Created by a short-lived company known as Lenar and released in 1986, Deadly Towers was one of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s (NES’s) earliest titles. It provided an entirely new experience for Western video game fans, introducing many of them to the concept of an action-oriented role-playing game. At this point in gaming history, RPG series such as Wizardry, Might & Magic, and Ultima were almost exclusive to the PC and combat was entirely turn-based. Deadly Towers quickly became a hit with critics lauding the game for putting an inventive spin on its genre. It was also notable for being one of first console games published by Irem, the company previously behind arcade classics such as Moon Patrol and R-Type. That fans of the medium still talk about this game to this day truly speaks of the game’s quality, but just how accurate is this perception?
Playing the Game
Deadly Towers is an action-RPG played from a top-down perspective comparable to The Legend of Zelda. A big difference between the two games becomes readily apparent when you discover that the main character doesn’t stab or swing his weapon to defeat his foes, opting to throw it at them instead. This game also stands out from its contemporaries by allowing the protagonist to move diagonally in an age when characters’ movements were typically limited to the four cardinal directions.
As the action-RPG genre was largely in its primordial phase in the eighties, there are some differences that make it stand out from its successors. The biggest deviation from what would eventually become the norm is that you do not gain experience points from vanquishing enemies; demons only drop money (ludder) or hearts, which replenish your health by ten points.
The RPG elements are a little more subdued than they would be in a typical game of the genre. The most recognizable element is the ability to find new weapons and armor. It’s surprisingly advanced for its time as your offense and defense have three distinct upgrades. For offensive upgrades, you can improve the effectiveness of your sword, gain the ability to throw two in succession, and increase the speed at which they travel. Defensive upgrades are a little more straightforward; they take the form of an armor piece, shield, and helmet. Gain a matching set, and the amount of damage you take from enemies is drastically reduced.
There also isn’t an emphasis on interacting with NPCs, and there are no towns to explore. The game is entirely set in a singular location: a foreboding castle in the mountains. In this respect, Deadly Towers has more in common with Nintendo’s pioneering, exploration-themed title, Metroid, than a game such as Ultima Underworld.
Over time, Deadly Towers gained a reputation which has lasted across several gaming generations. After having experienced the game firsthand, I can safely say beyond any reasonable doubt that this distinction is well deserved. That is to say, anyone who plays it is in for an absolutely miserable time. On paper, many of the concepts put forth by its developers are sound, but that means nothing if the execution is lacking, and this game is perhaps the quintessential demonstration of this philosophy. On the surface, it doesn’t seem so bad, but the more you play it, the more the flaws begin to amass until the work collapses in on itself.
To begin with, dealing with enemies in this game is dreadful, for the screen doesn’t scroll until you’re only a few inches away from the edge. Owing to the fact that the monsters move with such lightning speed, this led to countless instances where I took damage due to getting blindsided by them. Ideally, the screen should begin to move in a way that allows you to see what’s ahead of your character. What’s worse is that enemies respawn when you leave an area, so if their starting position happens to block an entrance or is on the edge of the screen, you unavoidably damage unless you know about them in advance – sometimes even that won’t save you.
The game itself is not very well polished, and this flaw manifests itself in a myriad of ways. For example, I remember several times when I entered a new room only to get stuck on the edge of the screen, forcing me to mash the control pad until my character could move again. Another flaw worth noting is how the graphics often make it difficult to see your health meter. Rather than putting it against a black background, the meter simply hovers at the top of the screen, superimposing the game world in a white font. This means that any area with a bright color scheme makes it nearly impossible to tell how much health you have remaining without opening the inventory menu.
Another commonly cited problem with this game concerns the dungeons that litter the game world. Personally, I think it goes without saying that, regardless of the game, the entrance to a dungeon should be obvious to the point where exploring it is a decision you actively have to make. Lenar and Irem clearly didn’t share this belief because the entrances to these dungeons are invisible. You could be walking along only to end up in an entirely different area. This wouldn’t be so bad, except for one tiny detail: you can’t simply exit a dungeon upon entering it. It doesn’t matter if you accidentally stumbled upon the entrance or were knocked into it by an enemy’s onslaught; once you’re in, you only have a small chance of escaping as both the entrance and the exit only allow a one-way passage.If you thought the dungeons were easy to navigate like they are in The Legend of Zelda, think again. Every dungeon has over 150 rooms, rendering the task of finding the exit daunting to say the least. Anyone reading this would doubtlessly wonder what the point is in navigating these dungeons. The truth is that there is not much point at all. Occasionally, you’ll discover hidden merchants from whom you can buy equipment upgrades, health potions, and other magical items of varying utility, but other than that, there is little reason to ever explore these dungeons. To further hammer this point home, the best equipment in the game is found in areas hidden within the titular towers and not in any of these shops.
I could go on at length about every individual flaw this game has and how each of them damper the experience, but I think what seals it is its unrelenting difficulty. The difficulty of a game is independent from its quality; easy and tough games alike have a chance to shine when put in the hands of competent designers. This game has an unforgiving learning curve that almost completely diminishes its accessibility – even in the eyes of hardcore gaming fans.
In addition to the aforementioned problems which cause the difficulty to take on an artificial flavor, there are no checkpoints whatsoever. It doesn’t matter where you died; whether you were killed in the second room of the game or by a boss atop one of the seven towers, you go all the way back to the start (albeit with any upgrades you may have found). This is especially bad because the enemies initially have an overwhelming advantage over you. Not only are they much faster than you, when you get hit by them, you get knocked back several feet. Although there is the standard momentary invincibility when you take damage, it actually lasts for a shorter duration than the knockback, meaning that it’s easy get stuck in an endless cycle of taking damage while being unable to defeat your foes quickly enough to escape them. This isn’t even mentioning the very real possibility of getting pushed off of ledges into bottomless pits, which is an infuriatingly frequent occurrence.
It doesn’t help that your starting weapon is utterly incapable of killing any enemy in one fell swoop. The manual itself puts it best when it says, “you have no confidence in this sword.” This feeling will likely be shared by anyone who tries this game because even the weakest monsters can take multiple hits before dying. Because your swords move so slowly at first, it can be tricky to land a hit on the fast-moving enemies. Should you miss entirely, you have to wait until the sword leaves the screen before you can throw another one, leaving you defenseless until that happens.
What’s especially jarring about this game’s difficulty is how much it drops once you have the best equipment. Should you get the strongest armor, enemies suddenly start inflicting reasonable amounts of damage. As soon as you procure the optimal weapon upgrades, you can throw more than one sword at once, and they dart across the screen so fast that you’ll rarely be left defenseless. It’s almost as though the entire game was balanced under the assumption that you had the best equipment from the onset. I have to admit it was a little cathartic finally being able to stand a fighting chance against a game that had beaten me down time and again. Was it worth suffering through the rest of the game in order to get to that point? Not one bit.
Analyzing the Story
This is an ancient story from the age of stone and copper. Prince Myer has grown increasingly nervous as his coming-of-age ceremony quickly approaches. It will be a time in which he becomes the new king of the land of Willner. While visiting a lake alone, he was approached by a strange being. This man forewarned the young prince of a powerful threat. With the aid of magical bells, Rubas, the devil of darkness intends to extend his power and invade Willner with his powerful army of demons. The only way to stop him is to travel to the northern mountain where his castle resides and burn the seven bell towers with the sacred flame.
To give credit where it’s due, I have to say the premise of Deadly Towers is actually pretty good. While the story isn’t exactly what most critics would call original, it does strike me as ambitious that a gaming company in the mid-eighties would put so much work into it. The surprisingly good translation helps go a long way in conveying just how much care and attention the setting received from its creators.
Unfortunately, as elaborate as it is, it has barely any impact on the gameplay. Although Deadly Towers was not entirely developed by Irem, I find an interesting parallel between it and their most well-known series. Specifically, it has been said about Irem’s R-Type series of side-scrolling shooters that the team created a genuinely intriguing plot only to not bother fleshing it out at all, delegating it to the background, thus ensuring it would go unnoticed by most players. The premise of Deadly Towers does provide you with an overarching goal, but beyond that, the only time the story becomes relevant is upon completing it (assuming you haven’t run out of patience long before then).
Moreover, there’s the issue of putting a story in a challenging game. It’s no coincidence that nobody has ever heard of a movie which forces audience members to complete a convoluted puzzle in order to see how it ends. Most people would simply walk out of the theater, demanding their money back if such an event ever came to pass. The same principle even applies to interactive mediums; if a lot of work goes into story development only for the game to become excruciating, people aren’t going to want to see how it ends – even if the conclusion is beautifully-written. It’s arguably true that this realization resulted in games dropping in difficulty, but considering how future developers would go on to employ truly clever storytelling techniques which cater to the medium, I’d say it was a small price to pay.
Drawing a Conclusion
I can’t help but wonder what may have become of the industry had developers taken inspiration from Deadly Towers in lieu of a more sensible option such as The Legend of Zelda, which debuted in the same year. Still, I find it intriguing that retrospectives paint this game in such a negative light considering how much of a commercial success it was in 1986. I think it’s because even when judging this game in its proper context, excusing the innumerable poor design choices is an insurmountable task. As a counterexample, titles such as Earthbound Beginnings and Metroid may not have aged well, but even when approaching those games with a modern viewpoint, the experiences they provide aren’t actively bad; any frustration felt while playing them is a natural consequence of creators having adopted better design practices since then.
Whatever the case may be, Deadly Towers is considered by many longtime enthusiasts to be one of the worst NES games ever made. While I certainly sympathize with this sentiment, I would hesitate to call it the lowest of the low if for no other reason than because it exists on the same platform as Conan, Action 52, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Having said that, it definitely lives up to its reputation, and I don’t think it’s even possible to enjoy it ironically. You’ll be doing yourself a huge favor by choosing to pass this game up.
Final Score: 1.5/10