First there was the Satellaview, which was a cartridge-modem that allowed gamers to download and play games during specific broadcast times. One of the most infamous game that remained exclusive to this service was Radical Dreamers: Nusumenai Houseki, a spin-off to Chrono Trigger that resolved a minor loose end and served as the inspiration to Chrono Cross. But this wasn't the only non-traditional service Nintendo offered. In 1997 the company introduced the Nintendo Power (no relation to the Nintendo gaming magazine) service, which utlized an empty flash cartridge that gamers could buy. Gamers could then take their "SF Memory Cassettes" to participating stores and use a kiosk that would have Super Famicom games ready to download onto the cartridge for a fee; there was also a version for the Game Boy. Much like the Satellaview there were games exclusive to this service as well, though popular games did eventually get traditional releases, like Wrecking Crew '98. And here is where Ring ni Kakero comes in...
|This is what the Nintendo Power SF Memory Cassette looks like.|
Developed by Earthly Soft and published by NCS Masaya (the company behind the Langrisser and Cho Aniki series), Ring ni Kakero was ready for release in 1995 but a waning interest in the Super Famicom due to the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn's releases kept it from coming out. When the Nintendo Power service debuted, though, Masaya decided to give this game a new chance at a release, making it a NP-exclusive title when it debuted in 1998. The game's Story Mode covers the Ring ni Kakero story from the Champion Carnival up through the World Tournament, and here's who made it into the game:
-Ryuji Takane (Japan)
-Jun Kenzaki (Japan)
-Ishimatsu Katori (Japan)
-Takeshi Kawai (Japan)
-Kazuki Shinatora (Japan)
-Black Shaft (U.S.A.)
-Don Juliano (Italy)
-Napoleon Baroa (France)
-Masami Kurumada (Story Mode Final Boss)
-Shadow Sousui (Knockdown Mode Final Boss)
Overall, that looks to be a fairly fleshed-out line-up, though there are some obvious omissions. For example, none of Black Shaft's makeshift Team U.S.A. made it in and the other two members of Team France (Silvie and Claudine) are missing. Well, Silvie and Claudine didn't really do anything in their fights in the actual story, which explains their absence. As for the rest of Team U.S.A., they're absence is due to how the game handles the story. There are changes to the story so that certain fights can be done (for example, Ryuji fights Ishimatsu, which never happens in the actual story), and the Nichibei Kessen is simply ignored with Black Shaft's match instead happening at the start of the World Tournament. After that point, though, the story is followed in a streamlined manner but is still fairly accurate to the original manga. And, yes, you read that right: Masami Kurumada himself (well, a caricatured version of him) is the final boss of Story Mode, which has him coming down to the ring from a golden helicopter (a reference to the story arc that follows the World Tournament in the manga). Knockout Mode, on the other hand, is a "character-rush" mode with Sousui being the final boss. There is also a simple Versus Mode where the player can take on the computer, a friend, or simply watch a match between two computer-controlled characters; fairly traditional stuff here.
The gameplay itself, though, is far from traditional. Going into this game with no previous knowledge will have you simply confused, as it doesn't play like a traditional fighting game nor a traditional boxing game. You can move your character around to a point, and perform quick jabs by pressing the R button, but nothing else is normal. First thing to explain are those meters you see in the screenshot above. The top-most meters are each characters' health meters; for a KO to happen it has to be drained twice (first meter is yellow, the second is red). Below those are each characters' stamina meters. They change color from blue (full stamina) to black (no stamina) and when one character has a black stamina meter he can't move unless buttons are mashed to regain some back. The bottom-most meters are each characters' spirit meter. By holding the Select button the spirit meter can be filled, but if you're hit with a jab while charging you lose all stamina. Filling your spirit meter allows you to deliver special moves and superblows, but we'll get back to this later. Before you start delivering superblows you first want to know how to do more than simply jab.
That's where the face buttons come in. The A, B, X, and Y buttons all correspond to a different side of the body (left & right) and a different type of punch (body blow, straight, and uppercut), but simply pushing any of these buttons won't do much. Instead, pushing one of them initiates a sequence, which is where that small meter right below the stamina meters comes in. This meter, which has boxing gloves on each side, becomes important when a larger punch, special move, or superblow is initiated. Here, each boxer tries to bring their respective glove as far down the meter as possible by, from what I can tell, mashing buttons. The further down the meter you can bring your glove, the higher the percentage for your action (punch, block, evade, etc.) to happen, though once the gloves clash either side can still give their glove a little boost. The boxes next to the stamina meters with numbers in them are affected by hitting your opponent with jabs, which increase the numbers. I believe this affects when your opponent can start moving his glove during the attack sequence, but I'm honestly not fully sure. It definitely feels odd at first, but you slowly get used to it as you play it. If anything, watch some computer vs. computer matches first to get a better idea of how everything works.
All that leaves on the controller is the L button, and here is where the special moves and superblows come in. Once the spirit meter is completely filled the bottom part of your side of the screen gets a list of moves that have corresponding directions. By pressing the L button with a specific direction you can activate either a superblow or a special move that can affect the stats of yourself positively, like having your jabs increase the number in your box faster, or your opponent negatively, like slowing down his glove so that it's easier for you to get the advantage during attack sequences. Beware, though, as missing with superblows will greatly decrease your stamina. But even if you miss a superblow, there's still a small chance that the force of the blow might actually result in your opponent getting a small cut, resulting in a little loss of health. Hitting a superblow will result in a sequence that ends in a nicely-drawn image like the one above. Every character has their respective superblows (Black Shaft even has the Pivot Blow), and Ryuji, Ishimatsu, Kawai, and Napoleon even have the superblows they get during the next story arc (shown above is Kawai's Jet Lavender). It's a neat little bonus to have.
Graphically the game is a mixed bag. The superblow images look nice, the special move sequences flow nicely, and the character art is accurate to Kurumada's style... But the sprites are pretty simple. While you can identify each character by their sprite, it's obvious that Masaya wanted the focus to be on the sequence images. The music in the game works well enough and is memorable for short periods of time, but after hearing Susumu Ueda's soundtrack for the anime it's hard to hear something that isn't anywhere as catchy, even with there being a nine-year gap between the game's originally planned release and the anime's first season airing. A really cool touch, though, is the addition of voice work to the game. Masaya got six voice actors to portray the 22 characters in the game: Daisuke Sakaguchi, Tetsu Inada, Hiroshi Kamiya (who would later portray Kawai in the anime), Shinichi Yamada, Ito Asako, and Atsushi Kisaichi (who would later portray Icarus in the anime). The actors do their job, though it's a bit underwhelming when compared to how the actors for the anime perform, but the biggest problem is that these voice clips are horribly compressed. Aside from the voice that says the title at the end of the intro sequence, which is crystal clear, all of the voice clips are very scratchy and while you can still understand what they're saying, it's still muffled enough that it gets in the way of fully enjoying them.
Ring ni Kakero on the Super Famicom ended up staying exclusive to the Nintendo Power service, and Nintendo ended the service itself in 2007, making the game very rare. The only way one could actually buy the game now is to find someone who is willing to sell a SF Memory Cassette that has the game loaded on it, which is probably going to be hard to find; I did see one on eBay that ended a month ago and it understandably sold for $70. It never got a release on the Wii Virtual Console in Japan, and in the end this game based on Ring ni Kakero will probably remain obscure and rare. It's also the only video game ever made based on the property, though the manga is used as a part of Famicom Jump: Hero Retsuden, a Japan-exclusive crossover RPG for the Famicom that brought together a number of Shonen Jump manga in order to celebrate the magazine's 20th Anniversary. The only way most people will be able to play this game is through emulation, so if you're willing to do that I'd say that it's at least worth checking out Ring ni Kakero. It's different enough of a fighting game, or sports game for that matter, to be worth playing at least once and fans of the series will definitely get more from it by being able to have all sorts of matches happen. Hell, you can have Black Shaft get his revenge on Don Juliano for stealing his spotlight in Sekai Taikai-hen.
Oh, and if you're getting tired of me talking about Ring ni Kakero 1 then be happy, as this is the last thing I can really talk about. The only other things left are the Ring ni Kakero Image Album, which came out in the early 80s and is literally just a vinyl record that features image songs which I won't ever review (though "Seishun Jungle" is a pretty cool song), and the Ring ni Kakero Manga DVD, which was released by Sony Home Entertainment in 2003 is pretty much an audio drama but with panels from the manga making up the video. I'd honestly review the Manga DVD, but from what I can tell it's now Out-of-Print and extremely hard to get if you don't live in Japan. So, unless a miracle happens and I get the Manga DVD, this will be the end of my Ring ni Kakero reviews, barring the announcement of a fifth season of the anime... And I can always hope for that.