"we have elden ring at home"
(This post was written as a script for the edited video above, which provides a more complete experience of the post’s subject. This video also contains unscripted interview sections notated in the text below. This text version is just for easier reference and comprehension for anyone in need.)
My computer isn’t good enough to run Elden Ring, so as I watch over my husband’s shoulder while he get his FromSoft cherry burst, I’ve been looking for an older game I can plug away at mindlessly and halfway pay attention to. Youtube has these videos compiling short clips of every single game that exists on various consoles, so I fired up the NES video and started hitting the right-arrow key until I found something cute and uncomplicated that almost looks like Zelda when you squint at it right.
Easily mistakable for any other cute anime-style character used to market late-eighties and early-nineties Japanese games, the biggest surprise to me based on looking at the cover is that this wasn’t some untranslated Japan-only title no one’s ever heard of, but apparently was actually more heavily pushed in the US. NMK developed like 30 games from 1985 to 1994 before shutting down, and I’ve never heard of any of them, so I think it’s about time that some of these characters and properties got bought up and rebooted!
Arkista’s Ring is actually a lot more straightforward than Zelda--I’ve seen it compared to Gauntlet, and I’d say that’s far more apt, though it’s a bit slower and more methodical. It plays kind of like a run-and-gun shooter, but without much variety in shooting modes, and a decent number of circumstantially-useful bomb-like power-ups you collect and hopefully bust out consistently as you go. Levels consist mostly of fields and yards leading up and into castles, and for a NES game there’s a solid amount of environmental graphical variety between its 31 unique short stages. The purple checkerboard floor is especially stylish for an 8-bit stage. I’m not saying this way anywhere close to the most graphically advanced or visually highest-effort game of 1990--but I am saying that the cute little elf girl sprite and the appealing UI elements on-screen drew me to this game first out of everything in the NES library listed alphabetically, so it at least looked better to me than the fifty or so games I looked at beforehand.
If you’re a completionist, you might not find this to be the most interesting trip from start to end, as a technical victory comes when you’ve played through the 30 stages and final boss four times over, with the enemies getting a bit tougher each round. If you, like me, heard that and thought, “well fuck it, I’ll at least see if I can get through level 31, I don’t need to beat it,” then you’ll find Arkista’s Ring is one of the most casually-accessible NES games ever made, as it isn’t especially challenging until the last few stages of each round, and even then, the game is a lot less punishing than most other games on the console. You keep all of your power-ups when you die, and I’m not sure if it was because of something I picked up at some point, but your health regenerates passively even though there are also relatively-frequent health potion pickups. You end up with a lot of health fairly early on after picking up all the pieces of armor, and you get three lives before you game over, as well as ten whole game overs before the game finally kicks you back to the title screen. I was able to make it cleanly to stage 61 on my first go, meaning that I’d essentially already played through the entire game twice already by the time I had to technically “start over”--and that took about 90 minutes.
Christine the elfen archer is a fun avatar to control, even if she walks a little slow, because she fires her bow quite fast, and can stop time to catch a breather while she selects which item to use, often turning the tide against a horde of enemies. By far the most difficult enemies are those who cross the screen quickly, especially the ninja clan members responsible for stealing the Elfen Ring that this whole game is dedicated to searching for. No I’m dead serious, this game is actually about finding the Elfen Ring--it’s like the Elden Ring, except it gets an F. Or a V, depending on the translation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another Elves Vs. Ninjas story, even though it’s a kind of obvious connection what with all the mystical village woodsman imagery associated with both, which the Tales of games have notably identified and sorta combined them. War of the Elves vs. Ninjas maybe isn’t a concept in need of fleshing out beyond the plot of a Nintendo game, but I would totally be down for an updated take on this story.
I think Arkista’s Ring may be a sorely overlooked example of classic comfy gaming. While I appreciate the challenge offered by many older games, it can often be disheartening to have to practice for days just to make it through the earlier levels of games that you’re not very good at just to see more of what it has to offer. Once you’ve gotten invested in the game experience, you might start to feel that immersive sensation that drives you to keep going to conquer all of its challenges and to play it again better and faster until you’ve satisfied yourself with your expression of understanding the game’s mechanisms. I certainly know that for expert players of even the toughest games, a full playthrough can take so little time that it doesn’t register the same way as that first lengthy, grueling attempt just to clear the thing does.
Even a very casual fan of action-adventure games will get to have that breezy ride to completion with Arkista’s Ring. A single playthrough of its 31 levels for me as a relatively unskilled player took about as long as it would take a speedrunner to blast through the first Zelda--and I would have to assume that an expert player would only take just as long to get through all 124 levels of Arkista’s Ring. To me, the format of repeating the game four times reads as a way to make it simultaneously accessible to novice players, but also eventually somewhat challenging to more advanced players looking to test their endurance. I have to imagine the biggest annoyance to these players would just be that eventually, you’d rather just start the game up from round four rather than having to go through all four rounds to get to the meaningful challenge--but then, I don’t even know if there are hardcore players of this game beating it over and over again.
Maybe this isn’t the ideal arcade-style game for getting hardcore addicted to for days on end like what a lot of the games of its era seem to inspire, but it’s easily one of the most throw-onnable NES games I’ve ever played. It’s honestly less stressful than even Kirby’s Adventure up until each repetition of the last two levels when the difficulty spikes pretty hard. The fact that you can’t quite hit enemies standing right on you, and that they really try to stay on you, can make fighting a horde of ninjas a real pain in the ass--but by the time I died on a stage enough times I could be called ‘stuck,’ I’d gotten a pretty satisfying experience of basically seeing the game twice, and didn’t leave it feeling even slightly burnt out on seeing or playing through its short levels afterward.
Arkista’s Ring’s level design is just complex enough that it never feels mindless in spite of its simplicity, but it’s also straightforward enough that blasting through it multiple times feels like it barely happened. I don’t know who besides me basically needed a game exactly like this because they don’t want to dedicate 20 whole hours to another classic action-RPG-lite, but do want the soft satisfaction of whacking your way through monsters to an enemy castle collapse.
Discovering gems like this is one of my favorite things about gaming, and as an incredibly picky person, it feels like a small miracle when I find a game I like enough not just to blast through, but can even see picking up again and again and seeing how far I can get in the future--especially when that game is older than I am, and I’m just discovering it as an adult, totally without nostalgia, and with a real appreciation for the kind of relationship that someone can have with a game that they enjoy coming back to over the years. If I ever do make it to the true end of this game and have something new to say about it, I’ll be sure and let you know.