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I’m playing 1992’s Rings of Power for the SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis and wondering, really wondering, how we got from this dog’s dinner of a 16-bit disaster to the Naughty Dog we know today: the powerhouse studio behind The Last of Us and Uncharted franchises. The studio that gave the PlayStation its unofficial mascot in Crash Bandicoot. The studio that’s now revered as amongst the greatest of its narrative-emphasising ilk.
Rings of Power is an isometric adventure that runs incredibly poorly. Your character of Buc stutters from overworld screen to closer-in environments for exploration and interaction with such jarring jerkiness that it’s a challenge to begin digging into the quest before him without getting the worst headache. The discordant music doesn’t help either - though, thankfully, it can be switched off - and the game’s wholly unintuitive controls, from the awkward mapping of the d-pad to the in-menu selections, smack of a developer yet to find its flow, its mojo, its identity. But that developer was, indeed, Naughty Dog - the same studio behind some of PlayStation’s biggest games since Sony first got into consoles in the mid-1990s.
Plug Rings of Power into your SEGA console and the first image you’ll be greeted with is the Naughty Dog logo - their logo of 1992, that is, which bears zero resemblance to the pawprint design of 2021. I’ve popped it below for you to enjoy - quite something, isn’t it. From there, you’re whisked off into a fantasy adventure of sorcerers and knights, magic rods, evil gods and the all-important rings of the title, which must be recovered to prevent all the bad stuff happening. It’s all very generic, and completely unremarkable. And if the game feels like it’d be easier to play using a mouse to click on where you want Buc to go, rather than the Mega Drive controller’s fiddly interface, there’s a good reason for that: Rings of Power was initially being developed for PCs and the Commodore Amiga.
Rings of Power was Naughty Dog’s second game published by Electronic Arts. The studio’s first as Naughty Dog, as prior games had released under the JAM Software name, was Keef the Thief, a graphic adventure for Apple IIGS, Amiga and MS-DOS released in 1989. Like Rings of Power it sticks to a fantasy aesthetic, but is a lot easier to get along with using a mouse to navigate a cursor from action commands - “look”, “talk”, “buy” and so on - to directional movements following North, South, East and West. You can also make Keef jump up and down, if you like, and folk will laugh at him. And like Rings of Power, it’s really not very good. The writing attempts to keep things light-hearted but fails to land any notable funnies; and the whole point of the game, to steal as much as you can from the city of Mercon, simply never feels compelling. In a sea of similar-looking first-person adventures bearing better visuals and bolder plotlines, like 1991’s Eye of the Beholder, it’s a forgettable minnow.
It’s easy to say that time’s not been kind to these games - but many other titles from the late 1980s and early ‘90s (and before) are still very enjoyable this many years into the 21st century. These… these two really are not. But they are both important, for what they represent: Keef the Thief being the first-ever game to bear the Naughty Dog name, co-founders Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin deciding on the new moniker to represent a fresh start; and Rings of Power being the first Naughty Dog game to release for a console, even if it wasn’t originally meant to. So, let’s get into that, real quick.
Electronic Arts - EA - had a somewhat testy relationship with SEGA 30-odd years ago. If you ever played an EA game on the Mega Drive/Genesis, like a Madden title or FIFA International Soccer, you’ll have immediately noticed how their cartridges differed from the regular SEGA ones. They were taller, with a distinct yellow logo on the left side of the label. These carts were the product of reverse engineering, so that EA could avoid paying a license fee of up to ten dollars per cartridge; and SEGA ultimately, reluctantly, allowed them to be used on its 16-bit system (allegedly somewhat through fear that EA would share its reverse engineering knowledge with others). EA weren’t alone in developing their own carts for the Mega Drive, however - both Accolade and Codemasters used their own designs, with the former publisher actually going to court with SEGA in 1992 over the right to use them. Accolade won, after an appeal, but that’s a whole other story, and a whole other history - back to Naughty Dog.
Rings of Power was with EA at a time when their Mega Drive games were selling well - as well as their array of sports games covering the NBA, NFL, NHL and golf, EA had also released Populous and James Pond: Underwater Agent in 1991, both of which received positive reviews. Gavin and Rubin spied EA’s reverse-engineering shenanigans on a visit to their offices, and asked about releasing their new title on the SEGA console rather than home computers. EA agreed, and the deal was done, though Rubin later admitted this was a mistake on Naughty Dog’s part: “It should have been a PC game,” he told IGN in 2013. He’s right, it should have been.
Watch the trailer for the next Naughty Dog release, the Legacy of Thieves Collection for PlayStation 5 and PC
Nevertheless, some pretty poor reviews for Rings of Power, including a 41% score in the influential Mean Machines magazine which called out its “crummy” music and “shambolic scrolling”, couldn’t stop Naughty Dog from making another game, albeit not with EA this time. Instead, Naughty Dog partnered with Universal Interactive Studios for 1994’s 3DO-exclusive one-on-one fighter Way of the Warrior, a Mortal Kombat-like affair (even with its own fatalities) which was released in 1994 to incredibly mixed reviews ranging from a B+ in Entertainment Weekly to 3.75 out of 10 at Electronic Gaming Monthly. Unlike Rings of Power and Keef the Thief, I’ve never played this one, so can’t comment on it personally beyond: yep, it sure looks like a cheap Mortal Kombat knock-off.
As it was only available for the 3DO, sales for Way of the Warrior were hardly amazing - which was no good for Naughty Dog, which practically went bankrupt during its development. But the game impressed one person enough to change the studio’s fortunes. Then employed at Universal, Mark Cerny liked what he saw in the digitised fighter and not only signed that game, but also set Naughty Dog up to create a brand-new 3D platform game for the Sony PlayStation console.
That game was 1996’s Crash Bandicoot, and whether you love it or not, there’s no denying the impact Crash as a character, and a subsequent series, had on the PS1. It was also the first game that Naughty Dog’s pawprint logo appeared on, the one the studio uses to this day - another fresh start, then, and this time supported by several million units sold. And after Crash came Jak and Daxter, and then Uncharted, and then The Last of Us - all acclaimed, all huge sellers, and all groundbreaking in their own ways.
Gavin and Rubin left Naughty Dog in 2004 - arguably, neither has hit such career highs since. But at the same time, both know a thing or two about what it’s like to be down in the doldrums, creating games that really aren’t up to much against their peers, and watching that bottom line become scarily precarious. The Naughty Dog of the pre-Crash days was very different to the one we know today, and it had to change to survive - but at the same time, it took the relative failures of Rings of Power, Keef the Thief and Way of the Warrior to allow the team to learn, evolve, and strike success with Crash Bandicoot. You wonder if a studio today, one with a couple of disappointments to its name, would have such an opportunity.
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