Monsters of Time

Time isn’t the enemy it once was in video games. Modern titles might rank and penalize players based on how long it takes to clear a stage, but rarely is a timer a lethal obstacle. Indeed, many spacious big-budget games revel in their lack of any such constraints, proud of the way players can spend hours wandering a desolate canyon or mapping a particular fetid stretch of dungeon.

Games weren’t always so forgiving. Any sensibly designed arcade draw of the 1980s or 1990s had to keep players moving and, preferably, dying and paying for another go. A timer, often situated next to your score, was just as much an enemy as a robot dinosaur or leering street punk. Console games often adopted this idea without question, and even an pleasant stroll through Super Mario Bros. 3 would be deadly if the timer ran down.

Many games were content to unceremoniously kill player’s avatar when an on-screen timer ran out, but others went beyond that. It wasn’t enough that time elapsed; it also summoned a monster, invincible and relentless, to slay you and remind you that merciless game design waits for no one.

The original Rygar has a limited following, to put it charitably. It’s very much a typical arcade side-scroller from 1986: repetitive, punishing, and stingy in its payoff. Today it’s remembered mostly for inspiring a largely different and much more interesting NES version.

Rygar‘s first outing is intriguing only in those small, strange details that popped up in 1980s arcade games. Developers often tossed in whatever random sights they wanted, creating an atmosphere vaguely tantalizing in its random and limited decor. Rygar has hints of that in its odd introductory text that mentions 4.5 billions years of “dominators,” in its unexplained lion-man end boss, and in the way each level ends with symbols ranging from idols to crosses. It’s all likely just chosen for effect, but it feels like it should mean something, as though Rygar was secretly bankrolled by a bizarre cult.

Another effective touch appears when players let the timer tick down to nothing. An intense strain takes over the soundtrack, and then THIS shows up.

An angry mist-demon floats across the screen, and it’s impossible to slay unless Rygar reaches the level’s end. It’s probably the most imposing sight in the game; most of the creatures are only slightly larger than Rygar himself, but this giant cloud of temporal fury is an unexpected horror, even if it now looks like something from a cartoon about the evils of pollution.

Both the NES Rygar and the PlayStation 2 revamp have much more inventive monsters, and both are much better games. But they’re rarely as abrupt in their surprises as that hellish miasma.