cycle. More importantly, they’re also really interesting to look at and fit the theme really well. The isometric view gives the game a unique look, and there are all kinds of neat things to find, which is important for a game that features so much exploration. Character animations, despite being kind of limited, are really fun to watch, and some of the spells that you unleash in battle are pretty impressive. There’s nothing like crushing your enemies with a torrent of rushing water to really give you that feeling of “Oh my God, look at how badly I’m kicking their ass!”

The most impressive spell of all being the one that summons Slash from the Appetite for Destruction album cover to attack your enemies.

Musically, Electronic Arts has never, ever failed on a Genesis game, and Rings of Power is no exception. That’s actually kind of unusual, because it’s not like EA just had one guy write all the music for every game they published; they generally left this up to the individual developers. Anyway, there’s not a lot that can be written about game soundtracks without getting into mind-numbing detail, so let’s just cover the three really important things the Rings of Power soundtrack does well  – it sets the appropriate mood for in-game events, has variety while keeping a consistent theme, and just plain sounds good. If you want to hear it for yourself, follow this link or just check out the video:

Things get good around the 0:26 mark

The other thing that really adds to Rings of Power’s appeal is the staggering level of thought that went into its setting and story. This isn’t just some run of the mill world-saving quest through a bunch of generic towns that have no purpose or explanation for being there. The world that the game takes place in has an extensive history, and every city has its own little backstory, an economy, and unique features. More importantly, this is all handled in a logical way. If a city is on the shore with a big natural bay, it’s a trade city, and if a city is in some deserted, out of the way place, the people who live there have a reason for being off in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like most RPGs where the designers will put a major city in the middle of a forest crawling with giant, aggressive spiders, and then not bother to have any of the townspeople mention what they find so advantageous about living in Spideropolis (even really low rent seems like a bad trade-off for being part of an all-you-can-eat spider buffet).

This level of detail shows up in other places, too. The different schools of magic in the game each have their own philosophy that ties in to how the magic works. Even minor details, like why the battle screen is set in what looks like outer space, are explained. It’s the level of attention and background information you might expect to see in a particularly lengthy and well-crafted fiction novel.

And that’s what’s truly amazing about Rings of Power. As you play it, you really begin to appreciate that this was a game made by a couple of young guys who were putting their heart and soul into making the kind of game they had always wanted to play. That’s a much different vibe than you get from playing, say, Judge Dredd, which presumably was developed by some unfortunate people that Acclaim had kidnapped of the streets and held at gunpoint until they made a game.

Again, Rings of Power isn’t going to be for everybody. Not everyone wants to play a game where you spend most of your time walking around and talking to people, no matter how unique or humorous it is. And Rings certainly shows signs of its age. But those of you who do get into it will find yourselves wrapped up in one of the most rewarding experiences the 16-bit era has to offer. Games like Rings of Power are why I fell in love with EA, why I fell in love with the Genesis, and why I still get nostalgic for the 16-bit days.

Wait, so my reward for saving the world is even more responsibility?

Availability: Rings of Power wasn’t released as part of any retro collections, and isn’t available for download on any of the newer consoles, so the only way to play it is to track down a Genesis copy (a Genesis would also be helpful). The game had a limited production run, so copies of it are somewhat rare, but on the flip side, it’s also pretty obscure, so there aren’t a lot of would-be buyers out there driving the price up. We’ve had pretty good luck finding it at flea markets and some of the better used game stores, usually for about $10-15, and copies are also available for sale online. Be a little careful about the pricing on this one though, as there are a few sharks out there charging outrageous prices. You really don’t need to spend more than $20 to obtain one.

Or maybe get lucky and find a copy inside a bagel.

It’s also worth noting that the instruction manual comes with a complete walkthrough / hint guide. Rings is a pretty challenging game, so that’s a nice bonus which may make it worth paying a little extra to get a “complete” copy. Of course, there are also places to find help online, as well. I highly recommend this site, or checking out these videos, both of which were a tremendous help to us.

I tried really hard to find a way to work in the names of the guys who made the game into this article, but it didn’t happen. So here they are.

Interview with Naughty Dog Co-Founder Jason Rubin

This is a very exciting week for us, because after 35 entries to our Top 50 list, we finally get to write about Rings of Power. It might seem a little unusual for us to get this excited about one of our Top 50 entries, but Rings really made an impression on us and was one of the games we specifically had in mind when we decided to write lengthy features for each game on the list. You could say we’ve been waiting this whole time just to write about Rings of Power, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. I think I’ve been waiting to write about Rings since I first played it twenty years ago.

With that in mind, we wanted to do something a little special, so I got in touch with Jason Rubin, one of the two people most responsible for making the game. Jason might not be one of those super-famous game designers, but he and Andy Gavin really ought to be. They co-founded Rings of Power developer Naughty Dog when they were still teenagers, made Rings of Power a few years later, and then went on to make several other really successful games, including Crash Bandicoot, and Jax and Daxter.

To put that into perspective, in the late 80’s, while still in college, Jason and Andy were making Rings of Power for a company they had created themselves. Ten years later, also while in college, I was working a part time job at the mall selling some of the more recent games their company had made.

You know what? I had better get on to the interview before that starts to sink in:

Q: You and Andy Gavin made your first game when you were 15, and Rings of Power was made while both of you were still in college. How did you learn this craft at such a young age?

Jason: When we started making games there were no courses taught, and barely any books to read.  You just sat and hacked.  Andy and I were lucky enough to get computers early and we spent a huge amount of time on them.  Cracking games turned into bad games which became decent games which became good games.  Eventually we got published.  Learning in such a fashion became harder and harder in the 90’s because there wasn’t a good outlet for the games new developers made.  But today, in 2012, it has never been easier to learn to make games and get your titles in front of the audience.  I get a lot of emails asking what to do or what school to enroll in to “get into the business.”  The truth is, if you have a computer and an internet connection you have access to everything you need.  Just do it.

Q: You guys also founded the developer Naughty Dog, which has created a lot of successful games, the most famous of which is probably the Crash Bandicoot series. With so many bigger successes under your belt, does RoP even stand out in your mind at all?

Jason: I have fond memories of Rings of Power.  We spent 3 years on the game, mostly because we were developing the game by modem from two different universities.  It was a huge game, and testing it took forever.  It was also our first console game, and the first game that put us in the mainstream.

Q: Compared to most console RPGs available at the time, Rings of Power is really innovative – the game is much less linear than other RPGs, allowing you to go after the rings in any order you choose, talk to any character about any topic, and you can even fight almost anyone in the game if you choose. Was this a conscious choice to do something really different, a reflection of your PC gaming background, or just the natural result of making the game that you wanted to make?

Jason: Rings was definitely the game we wanted to make.  Back then we took development much more casually than we did later.  We were still making the games we wanted to play rather than the games our audience wanted to play.  As hard core gamers we made Rings detailed, open, and difficult.  Later games were more casually entertaining and easier to love.  That isn’t to suggest that there was anything inferior about Rings, just that it was always going to appeal to a smaller, more dedicated audience.

Q: Was it at all disappointing that not many other console games followed your lead – do you wish Rings of Power had been more influential?

Jason: Rings of Power had a single major challenge: It sold out quickly but was never restocked by EA.  There were multiple reasons for this, from the cost of the cartridge vs. other games (it had more memory and expensive storage), to our royalty (really high), to the internal competition for limited space in the print run (Madden).  Rings became the best selling used game on Genesis very quickly because it simply couldn’t be found new.  So Rings never had a chance to become a major hit.  Frustration with this led Andy and I to leave the game business… briefly.

Q: Were there any major influences for Rings of Power in terms of game design, story or art style?

Jason: Oh sure.  Rings was influenced by dozens of games, books, and other media.  Andy was the leading designer on Rings, a position I would take over there after.  This was a combination of his strong love of RPG’s, and the fact that he was the one who was writing the code and it was impossible for me to have that much influence from 1000 miles away!  It would probably be better to ask him what the specific inspirations were.

Q: During the Sega Genesis era, Electronic Arts seemed like a company that published a lot of really unique games and was willing to take some chances that other publishers might not have. What was it like to work with them back in those days?

Jason: Electronic Arts was named Electronic Artists when it started.  It was completely run by development.  Developers had their pictures on every box.  But larger budgets and teams brought larger risk, and the wild west days of game development led to much more structure.  There was initially no malice in this change, and it happened in every publisher.  I would argue (and have – see my DICE speech) that the pendulum swung way too far in the other direction in the early 2000’s, with publishers believing that games were “packaged good” like cereal or bleach to be differentiated by marketing, but things seem to have worked themselves out in the long run.

(Editor’s note: for those of you who can’t watch the hour long presentation, or perhaps believe that internet video is some kind of evil magic, Gamespy has a pretty decent article on the speech here)

Q: One thing that we really enjoyed about Rings of Power was how funny some parts of it were. Was this something you had intended to do right from the start, or did more and more humorous elements and dialogue work their way in as you went along?

Jason: Andy was responsible for writing all of the dialogue and I think a combination of a twisted sense of humor, and ungodly long hours of writing led to the Rings sensibility.  There were a huge number of lines of dialogue for a game in those days.  I think over time that the humor crept in and then stayed.

Q: Is there anything about the original you would go back and change if you could?

Jason: Rings was abusively long.  While a small percentage of players got benefit of that, I would imagine that most didn’t get close to finishing.  This size led to the expensive memory chips that had to be on the cartridge, and so indirectly led to Rings being a short publishing run.  I would imagine that had Rings been split into two games that EA might have been able to manufacture more of them, and the games would have had a larger impact.  Is there such a thing as too big?  Perhaps there is!

Q: Are you surprised that 20 years later the game still has some fans posting videos, running websites and discussing it on message boards?

Jason: Every creator wishes that his or her creation is appreciated.  So of course we always hoped that this would be the case.  Having said that, there are so many great games out there, not to mention other forms of entertainment, that it is still incredibly gratifying when something I have created strikes a chord with someone. Rings was probably Andy and my last “pure” game.  After Rings, we tried to make the broadest number of people happy, rather than focusing on what we wanted to play ourselves.  So if Rings still has devoted fans, then these are probably gamers who are, or at least were, as close to Andy and my game sensibilities as could be.  Today, with connectivity through the internet it is easy to find someone who shares your tastes.  Hell, these days Zynga changes its games continually based on the audience’s feedback.  When we made Rings, that wasn’t the case.  You just put it out there and hoped that there was someone who appreciated it.  I’m always excited by the fact that we found those souls.

Q: And finally, will there ever be anything Rings of Power related in the future – a re-release for something like PSN of XBLA, or a sequel, or merchandise? I would definitely buy a Rings of Power t-shirt.

Jason: Haha.  You would have to ask Naughty Dog and Sony that question.  Sony owns all of the rights to the games that Andy and I created through their purchase of Naughty Dog.  So neither Andy or I have any say.  It would be cool though!