In 20 years of gaming journalism I’ve written four articles about Rings of Power, 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.
RoP 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.
Have I rambled enough? Good, let’s get to the game.
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.
At the time, the company was still under the management of Trip Hawkins who saw game developers as the “rock stars” of the business. Thus, they were immediately hired and began working on various titles for Amiga and Apple II.
As you might know, years later they also created Jax and, naturally, the Crash Bandicoot series. Gavin and Rubin left the company in 2004, so they had no direct input on Uncharted or The Last of Us.
Rings of Power is a 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 at 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 shall 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 was the benevolent divinity that watched 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 of Power was shattered during the battle. It was divided into eleven rings, known as the Rings of Power, scattered into the world.
You play as 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).
Everything feels very serious, but the game isn’t. While the “fantasy RPG” atmosphere is consistent, you’ll find taverns where people play bingo, bars with techno music with lights flashing and, of course, many many lines of dialogue that feel weird and weirder the more you play.
Even though designed by Naughty Dog, they probably felt the humorous tone was mandatory. Electronic Arts had previously insisted that the duo should add some comic relief to Keef the Thief, an Amiga exclusive, which the designers felt didn’t fit the game. It is no big surprise, then, to note that Rings of Power manages to expertly alternate between comical, weird and downright creepy.
Here comes the plot twist, ladies and gentlemen
The game’s focus is not on leveling up and winning battles, like any other 8/16 bit RPGs.
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? Rings of Power is not a 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. Have you ever heard of a early 90s RPG with no equipment?
Your team members only use spells to fight, as they level up they gain more powerful ones which can be purchased at Magic’R’Us (a pun that hasn’t aged very well).
In battle you can switch to manual mode, so that you can select what each character is going to cast; you can’t maneouver your team around, the extent of your control is waiting for your turn to cast spells.
At best, RoP is an rpg-lite, instead being heavily focused on finding the right clues, talking to the right people and finding the right secrets.
Thirty cities to visit before you die
You start by walking around – well who doesn’t? – slowly and dangerously, especially when Buc is alone, since random enemy encounters will ignore your current spell level. Dying a few minutes in because of an ambush by the Doggonia King’s guards is a common occurrence in RoP, don’t let that get you down.
Planning a route on the in-game map is necessary, especially cause your team might die of starvation or thirst.
Keeping an eye on your food and water level – another very rare feature in a console RPG – is required, on ice and rough surfaces you consume a lot of them.
It is actually a good idea to invest in a Dinosaur. Yes, you ride a dinosaur in the game, it actually saves you from many random battles and moves pretty fast.
Not long after you recruit the first team members, you’ll buy a boat that consumes a lot of food and water, especially in deep waters. After that, you get a ship that consumes money, since the sailors need a living wage. This at least saves you from dying of starvation, unless the sailors attack cause you ran out of money. Naturally, there are random encounters with pirates too.
Finally, you 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. Tis a shame because it is obviously the most convenient out of all, not to mention you look as badass as the sorcerer on the cover.
Imagine if you could explore the world of Morrowind while riding a dragon.
Lock up your libraries if you like
Exploring is fun… as long as you’re also free to experiment, right? Well, the player has total freedom in the gameworld.
There is no rush to complete the main quest, nor to “reunite the Guilds”, so you can 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 you can actually search anywhere your heart desires. Luckily Naughty Dog is not that… well, naughty, so clues are usually kept in sensible places.
Quest required items, not so much.
The sextant is actually hidden in a cave behind a waterfall. You are gonna need it since NPCs give Buc detailed directions. That is, if you’re lucky.
The interface, a list of things which feels very late 80s, never changes regardless of who you’re 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. That includes killing off characters that you’re gonna need to be alive later on, of course, so, should you so desire, you 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 you just passed each other on the way to the local marketplace of Commerce.
Get a clue, you spineless sorcerer!
Rings of Power is as cryptic as an adventure game from 1991 could get. There is NO way in Nexus’ golden age you’re going to finish it without a walkthrough.
Apparently both Naughty Dog and Electronic Arts shared that feeling, thus NTSC copies of the game (not sure about the PAL release) 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.
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 you can trust me on this, this game is not easy.
The adventure is between 20-40 hours long, the team will explore the entire world and you will learn that in Ushka Bau nothing must ever be taken at face value. The person you’re 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, you’ll have to get an audience with the (false) king of the city of Doggonia. The same jerk that sends his guards around to ask for money. Naturally, his royal highness takes away 1000 pieces of gold from Buc each time you enter the room, hence it’s a good idea to talk to him penniless.
Getting money, at least, is easy enough once you understand how the economic system works. 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 you to kill an enemy of the state, Fiver, the only clue you’re given is “find him in the city of Commerce”. Once there you’ll have to explore every house, in order to find one where there’s a guy upstairs. That’s how you know it’s him, every other house doesn’t have anyone upstairs.
Unfortunately, the only way to know the name of a city is to take a trip, the in-game map has no textual descriptions. This is where playing in 2020 comes with its own conveniences, Rings of Powers is better enjoyed with a detailed map on your PDF reader.
It does look like Populous, doesn’t it?
How did Naughty Dog go about creating such a huge adventure and open world?
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 you set foot in it.
After a few minutes from starting, it dawns on the player that your avatar in the game is exploring a scaled map, the full size is revealed only when you press “B” on the joypad.
This means every square on the map may hide NPCs, items, money, treasure, clues. I told you, 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 for 2020, 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 you go out of your 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 you. Chances are he’s just a misanthrope.
Look at 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.
Thalmus the wise says “we accept the RPG we think we deserve”
While researching for this article, I found an interview with Jason Rubin where he says 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 developed a title they liked as opposed to something that people were supposed to like.
“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.” says Jason. 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 the first Madden football game was cheaper to produce and sold just as much.
“Rings became the best selling used game on Genesis very quickly because it simply couldn’t be found new.”.
Frustrated with EA’s questionable publishing practices, Jason and Andy left the game business for several years, until they came back to develop the rather mediocre Way of the Warrior for 3DO.
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 has 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, you’ll have to seek it out, at least it is cheap to find on eBay.
Still, 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.
A final word of wisdom
If you’ve read the whole article, by now it should be pretty obvious that Rings of Power is not a perfect game. The article opened with the warning “early Sega Genesis title”: the interface is clunky, the game engine is slow as molasses and without a walkthrough you’re up 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 you that Rings makes for a modern and immediate experience.
Still, nothing good is ever gained without a bit of sacrifice. Thus, should you desire an experience unlike any other, I heavily recommend you invest your precious 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.
Dear readers, 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 you’re 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, no other adventure games feels like it.
Almost 30 years after it was released, 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 the game is remembered ONLY for this juvenile reason and, frankly, I find it offensive for such a greatly designed game.