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.