Rastan (Taito, 1987)
I've been reading a lot lately about the video game developers who were active in Japan in the 1980s and early 90s, and I've learned some of interesting stuff. A lot of it has to do with these companies' origins and beginnings – some of which differ greatly from what one might assume. Taito, for instance? You know, the very Japanese corporation that gave us Bubble Bobble and Operation Wolf? That company was founded in 1953 by a Russian Jewish immigrant named Michael Kogan. What began as a distributor of amusements during post-war Japan's recovery would grow into one of the most prolific developers of 1980s and 90s gaming. Kogan had proved that being adventurous can really pay off.
In 1987, Taito hit the world with a truly badass barbarian who would heartily agree with that sentiment. Rastan Saga (or simply Rastan outside Japan) was released to arcades as a kit; existing cabinets could be converted with a little bit of work into Rastan cabinets. Taito released the game this way not only to save money, but to hedge their bets; by not using a dedicated cabinet, the company stood to take less of a hit if Rastan failed to take off.
This skepticism, while wise in theory, proved unnecessary in practice. Rastan did well domestically and in America, but took surprising hold in Europe's market. It spawned a truly prolific set of ports for nearly every European home system of the time. Rastan was ported to the Apple IIGS, the Amstrad, C64, IBM/DOS, the Sega Master System, the MSX2, and even the garishly-hued ZX Spectrum. Later on, it even received a Japan-only port for the Sega Game Gear.
In the long and noble tradition of 1980s pop culture barbarians, our protagonist in this hack-and-slash adventure tale is Rastan, a ripped dude in a loincloth who bears an absolutely uncanny resemblance to Robert E. Howard's legendary Conan character. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, I suppose. The storyline exposition is left out of the Western version of the arcade game, but Rastan is out to slay himself a dragon. See, he made a deal with the princess of the land of Ceim: dispose of the dragon, and get paid ALL OF THE KINGDOM'S TREASURE. Either Rastan is one hell of a bargainer, or the Princess could use some work at it.
The game begins with Rastan dropping from an unreasonable height into the first level, where you can immediately begin slashing through monsters and making your way across the game world. Rastan is pretty athletic, not to mention acrobatic; his prodigious leap is an essential tool for getting around and can also be used to get the drop on enemies while minimizing the risk of reprisal. Clever combat is worth considering, since the variety of enemy monsters in Rastan looks like someone held a Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual over this world and shook it until everything fell out. Lizard men, undead wizards, an astounding volume of dog-sized chimaeras, and gargoyle swordsmen make up a small sliver of the creatures trying to end your quest with a trip to an early grave. Thankfully, in addition to being a huge badass, Rastan also has periodic access to some power ups found throughout the game's environments. While most of them only work for a limited amount of time, all of them are worth having. Armor (something Rastan should should have thought about while getting dressed for this trip) can help absorb some of the punishment you'll take. There are three different weapons, too: a mace, an axe, and the sword you start with. There are also potions, but beware – Taito decided to be shitheads and make some of them deplete your health instead of restore it!
One look at any screenshot or video of the arcade version will tell you that Rastan was well ahead of its time in 1987. The level of detail and the color depth are astounding, and animation is very smooth. Rastan's movements are especially fluid, which really enhances the playing experience. Most ports don't reproduce it fully (or at all), but the weather even changes over time in the arcade original. This is done very smoothly and gradually, and adds a subtle but noticeable layer of visual richness to outdoor levels. The sound effects, while far closer to average for the time, are still well done. Rastan's soundtrack isn't very populated, but this shit is definitely barbarian music! The soundtrack gets faster as you get closer to dying, which is another little touch that makes the game more intense.
In addition to its above-mentioned ports, Rastan was eventually released as part of Taito Legends Vol. 1 for the PS2, Xbox and PC in 2006. There were also two proper sequels; Rastan Saga II (Nastar in North America) was released in '89, While Warrior Blade: Rastan Saga Episode III came out in 1991 and was more of a scrolling beat-em-up.
I gladly grant Rastan an 8 out of 10. It's really fun to play, visually impressive for an arcade title of its era, and there's nothing like playing as a barbarian who hacks up monsters.