One of the reasons why the NEOGEO hardware was able to last as long as it did is because SNK was really good at playing to its strengths. Thanks to the obsession with polygons in the mid-to-late 1990s, there wasn’t a whole lot of work being done in the 2D realm for a while, which meant that the beefy NEOGEO’s sprites and backgrounds still looked as good as most of what you would see on any newer hardware. Games like Metal Slug 3 and King of Fighters ’98 show the benefits of working smart within the limits of the hardware. What does it look like if you do the opposite? It might look a lot like Ragnagard ($3.99).
This is a one-on-one fighter developed for SNK by System Vision and Saurus that features mythological characters and gods as the fighters. The likes of Susano, Son Goku, and Lucifer are included, making for a lively roster of eight playable characters and three bosses. So far, not a bad concept for a NEOGEO game. Fighting games were the system’s specialty, and using deities as fighters is an interesting hook. Sure, eight characters is a bit of a thin roster for this point in time, but not unheard of. The game even has a functioning aerial combo system, which would have been well ahead of its time when Ragnagard released in late 1996. So what’s wrong with it?
I have to take an important detour first. We need to talk about the 800-lb gorilla in the room around this point in time. Yes, that one. Donkey Kong. In late 1994, Rare pulled off the mother of all magic tricks and Nintendo reaped the rewards. With the next generation on the horizon and Nintendo’s next console still a couple of years off, it was vital to prove that the Super NES was still a viable choice in the face of things like the 3DO, SEGA Saturn, and Sony PlayStation. A fascination with polygons was already brewing in the mainstream, and while the Super NES couldn’t put together a whole lot in real-time, Rare realized it could make 3D models and render them as sprites. With some careful color choices (the Super NES typically could only display 256 colors from a palette of 32,768), Donkey Kong Country looked for all the world like a 3D game despite being no more of one than Super Mario World had been. It was a smash hit, and a lot of folks who were a lot less careful with their color choices decided to ape it.
So yes, Ragnagard is a pre-rendered CG game. The characters are pre-rendered, the backgrounds are pre-rendered, and this is 1996 so these aren’t the most detailed of models by any means. All of this art has been adapted pretty poorly to the hardware despite the hardware offering a palette significantly deeper than that of the Super NES, and it just looks bad. This might well be the worst-looking one-on-one fighter on the console. I will grant that it looks unique, and there is a certain nostalgia to this precise era that might tickle you the right way. But there’s a cost to all of this, or at least I think there is. Did the pre-rendered graphics lead to the rest of the problems or is it just happenstance?
Ragnagard just feels bad to play. The way things animate, the way moves play out, the lag on your actions, it’s all just very unpleasant. Basic moves in particular feel almost useless, with really dicey collision that I am choosing to blame on the character models and how they are boxed out. You pretty much have to play for the specials, charging up your elements to power up your character and eventually unleash some death moves. The ground game in particular is awkward, with the best feel happening when you’re taking advantage of the air dash to pull off some mid-air nonsense. Throw in a relatively unbalanced roster and you’re left with a game that even in its best context is best left as a curiosity.
But this isn’t its best context by any means. Like all of the fighters in the mobile ACA NEOGEO line-up, Ragnagard is hindered by two issues. Anyone using touch controls is going to have a hard time with some of the motions required for special moves or even just keeping on top of four virtual buttons in the heat of combat. You can use an external controller, of course. I found the game more than comfortable enough using my Backbone. But realistically, most players are going to be using the touch controls, and they’re not ideal here. The other problem is of course the inability to play multiplayer without having extra controllers and some kind of shared display. I will bang this drum every time, especially with multiplayer-focused titles like this. We need some kind of local wireless or online multiplayer option in this line.
You get the usual ACA NEOGEO features like the extra modes and a wide array of options. All are welcome here, even if they are just lipstick on a serious pig of a game. Throw that difficulty down to the lowest setting and smack around the CPU for as long as it will let you, or see if you can chip out a higher score than the other four people on the online leaderboards. Lament that you could have bought a few delicious Snickers bars instead of this.
With how affordable the ACA NEOGEO line of games is on mobile, it’s a decent way to try out the weirder, not-so-good titles in the console’s library. If you want to throw a few bucks at Ragnagard just to see how a good idea can go very wrong, I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world. At least you’re not spending a couple of hundred dollars on a cartridge. But I think you could make a good case for this being the worst one-on-one fighter SNK is likely to release in this line, and given how poorly even the best of fighters have fared under its restrictions, that leaves Ragnagard in a very bad position indeed.