Taito’s 1987 classic Rastan Saga (or simply, Rastan) begins in the best tradition of Robert E. Howard’s Conan series; the hero drops out of the sky and trumpets blare a Wagnerian tribute to gore. Within seconds, lizardfolk are screaming and disintegrating beneath the hulking arm of Rastan, our eponymous hero. The horizontal swing of the arm is accompanied by a shrill creak of the sound controller that was the closest thing to the actual sound of a sword’s clash arcade gamers had heard.
Yet even though a handful of screens offer only the barest narrative refrain, the epic tone of Conan is imparted with one of fantasy’s most enduring images – the protagonist-King recounting the events you’re about to witness from his cold throne: “I used to be a thief and a murderer. Otherwise, I could not survive in such difficult times. Sit beside me and listen to my story of days filled with adventure.” This screen also features as the game’s teaser mode the King on his throne without the text, the title screen appearing with a sword clash, and then 12 seconds of silent gameplay.
Only when you dropped a coin into the machine would he explain the rest of the story; “I succeeded in obtaining the consent of the Princess of the Kingdom ‘Ceim’ to exchange the dragon’s head for all the treasures in the Empire. I started on my quest to the dragon’s lair.” The genius of this passage being in past tense is that an otherwise simple game is suddenly turned into a type of manifest destiny. I am the King recounting his victory; of course I am going to insert more coins to grease the storyteller’s palm!
Paint It Red
The original music by Naoto Yagishita and Masahiko Takaki is so distinctive and powerful that you instinctively knew this was fantasy for men, in the Howard tradition, broadswords and baby oil rather than Tolkein’s magical elves and hobbits. A nanosecond after the game’s theme completes, the monitor fades up to reveal your falling hero landing on a stone platform; behind him is a wall painted from the same texture. His past is literally closed off; only the bloody path ahead remains. The background is a mottled blue carved open by treacherous peaks. As the song builds drama near the end of the first level, the sky turns blood red. In 1987, this was a revelation – real thought had gone into the world, a visceral, muscular fantasy painted red.
Perhaps none of this would have mattered or ever impacted arcade culture the way it did if the original Rastan Saga cabinet was not one of the loudest arcade machines of all time. The input screens can usually tone down the volume, but no such luck for arcade operators in mid-to-late 1987 who had to contend with a machine that made as much noise as its hero.
Nothing in the arcades of 1987 could compare to the presentation and grandeur of the cabinet, with grim-faced bats and dragons surrounding the screen window. Games were facing a generational problem, as the audience enjoyed films (especially the swords-and-sorcery genre that lit up with Conan the Barbarian) that were more gory, more epic, more dangerous and nasty than ever before. The big arcade hit at the time was Taito’s Bubble Bobble (released 1986), and even though horror and fantasy games like Gauntlet held the fort, they lacked the teenage-boy psychopomp that was rampaging through the rest of popular culture. Enter the dragon slayer.
The World of the Dark One
Robert E. Howard’s “low fantasy” is never going to be mentioned in the same breath as Tolkien’s “high fantasy.” Whereas the latter specialized in rich worlds with deeply emotional narratives steeped in history, Howard’s scenarios were brutish, bloody, and very alpha-male – what language the lizardmen spoke was never an issue. These two approaches of high fantasy and sword-and-sorcery sit on sides of a spectrum best described as that between destiny and free will.
Joseph A. McCulloch writes, “The heroes of sword and sorcery become the true representatives of free will, and through their stories, readers are able to imagine the capabilities and the triumphs of men who are completely free to chart their own destiny.” Where Tolkein had the heroes of the realm respond to a great threat, Robert E. Howard’s heroes are self-motivated outsiders come to make their mark and tell their own story. The worlds they inhabit are different in scope in order to make this possible; the Fellowship responds to a threat to the status quo; Conan, well, he’s come to cut off the status quo’s head.
The Howard mythos is an exaltation of the individual talent; King Kull screams, “By this Axe, I rule!” smashing the table which represents the law. Heroes have no real origin; they come from a distant land, raised by wolves. The very last words of Howard’s story In the Forest of Villefère are the perfect example of his heroic brutes looking after their own skin: “Fearing madness, I snatched up the thing’s own sword and hacked it to pieces. Then I flung the sword away and fled.” Which is incredibly telling but hardly has the pomp and circumstance of the ending lines of The Dark Man: “I am King Turlogh of Bal-Sagoth and my kingdom is fading in the morning sky. And therein it is like all other empires in the world – dreams and ghosts and smoke.” Everybody gets to make his mark. As long as “everybody” is a white male barbarian with a penchant for decapitation.
The sun-baked earth, the grim-faced enemies of nameless races; they’re just background information. What matters is that our heroes – Conan, Kull and the others – are free to forge their own little epic narrative. While Rastan has no official connection to Howard’s writing, the lineage is not a simple genre mash-up with cute music. Rastan is not even homage; it’s an interactive love letter to the grim world of Conan and its antecedents.
Silver Coins for the Storyteller
The monsters ahead begin simply enough; a static grimacing lizardman armed with a club and an assortment of bats that require timing to effectively smack out of the air. The third enemy type, however, is some sort of Vedic nightmare, a Hindu god come to life, spewing fire. Luckily, they’re just as easily put down as the lizardmen. You bounce from platform to platform, occasionally finding a new weapon or power-up. Of course, this is taken from the world of Robert E. Howard, so the magic potion sometimes hurts you, and the damned healing potions barely do anything at all. Magic is the work of politicians and mumbling law-givers – hardly the muscular world-breakers Howard idolized. Even in death, the mythic element emerges: Rastan slowly disintegrates from the feet upward while bellowing; he is simply too tough to merely bleed or stumble, only a mysterious force can take him away from his task.
After each outdoor area, the game becomes more of a platformer, where the rabid Conan fan might imagine Arnie moving through caverns and swinging from trap to trap. Yet for all the greatly mythological gameplay, it’s the aesthetic and aural touches that elevate Rastan into the realm of myth. With mood carefully planned and distinguished, the mental glue cools and players weave a mythological fabric more detailed than the 8-bit game could ever push out. In Rastan, moving the player around was secondary to head banging and whistling to the music and getting far enough into the game to experience the sunset. Such as it was, it became a more perfect love letter to Howard’s world than the Conan film on which it capitalized so well.
Myths are not stories; they are living, playing, bleeding memories – from our lives and from history. In each game since Rastan that features swords and hulking muscle, I rename the characters Rastan; the quest continues across platforms, across eras and across companies. His rage is immortal, all because of a haunting, driving main theme and simple refrain you hear on the first level. The music may have been technically rudimentary, but to me, it was blood and trumpets.
Christian McCrea is a game writer, academic and curator based in Melbourne, Australia. He submitted this article with the threat to “drive his editors before him and hear the lamentations of their spell-checkers.”