The game I’d like to talk about today is a prime example of why emulation and game preservation is important.
I’d never heard of it prior to my first encounter with it yesterday, when I was attracted by the box art I saw in my Launchbox library. No-one I’ve spoken to about it today has ever heard of it. I’ve found very little information about or discussion of it online, save for a few YouTube commenters on gameplay videos reminiscing about how much they enjoyed playing this game back in the day. And I’ve never seen it come up in articles about retro collections or “hidden gems of the NES library”.
The game I’m talking about is Arkista’s Ring, developed by Nihon Micom Kaihatsu (aka NMK), published by the American arm of Sammy Corporation (without crediting NMK) and released exclusively in North America in 1990.
The packaging for Arkista’s Ring promises “Epic elf adventure for the whole family” and “125 stages of mystery” as protagonist Christine takes on an epic quest to recover the elven treasures and rid the world of the Evil Shogun, a menace who resides deep within the Ninja Dungeon. You’d be forgiven for thinking this game was an RPG or perhaps a Zelda-like from the screenshots on the box, but in fact it’s something a little different; while there are certainly a few RPG elements here and there, this game is… kind of its own thing, really.
The main gameplay loop is pretty simple. Christine enters an area, represented as the sort of tile-based map you’d see in a typical NES RPG. Christine starts at one end of the area, which only scrolls vertically, and it’s up to you to locate a key and make your way to the exit, which is usually at the opposite end to where she started. The key always appears in a “well” in the area, but not until you’ve defeated a specific proportion of the enemies, and will also allow you to bypass certain obstacles — not just doors, but also coffins, trees and even mountains in some regions.
Variety is provided by a range of different level layouts ranging from open plains to cramped dungeons, and enemies who behave in distinct ways — some actively seek you out, some remain rooted to the spot and shoot at you, some fly erratically across the level, ignoring obstacles. And some are even smart enough to not wander blindly into your line of fire, instead waiting for you to make your move first.
There’s an element of Namco’s 1984 arcade title The Tower of Druaga to the basic game design and mechanics, but without the excruciatingly slow pace of that game in its initial stages or its somewhat idiosyncratic melee combat system. Instead, Christine’s main attack comes in the form of her trusty bow and arrow, which has unlimited ammunition but relatively limited range, and this can be both upgraded and supplemented by a variety of items she is able to loot from defeated enemies.
Yes, what we have here is actually an early (and simplistic) example of a loot-whoring action RPG — and all your favourite tactics still work, including standing in a doorway and picking off your foes one by one to prevent yourself getting overwhelmed. In fact, given the game’s four-directional tile-based movement, it’s actually in your best interests to try and play a little “strategically”.
The items you collect come in various forms. A fire wand allows you to replace your bow and arrows with a fireball attack that moves much more quickly, travels the distance of the screen and passes through walls. A thunder wand acts as a single-use “smart bomb”, clearing the screen of regular enemies and damaging tougher foes. A holy wand destroys supernatural foes such as ghosts, who are otherwise quite tricky to deal with. And the ninja stunner, which you’ll only start acquiring once you’re into the Ninja Castle… well, you can probably figure out what that does.
Christine can also upgrade her abilities by collecting various bows, which increase her maximum range and provide stronger firepower, and items of armour, each piece of which increases her maximum hit points by one. And clearing one of the game’s four loops — those “125 stages” are actually the same 31 levels repeated four times with a slight increase in difficulty each time — provides Christine with one of the stolen elven treasures, each of which has a significant, permanent effect such as being able to regenerate health, be immune to projectiles or score points with every step.
Arkista’s Ring is an enjoyable, straightforward and easy to understand game. It’s not particularly tough to get through — particularly once you get into the later loops and have elven treasures helping you out — but it’s a fun experience while it lasts. The design of the levels provides a very real feeling of Christine going on a journey; rather than simply being discrete, unrelated stages, there’s a strong sense of “progression” from one area to another, including traversing overworld regions, descending into dungeons and helping out besieged towns that are infested with monsters.
It’s possible that the original intention for Arkista’s Ring was somewhat more ambitious than what we eventually ended up with. The intrepid researchers of The Cutting Room Floor discovered a number of unused sprites and graphic tiles in the game’s ROM, including a few that suggested possible interactions with the game world beyond just shooting everything.
Of particular note are a number of humanoid figures that look like they might have been NPCs of some description, a sword sprite that suggests Christine might have once also had a melee attack, and a map tile that looks like it has a sign on it. The game has no text in it besides a well-hidden status screen (press Select between levels) and an underwhelming congratulatory message upon clearing it four times, so evidently the idea of making this a more substantial RPG-like experience was abandoned at some point during development — though not before some work was done on it.
It doesn’t do to dwell on what might have been, however, and while the game we ended up with does start to get a little repetitive after you complete your first loop, it’s still a fun time that looks great, has some excellent music and is undeniably addictive. If you’re looking for a quick hit of RPG-style adventure but don’t want to invest tens of hours of your life into a Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy or even a Zelda, Arkista’s Ring is definitely a worthwhile use of your time — and an honest to goodness hidden gem of the NES’ library.
More about Arkista’s Ring
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