Game Overview by Mike Finkelstein
Although there were plenty of ports from the Arcades over to the NES, not all of those games transitioned faithfully. In fact, in many instances it's rumored that Nintendo mandated that ports of games to their systems had to change the games in dramatic ways to make the NES special. Considering that by 1987 the NES was the video gaming market in the U.S. and Japan (with few other systems even getting a toehold in the market), Nintendo could have gotten away with that kind of behavior.
It does explain why some games feel substantially different between arcades and the NES. Just look at Double Dragon, which added in RPG elements when it made the move from arcades, or Sector Z, which saw modified game play to better match the specs of the NES. But among the various Arcade-to-NES ports, few went through such a substantial modification as Tecmo's Rygar. Where in Arcade cabinets the game played like a kind of "infinite brawler" -- it had a hero that went through stages, left to right, just mindlessly killing everything in its path -- the NES version became a full-on Metroidvania.
The basics of the game remain the same. Our hero, the Legendary Warrior, is tasked with freeing the world from the dark power of Rygar (sometimes written as "Lygar" in the game). While the game resembles its Arcade inspiration in design -- you have your bare-chested, swords-and-sandals hero going across platforming stages, swinging his blade-on-a-string -- once you get even mid-way into the first area you quickly realize the game has different aspirations than the basic brawling of the source material. There are platforms leading up, ancient deities to talk to, and a wider quest that you'll quickly get dumped into.
As a Metroidvania title, Rygar requires the players to navigate a non-linear world, finding the items required to unlock new regions, becoming stronger as they continue through their quest. Our Legendary Warrior with gain six totems over the course of his journey -- five items necessary to unlock the new regions plus an upgrade set of armor for protection -- all so he can unlock the last area and defeat Rygar. It's a simple quest dressed up with exploration trappings, but it works because it was willing to redesign the core game play to suit a wider adventure.
The original game, frankly, can get pretty tedious after a while. You really do just run from one of the stage to the other, killing constantly spawning enemies with your wicked blade-whip, and while that's fun for a time, once you've played a few stages of the Arcade original you've seen all there is, really, to the game. On the NES, though, the wider world and variety of places you can go changes the game play loop. Sure, the basic mechanics are the same, from the constant enemies to your hero and his blade-whip, but the game feels substantially different because you actually have to think and plan and plot your adventure.
One big change the game makes is in the inclusion of a greater overworld to explore. While the meat of the game takes place in platforming stages, there's an overworld (and two dungeons, including the final area) that's explored from an overhead perspective. It feels like the game was channeling Contra and its weird base stages, or The Goonies II and its own transitional hallways, trying something new to change up the game play substantially.
While the changes to the game play are nice, the game is not without its issues, most of which stem from these game play changes. For starters, control on the overworld is awkward. Our hero controls essentially the same in both modes of play, which makes sense if you only want one control scheme, but the enemies are substantially different between overworld and platforming areas and fighting them from the top-down perspective can be fiddly and a little weird. You often end up taking damage from attacks you should have been able to dodge, or falling into a trap because the perspective is weird and hard to gauge.
Meanwhile, some of the items you use for exploration are prone to their own failures. The worst, certainly, is the pulley, which is required to let our hero scale across horizontal ropes. Sometimes you'll go to activate the pulley and it simply won't activate. Maybe you aren't on just the right pixel, or the game has an error and doesn't detect what you're doing. This will even lead to you dropping into a pit or water, killing you, which is a real bummer.
The game probably did need a little more time in the hopper to get the kinks ironed out and for the core game play loop to be tightened some. But considering where the game was when it started in Arcades, this NES edition is miles above it in all aspects (except maybe sound and graphics). It's a solid first attempt at the NES platforming and an interesting way to work the explorational elements of the burgeoning Metroidvania genre as well. Plus, it's an interesting precursor to where Tecmo would go in only a few years: the tough-as-nails platforming action of Ninja Gaiden.
Similarities to Castlevania Games
The character of the Legendary Warrior feels a lot like a Belmont in certain respects. His whip-shield certainly bears a bit of a resemblance to the whips used by our heroes, although it is faster to use, allowing Mr. Warrior to unleash multi-hit combos quickly and effectively. The Belmonts would kill for that kind of attack speed.
The Legendary Warrior also has a leveling system to tap into, along with collected items, hearkening to the second adventure of Simon Belmont, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. While the specifics are different of course, there is that shared DNA that shows at least Tecmo was paying attention to the games being released at the time, drawing some inspiration from what other companies were doing.
Also, and this is a minor note, the character does resemble a Belmont. He has that small, featureless face that looks much like Konami's own house style. He's also animated in a small number of frames, much like the early Belmonts, which really make it feel like Tecmo knew exactly who they were borrowing from.