Rings of Power, in 25 years of gaming journalism I’ve written four articles about the game, even though this is my first in English. On one hand it will be a load off my shoulders if this is the last time I’m publishing something about this game. Maybe, finally, this time I will say everything I want to. Maybe. On the other hand, I’ll gladly talk your ears off anyday you ask me about it. But was it really Naughty Dog’s last pure game?
It definitely felt like so. That is why, Rings of Power will always be one of my archetypal answers to the eternal question: “why are you a gamer?”. Because I love going on an adventure. I enjoy the freedom, the atmosphere. I love what I can find in no other artistic media. Probably I should just go around with a “ask me about Rings of Power” button on my shirt.
In the beginning, there was chaos
Rings of Power is a 1991 Sega Genesis/Megadrive exclusive developed by Naughty Dog, at the time the duo of Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin, aided by Vijay Pande on game design and Alexander Hinds playing the harpischord. Rubin & Gavin had started their careers as developers when, as teenagers, they hacked Electronic Arts’ Pinball Construction Set to produce their own games. A couple of years later, they released Dream Zone for the Amiga/Apple II, when they were still called Jam Software and then directly approached Electronic Arts to ask for a job.
At the time, the company was still under Trip Hawkins’ savvy management, the man who saw game developers as the “rock stars” of the business. Thus, seeing their accomplishements, they were immediately hired and began working on various titles for Amiga and Apple II. As many gamers know, years later they created the Jax and, naturally, the Crash Bandicoot series. Gavin and Rubin both left the company in 2004, so they had no direct input on later Naughty Dog successes like Uncharted or The Last of Us.
Rings of Power is the rare western RPG developed for the SEGA console, seemingly inspired more by computer titles like Ultima and The Bard’s Tale, rather than Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star. Rubin & Gavin started working on the game in 1989 with a PC release in mind, which goes a long way in explaining the “weirdly out of place on a 16bit console” design choices. Then EA decided they were gonna publish it exclusively on Sega Genesis cause “it is going to sell better”.
A questionable market choice at best, Rings of Power requires serious time investment from the player, 10 year old kids with short attention spans weren’t really the ideal target audience. Reception from magazines of the time was lukewarm at best, with more than one reviewer singling out the slowness and cryptic nature of the adventure, concluding “play Buck Rogers – Countdown to Doomsday instead”. We shall see what else doomed – indeed – the game to obscurity and, also, lead to Naughty Dog temporarily leaving game development, but first, let’s look at the game itself.
Welcome to the world of Ushka Bau, young sorcerer
The plot borrows from Tolkien and classic RPGs alike: in the world of Ushka Bau, Nexus is the benevolent divinity that watches over the people. With the Rod of Creation, he blessed the people with the gift of the six Arts, then his chosen ones – The Red Priests – established an order of six Guilds. The world entered a Golden age of prosperity, but the evil demon Void stole the Rod trying to undo Nexus’ work. In a cosmic battle, the two gods faced each other; alas none was victorious and the Rod itself was shattered during the battle. It was divided into eleven rings, known as the Rings of Power, scattered into the world.
The player will inhabit the robes of Buc, a young sorcerer tasked with getting back the rings, but only after recruiting five members of the other Guilds (necromancer, knight, archeress, enchantress, conjuror).
While the story might feel very serious, the game itself isn’t. The “fantasy RPG” atmosphere is consistent throughout, but the player will find taverns where people play bingo, bars with techno music with strobe lights and, of course, several lines of dialogue that feel weird and weirder the more one plays.
Even though designed by Naughty Dog, the two young developers probably felt the humorous tone was mandatory. Electronic Arts had previously insisted that they should add some comic relief to Keef the Thief, an Amiga exclusive, which the designers felt like a forced choice. It is no big surprise, then, to note that Rings of Power manages to expertly alternate between comical, weird and downright creepy.
While Rings of Power feels like a true RPG, the focus is not on leveling up and winning battles, like any other 8/16 bit titles in the genre. The search for the rings – instead of the usual quests/subquests system or exploring dungeons and caves – relies solely on searching for clues and talking to people to get information. The clues are so cryptic and the main quest so convoluted that… Honestly? At this time, I think it would be wrong to define Rings of Power as an actual RPG.
Gameplay is closer to a semi-graphical adventure, like Deja vu, one that will bring you from the highest mountain to the depths of the deepest sea. But you will need a map, believe me. Literally, it is a sprawling open world adventure with a heavy focus on exploration and trying to survive battles, even though there’s always a chance to escape them. My theory is reinforced by how the inventory is only used for quest items and goods to buy/sell, there are no potions/armor/weapons. Has anyone ever heard of a early 90s RPG with no equipment?
Buc’s team members only use spells to fight, as they level up they gain more powerful ones which can only be used after shopping at Magic’R’Us (a pun that hasn’t aged very well). In battle it is possible to switch to manual mode, so that the player can select what each character is going to cast. Still, the player can’t maneouver the team around, the extent of the control is waiting for one’s turn to cast spells.
At best, Rings of Power can be defined as an rpg-lite, with a heavy focus on finding the right clues, talking to the right people and finding the right secrets.
Thirty cities to visit before you die
Buc will start his journey by walking around – well who doesn’t? – slowly and dangerously, especially when there are no teammates, since random enemy encounters will ignore the player’s current spell level. Dying a few minutes in, because of an ambush by the evil Doggonia King’s guards is quite a common occurrence. Planning a route on the in-game map is necessary, especially because the team is at constant risk of dying of starvation or thirst. Keeping an eye on the food and water level – another pretty rare feature in a console RPG – is required, on ice and rough surfaces the team consumes a lot of them. It is actually a good idea to invest in a Dinosaur.
Yes, Buc rides a dinosaur in the game, it actually saves him from many random battles along with moving pretty fast. Not long after recruiting the first team members, comes the time to buy a boat that – again – consumes a lot of food and water, especially in deep waters. After that, comes a ship, that – along with food and water – consumes money, since the sailors need a living wage. This at least saves the team from easily dying, unless, of course, the sailors attack cause they haven’t been paid.
To top it all off, there are also random encounters with pirates.
Finally, there’s the chance to get the dragon, which is also required to access the final boss encounter, the evil sorcerer Darius. The beast consumes a lot of food and water which is why it is rarely used even by the end of the game. ‘Tis a shame because it is obviously the most convenient out of all, not to mention looking as badass as the sorcerer on the cover. Imagine exploring the world of Morrowind while riding a dragon.
Exploring an open-world map, especially in the early 90s, was always a very welcome design choice, as long as one was also free to experiment. Apparently Naughty Dog shared that sentiment since the player has total freedom in the gameworld. There is no rush to complete the main quest, nor to “reunite the Guilds”, hence it is possible to leisurely spend time interacting with NPCs and searching for clues.
Since clues are usually just pieces of paper scattered around, it makes sense that the first place to search would be libraries and bookshelves, but it is possible to search anywhere one’s heart desires. Luckily Naughty Dog is not that… well, naughty, so clues are usually kept in sensible places.
Quest required items, well… not so much. The sextant is actually hidden in a cave behind a waterfall, it is also a pretty necessary item since NPCs give Buc detailed directions. That is, if the NPC in question is feeling generous.
The interface, a list of verbs which feels very late 80s, never changes regardless of who Buc is interacting with. Our hero can talk about everything and show his inventory to anyone, bribe, buy or sell things and, most importantly, pick a fight with whoever he desires.
This may also include killing off characters that are needed later in the quest, so indeed one, if so desired, can… “persist in the doomed world you have created”.
While rarely useful, it does feel weirdly liberating to have a friendly chat with an evil priest of Void, like Buc and him just passed each other on the way to the local marketplace of Commerce.
Clues for spineless sorcerers
Rings of Power is as cryptic as an adventure game from 1991 could get. There is NO way in Nexus’ golden age to complete it without a walkthrough or keeping one’s sanity intact. Apparently both Naughty Dog and Electronic Arts were aware of the problem, thus NTSC copies of the game (no such luck for PAL owners) came bundled with a walkthrough included in the manual’s appendix. Even though, to be fair, EA did the same with other RPGs published at the time (see Countdown to Doomsday).
In 2004 I took upon myself the daunting task of publishing a walkthrough in Italian, complete with manual scans – the same ones spread all over this article – so I know very well that this game is not easy. The adventure is between 20-40 hours long, the team will explore the entire world and Buc will soon learn that in Ushka Bau nothing must ever be taken at face value. The NPC one is talking to might actually BE the ring you’re looking for. Along with understanding the cryptic clues and riddles, the day/night cycle is used as a way to meet people that won’t otherwise show up. A couple of mazes also rear their ugly head. Surprises don’t end there.
While looking for the ring of division, Buc will have to get an audience with the (false) king of the city of Doggonia, that very same jerk who sends his guards around demanding money. Naturally, his royal highness takes away 1000 pieces of gold from Buc each time he enters the room, hence it’s a good idea to talk to him penniless. Getting money, at least, is easy enough once one understands the economic system. Yes, another pretty rare feature in a console RPG from 1991: buy the goods at the lowest price and sell at the highest in another city. Just like real life!
Anyway, his royal jerkness shall send Buc to kill an enemy of the state, Fiver. The only clue to find the scoundrel is “find him in the city of Commerce”. After reaching the city and having explored every house without further clues, there will be only one where there’s a guy upstairs. That’s how it is possible to deduce it’s him: every other house doesn’t have anyone upstairs. Simple as that.
The map is also pretty barebones: the only way to know the name of a city is to take a trip there and find out. This is where playing with emulators comes with its own conveniences, Rings of Power is better enjoyed with a detailed map open on a PDF reader.
A Popolous imitation
How did Naughty Dog get the idea to create such a huge adventure, with an open world to boot? Well, they didn’t bother working with “the tools at their disposal”, they made up new ones as they went along. Gavin reminiscing about those times, said “you have to go figure it out. You’re given a piece of hardware or a piece of code or a tool set. Then you push the limits of it and figure out what it can do by experimentation, rather than manuals or something else.”. The genius design idea behind Rings of Power is that it feels ten times bigger as soon as the player starts the adventure.
After a few minutes, it dawns on the player that Buc, the avatar, is exploring a scaled map: the full size is revealed only when pressing “B” on the joypad. Indeed: every square on the map can be furtherly explored, finding NPCs, items, money, treasure, clues. The map barely gives it justice, it is a HUGE world. Gavin recalls that it took “six months to lay out the map, one block at the time”.
The long time spent on world design definitely shows, Ushka Bau feels meticously crafted, a rare feature even for a modern RPG, pretty much unheard of in 1991. A city in the desert will not be full of nobles and riches, but instead its economy will rely totally on caravans. If Buc goes out of his way to visit someone who lives on a hill in the middle of nowhere, he’s not gonna have spiders in his basement or a senseless quest to give to the team. Chances are he’s just a misanthrope. For comparison sake: here is the map of the world in RoP and one of the maps from Phantasy Star 3, that came out just the year before. Notice how the world of Ushka Bau feels natural and organic, while the latter feels artificial.
While researching for this article, I found an interview with Jason Rubin where he states that Rings of Power was “Naughty Dog’s last pure game“. Even though Gavin worked on his own for months, in 1990 the two were studying in colleges on opposite sides of the US, it would be the last time the duo worked together on a title they liked as opposed to something that people were supposed to like.
“If Rings still has devoted fans” – continues Jason “then these are probably gamers who are, or at least were, as close to Andy and my game sensibilities as could be.” He also reveals that the game was rather expensive to publish (it was a 1MB cartridge with save RAM) and sold out quickly, while never being restocked by Electronic Arts since, at the time, the first Madden football game was also sold out but cheaper to produce and replace. “Rings became the best selling used game on Genesis very quickly because it simply couldn’t be found new.” concludes Jason.
A final word of wisdom
Frustrated with EA’s questionable publishing practices, Jason and Andy left the gaming industry for several years, until coming back to develop the rather mediocre Mortal Kombat-clone Way of the Warrior for 3DO, which almost led to Naughty Dog going bankrupt. Essentially, by axing a second batch of cartridges, EA forever consigned Rings of Power to history as that obscure and inaccessible RPG on Sega Genesis. The fact that still today (!), the publisher seems to have no intention to re-release it in any form (compilation or Sega Genesis mini) is the final nail in the coffin. To play the game, it is mandatory to know it beforehand and seek it out: at least it is still cheap to find on eBay. Even though I don’t condone piracy, I fail to see the harm in playing it via emulator, since it’s pretty clear that EA has given up on making money off of Rings of Power since that first batch of cartridges sold out. I’m also pretty sure Gavin and Rubin would be glad to have newcomers dip their toes into this labour of love.
Thalmus the wise says "we accept the RPG we think we deserve"
By now, it should be pretty clear that Rings of Power is far from being a perfect game. The article opened with the warning “early Sega Genesis title” and this comes with a series of caveats: the interface is clunky, the engine is slow as molasses and, without a walkthrough, this is niagara falls without a paddle. Still, considering its development, all these faults can be easily forgiven, it’s a miracle Andy and Jason managed to squeeze what is essentially a PC game into a 1mb cartridge on a 16bit console in 1991.
But of course, I would be lying if I told readers that Rings of Power makes for a modern and immediate experience. Still, I believe nothing really good is ever gained without a bit of sacrifice. Thus, should one desire a role-playing experience unlike any other, I heavily recommend investing time into the world of Rings of Power. It was a craft of unadulterated passion by Naughty Dog: they did their best to develop a game straight from the heart, that would speak to the player of their attention to detail and passion for the genre.
I am sorry but I cannot bring myself to be rational about the game, because frankly, my lovestory with Rings is 20 years strong. The harpischord/organ soundtrack, the absurd dialogue, the day and night cycle, the huge open world one is free to explore, going on a quest in a universe where people go about their business. I’ll never forget walking into the city of the dead, Blood, to bring a corpse to a laboratory at night for the necromancers to experiment on.
No other console RPG – even years later – feels like it and, even more, no other adventure games feels like it. Thirty years after its release, Rings of Power stands alone.
Thank you Andy and Jason. I never knew you but, somehow, I feel like I’ve always did.
Sources, references and thanks
Many thanks to the great people on the Pixelation forum (Helm above all) for the awesome work on the world map that I’ve linked to in the article. If you’re reading this, please get in touch.
Thanks to the Brad hates games blog for the great interview and the inspirational write-up of the game.
Also, the defunct Rings of Power website is still a valid reference for various walkthroughs.
All images in the article are taken from the original manual, I hold no rights over them.
Finally, I haven’t mentioned the blasted “nude” easter egg because often RoP is remembered ONLY for this juvenile reason and, frankly, I find it offensive for such a greatly designed game.