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by Neo Rasa - April 30, 2008

Rastan Saga (ラスタン サーガ) / Rastan - Arcade, Master System, Game Gear, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, MSX2, ZX Spectrum, Apple IIgs, IBM PC, Windows, PlayStation 2, PSP, Xbox (1987)

Japanese Arcade Flyer

American Arcade Flyer

Japanese MSX Cover

European Master System Cover

American Apple IIgs Cover

European ZX Spectrum Cover

Japanese Game Gear Cover

In 1987, Rastan Saga began shipping to arcades everywhere. Like many arcade games at this time, Rastan Saga was shipped as a kit containing the arcade board along with the marquee and cabinet stickers necessary to turn any average arcade cabinet into a Rastan Saga one. While some feel that the lack of a dedicated cabinet implies a lack of confidence in the product, Rastan Saga is in fact a fantastic, highly challenging game.

Rastan Saga's execution is near flawless. Its goals are accomplished with such style that the game provides an intense, visceral experience that holds up even now. It's not the first platformer, or the first fantasy action game, but it's easily one of the best of its time and its structure is still relevant to action games today.

To start things off, Rastan himself is a clear clone of author Robert E. Howard's most famous creation, Conan. Taito's Rastan is an imitation not just in looks, but in motivation. The arcade game's attract screens include a picture of an aged Rastan sitting on a throne (brazenly aping the final shot of Conan the Barbarian from 1982) with first person narration from Rastan about how he used to be a thief and a murderer, and that he will tell you of his days of high adventure.

After putting a quarter into the Japanese version of the game and pressing start, you get an intro screen of a determined Rastan walking through a stormy environment. You learn that he's made a deal with a princess wherein he'll slay a dragon in exchange for all the treasures of the kingdom Ceim. This introduction is not present in the European and US releases of the game. It's notable how right off the bat Rastan's motives mirror Conan's in that he is altruistic, for a price.

Once the game begins, Rastan drops into the game world from an impossibly high height, showing you right off the bat that Rastan never takes damage from a fall. This has to be kept in mind throughout the game, since it's often much more efficient to jump down the game's many vertical shafts rather than using the ubiquitous chains and vines to climb down. Enemies constantly swarm Rastan from all sides so one needs to keep moving to be successful.

Fortunately Rastan has a few tricks to draw on that we take for granted now, but were groundbreaking at the time of Rastan Saga's release. First off, the height Rastan jumps differs depending on how long you hold down the jump button. This was becoming standard in games based around exploration or general platforming like Metroid or Super Mario Bros., but here full mastery of Rastan's jumping is immediately required to even pass the first level.

To further aid Rastan's progress, he doesn't have to stop moving to attack. This lets the game reward skilled players, since with proper timing you can effectively charge through and destroy hordes of lesser enemies and pass significant chunks of each level quickly. On top of this, the game world can scroll in any direction and is often several screens high, giving Rastan several paths to take through each area. Finally, Rastan can attack both upwards and downwards while in mid-air. Again, this isn't a technique thrown in for show, and must be mastered to make any real progress in the game. It also gives you more freedom for how you progress through each level. Since the levels have completely free scrolling, you can with correct timing attack at enemies above or below you while still scrolling the screen forward.

Rastan (Arcade)

Every aspect of Rastan Saga's design follows this trend of providing obstacles that, while challenging, reward the player who knows the controls with faster progression. The greatest example of this found with the boss fights and the castles the bosses reside in. Each of Rastan Saga's six levels is broken into two segments. The first involves Rastan charging through an outdoor area, slaying dozens of weaklings. The second is where things get more interesting. Reading the end of each outdoor area brings you to the entrance to a large castle. The music shifts gears to a slower, more deliberately paced song. These segments of the game are a true test of ability, as rather than just fighting brainless mobs of monsters, you must confront human guards that both take multiple hits to destroy and also wield the same weapons as Rastan himself.

These guards aren't brilliant, but their programming is such that they generally know when to back off and when to move in and strike you. Nothing too fancy, but when Rastan's energy is as limited as it is this makes a huge difference in how you play the game. Even better reflexes are required as you have to still attack aggressively, but be read to jump or otherwise back off from an oncoming enemy. The castles also feature more pitfalls, spikes and other such traps to keep you occupied. After negotiating them, however, you will finally reach the level's boss. This game has great boss fights, no questions asked. Each one looks radically different from the other and they all have very different abilities and even unique cosmetic flourishes in each of their backgrounds (the stone snakes sculpted around the columns at the end of the second level are a real standout).

It seems obvious, but the inherent structure of Rastan Saga uses this device to great effect. After rapidly hacking through what can easily amount to hundreds of enemies per level, it makes for an intense experience to suddenly be thrown into a completely new room and hear the slow beginning of the boss music begin as a single imposing individual comes onto the screen. The pattern isn't completely consistent (the final level throws everything but the kitchen sink at you both inside and outside of the castle), but it's one of many things in the game's design that gives you a sense of traveling from one land to another on an epic quest. You get a great sense of progress and the passage of time as you enter each castle, even though you still have the castle itself to negotiate.

Rastan (Arcade)

In an inspired touch, the programmers portray this not only in level design but from an artistic standpoint, as the time of day (and even the weather) changes as time passes, and the number of enemies increases. This is another aspect of the game that, while not wholly original, had never been accomplished so smoothly in an action game before the release of Rastan Saga.

Rastan has only a few items to aid him in his quest. Weaponry includes a sword that shoots fire (excellent), an axe (high power), and a morningstar (same power as normal, but much longer range). Outside of this there are several specific items enemies drop that can increase your life or give you temporary protection from physical or magical attacks.

Graphically, the game is lavishly detailed for its time. While background tiles are recycled throughout the game, they are not only recolored but re-combined in such a way that no two of the levels look exactly alike. It is also one of the first times weather and sunlight changes were accomplished in a video game with such refinement and timing.

Rastan also faces a pretty impressive variety of enemies for a 1987 game, from lizard men to multi-armed creatures to chimera. True to the nature of the Robert E. Howard works that inspired the game, the enemies die in a quick explosions of blood. This is also one of the first games to contain nudity that wasn't specifically designed as pornography. The action is consistently fast and everything is nicely animated. Extra attention was paid to Rastan's attack animation, which is impressively smooth (and thankfully so, since playing through Rastan Saga means you're going to see this animation several thousand times). Nenko Nishimura as well as all the art designers involved in the game outdid themselves.

Rastan (Arcade)

Aurally, Rastan Saga is flawless. There are only three in-game songs (one for outdoor segments, one for castles, and one for boss fights) but each perfectly evokes an atmosphere of ceaseless violence. Since the game's structure consists entirely of progressing through levels by hacking to pieces anything in your way this could not possibly be more appropriate. All three songs are impressive works, as they very clearly invoke the very original style of Basil Poledouris' score for Conan the Barbarian while still being wholly original compositions.The song used during boss fights is especially intense due to its high quality drum effects.

The music was composed by Naoto Yagishita and Masahiko Takaki, and was respected enough to be released on a limited edition CD in 1988. Rastan Saga's sound effects are generally typical of the era, but Rastan himself has a few vocalized screams and grunts that are very clear. There's also an excruciating cry of pain let out whenever you get a game over. As if the game wasn't intense enough, the other sound related detail is Rastan's heartbeat. Rastan's lifemeter is represented by a blue bar emenating from a beating heart. When your life is low, a heartbeat sound effect is played in time with the life meter's pulsating animation. This animation and accompanying sound gets faster and faster as your life drops, and will definitely affect a player's actions in the game as Rastan gets closer and closer to death.

Surprisingly the only game console to receive a version of Rastan Saga was the Sega Master System, released only in America and Europe. Despite being released in 1988, it has choppy animation with rampant slowdown compared to other Master System games of the time. Yet, realizing that trying to duplicate the arcade experience would not work, the developers wisely made some drastic changes to the game. The most immediate is that the levels have been drastically redesigned. They are shorter, but are actually packed with more traps and pitfalls than the original game, making the pacing and game length about the same. Their visual design is similar, except one stage has been given an overhaul to look like ancient Greek ruins. There's an additional level at the end of the game, and an extra boss, a giant dragon who takes up nearly half the screen. The second major change is that Rastan can now jump off of walls, and unlike many other games with special abilities, the levels are actually designed to require skillful use of this new ability. The Master System lacks the cutscenes between levels, and also has a completely different ending, featuring a rescued princess. The cool heart life bar has also been removed.

Rastan (Master System)

In another inspired touch, most of the game's bosses have either been given new abilities or have been completely redesigned. To their credit, they hold up about as well as the originals. Another change to the game is that Rastan now no longer dies instantly when he comes into contact with pools of water or pits of fire. He just stands in them knee deep and gradually loses life, giving you a chance to wall jump out of many formerly-terminal situations. Going to the opposite extreme of the arcade game, on the Master System Rastan can effectively wade through lava if he so chooses. He can also absorb more damage, but only has one life, and needs to restart from the beginning of the stage upon death, rather than a checkpoint. The developers also put a lot of effort into the controls. While not as flawless as the original's, they work consistently and the redesigned levels ensure that you're never being thrown into a situation you can't reasonably work your way out of.

Another change is to the plot. Yet again Rastan's motivations are completely different. Here he has to rescue a princess from a dragon. Again mirroring Conan, however, while he still wanders off at the end of the game he does so while losing the "heart" of a thief and becoming more ambitious in his goals. It's interesting that this extra bit of work would be a put into a game primarily known for being the definitive game where one runs from left to right stabbing monsters.

Finally, while Rastan Saga's content is tame by today's standards, it's notable that the bloody explosions and nudity are present even in the US version of the Sega Master System port (with illustrations of the various topless harpies and other creatures even appearing throughout the US manual).

Rastan (Master System)

There is also a Game Gear version, only released in Japan, which uses the name Rastan Saga. While the Master System and Game Gear shared many titles, each was usually reprogrammed to accomodate for the different resolutions used by each system. For example, the Game Gear games featured zoomed in views and larger characters to look better on the screen screen. This is not true of Rastan Saga, which runs in the same scale as the Master System game. In other words, the graphics are slightly distorted - it's the same as running the Master System game into a Game Gear with a Master Gear adapter. Pretty lazy.

One of the first of the computer releases was for the Commodore 64, brought to us by Imagine in 1987. At the time of its release it was generally received as a mediocre conversion from a company already known for mediocre conversions. Interestingly, the plot is completely different. This time Rastan is defending his lands from demons unleashed by an evil wizard named Karg, who Rastan confronts at the end of the game after he takes the form of a dragon. So much window dressing for a game that culminates in a dragon being fought at the end anyway seems odd. Graphically the game's backgrounds are reasonably good, with some being quite colorful. All of the sprites, however, are extremely washed out and very choppy compared to the sharp smoothness of the original.

Rastan (Commodore 64)

The main problem with the game, however is the inconsistent hit detection. To the point where sometimes an enemy will cause damage to Rastan without even coming within a character's length of him. Rastan and other sprites don't even line up with the ground, instead looking like they're ice skating slightly above it.

While one wouldn't expect Rastan Saga's sound to be duplicated on the C64, you actually have to choose whether you want to play with just music, or just sound effects. To be honest it's puzzling that a sound effects track was even made since they consist of extremely muddy beeps rather than anything resembling an effect. What makes these sound effects even more superfluous is that the music (programmed by Martin Galway) is actually quite good and catches the spirit of the arcade original very effectively. This even includes a very effective original track for the loading screen that, while maybe a bit too whimsical at times, effectively captures the adventuresome spirit of the game, more so than the game conversion itself. As a final insult, the C64 version of Rastan is impossible to complete. About halfway through the game, due to sloppy and rushed development, there is a jump from one platform to another that simply cannot be made.

On the opposite extreme, the ZX Spectrum release of Rastan was very well regarded at the time of its release. Here the most was made of the hardware. Rastan and his enemies are composed of unfilled line art, but the sprites much more detailed than any of the other computer releases. The animation is also impressive when compared to other Sinclair arcade conversions. The hit detection, however, is still questionable. Sadly, while reviews of the time noted the game's good music, the re-releases of this conversion were shipped on a 48K disk that not only had to load each level individually, but had much of the sound completely removed or drastically cut down!

Rastan (ZX Spectrum)

Rastan on the Amstrad is probably the worst of these overall. The Commodore 64 iteration is middling but at least has good music. The Amstrad release falls pray to very questionable enemy placement (it's not unusual for them to just materialize in the middle of the screen) and very, very choppy scrolling that makes the game almost unplayable once more enemies start crowding the screen.

Next, Rastan Saga was released on the MSX2, and seems largely based on the Sega Master System version. Programmed and published by Taito itself, this version takes the limitations of the MSX2 into account. Like many games on this platform the screen doesn't scroll, with new scenery coming in whenever Rastan reaches the end of the current screen. The levels have been drastically redesigned to take this into account and keep the action flowing at a good pace. All of the boss chambers consist of a single screen here as well. In addition, there are very few enemies on the screen simultaneously compared to the original. The music in this version is sufficient but is lacking compared to the success of C64 release's soundtrack. Unlike the other computer conversions, Rastan finally has color, is animated, and actually has some detail at the same time. Enemy sprites don't receive the same treatment however, and are still very muddy looking and lacking in definition. There's also no final boss - you just refight bosses from previous levels.

The real failing here, however, is the game's difficulty. The game actually looks and sounds good for an MSX2 game, and more importantly it controls and moves much more smoothly than any other conversion. The downside however is that this is probably the easiest version of the game available. It's noticeable that Taito tried to compensate for this by both having more deathtraps in the castles as well as having some enemies take several more hits to kill than they did in the original game, but it instead makes the game more tedious than challenging.

Rastan (IBM PC)

The last conversions of Rastan Saga were released in 1990 for IBM and Apple IIgs personal computers. This was actually one of several Taito arcade games NovaLogic brought to the PC at this time as part of an arcade classics type series that also included horrendous conversions of Operation Wolf and Demon Sword. This version of Rastan is actually pretty good. The graphics are fairly detailed and the game moves at a good pace. The Apple IIgs port is essentially identical to the IBM version, although it has better sound.

After all of these alterations and sub-par conversions, thankfully, in 2005 Taito began releasing many of their classic games on compilations on the PlayStation 2, where Rastan Saga is included. A version almost identical to the original game became readily and finally available in the US on Taito Legends for the PlayStation 2 and XBox.

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Comparison Screenshots: Bosses


Arcade Ending


Master System Ending


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