Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 15th
Publisher: Electronic Arts
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!”
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.