Retro Review: Deadly Towers

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By Josh Nichols on June 11th, 2021

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Deadly Towers was one of the first Japanese action role-playing games published in North America and thankfully many more came later. Deadly Towers has interesting ideas and concepts but it just isn’t fun to play or explore the world, which is a shame because it feels like developers Lendar and Tamtex were close to creating something special. The game was considered commercially successful when it first released and didn’t get discussed a lot in game press at the time but it’s earned a rough reputation in the years since. It’s been called one of the most frustrating games of all time by a lot of people, and I can partially see why after playing it. I do think there’s a lot of good in the game though, stemming from both ambition and imagination. The technology of the time and superior games releasing around it just made it harder to love and appreciate, especially decades after its release.

Before I started playing Deadly Towers I searched around to read about it a little bit. I also looked up the box art and manual. I thought it looked a bit generic but otherwise harmless. I thought I’d be getting a bland Castlevania-style game in a Golden Axe costume. That sounded fun enough. I also saw several articles and tweets talking about how difficult the game is but I figured it was just going to feature the usual NES difficulty, which is admittedly rough but still not a dealbreaker for most games. A lot of NES games are really hard because developers were battling the rental market or simply trying to artificially extend replay value. A lot of games used to feature lots of deaths and Game Over screens but eventually you’d prevail if you stuck with the game long enough. Modern features have helped with this a bit as well with things like save states or built-in rewinds, like on Nintendo Switch Online. Deadly Towers does have that kind of element to it but it also has other problems that contaminate the rest of the experience.

Dread-ly Towers

The story setup is pretty cool and one of my favorite parts of the game, which is impressive considering the time it released. Games in the late ’80s weren’t typically celebrated or praised for their stories, settings, or characters but Deadly Towers absolutely delivers here, especially considering the time. Prince Myer is originally just chilling by the lake and reflecting on the kingdom and its future when he’s interrupted by a kami called Khan who passes a warning to the prince. Khan warns Prince Myer of Rubas, the “Devil of Darkness”, who is planning on conquering the Willner Kingdom through the use of seven magical bells that can summon an army of monsters for their bidding. Khan tells Prince Myer to burn all of the towers and bells and then take out Rubas to save the kingdom and this is where the game starts and the problems arrive. The game follows Prince Myer on his quest to destroy the seven evil bells that are located in seven different towers. The towers are filled with monsters and each one has a powerful boss to battle at the end. The game can be tackled in a non-linear manner too, which is always cool since that freedom makes the experience feel more personalized.

This framing has the potential for a rad game but it crumbles almost immediately due to harsh difficulty and poor combat. It’s sad because you can almost feel how good of a game this could have been. It’s a game that would really benefit from a remake; there are good ideas throughout the game and it’s clear the developer had big ambitions from the start. An indie developer with some time and money could turn this into a really exciting game with a cool rogue-lite twist. It’s almost like the game was just ahead of its time in terms of ideas and technology. I’m sure this looked and sounded so much cooler in notebook scribblings and in conversations.

The Legend of Prince Myer

Deadly Towers feels like an amalgamation of Castlevania and The Legend of Zelda that just barely missed most of the targets. Prince Myer even throws swords to attack, like Link does at full health in Zelda. You can’t throw the sword again until it either hits an enemy or the edge of the screen though so you’ve got to be smart with your attacks. The pressure to line up shots is high because missing means you have to wait longer to attack again. This makes it difficult to attack quickly, which you almost need to do considering there are enemies everywhere. Enemies randomly litter the screen and are typically near the entrances of rooms so you’re very likely to take damage when going to new screens and areas. That action alone almost sums up a lot of the game. It does many things like other games and the ideas are there but then it just kind of falls apart when it’s time to play.

There’s also a really rough knockback when you’re hit and it doesn’t even work in the way that makes the most sense. Instead of being tossed back based on how an enemy’s attack hits you (which would make more sense and be much less frustrating), you are thrown back in the opposite direction you are facing. It makes it much harder to progress and regain your footing with how much the knockback can throw you off, especially considering how narrow some areas are. Sometimes you’ll fall off a ledge if you’re close enough to one, even if it’s not the opposite direction that you’re facing which means instant death. I found myself overwhelmed often and death is something you really need to avoid in this game because you essentially start over. You get to keep some permanent upgrades but for the most part, it’s back to the very beginning. I often found myself grinding for health by repeatedly killing some of the weaker enemies, which is certainly a way to stay alive but definitely not a fun thing to do. I had to do this a lot too because Prince Myer doesn’t have a lot of health and enemies can deliver damage quickly, especially when you get backed into a spot and stuck against a group of enemies.

The boss battles are pretty cool and not as difficult as they’re supposed to be. You can usually get into a good spot on the screen and cheese the boss like some players have done in games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne. Once you find that spot, you can just (slowly) spam attacks until they’re dead. It takes a while though because they have pretty high health but it’s honestly much better than risking death. Even if you can beat them the “right” way, they’re not necessarily fun battles. They’re just cool because of the character designs and because it means you’ve almost finished a tower. I think my favorite boss was a gorilla vampire. I don’t think that’s what it actually was but that’s what it looked like. A gorilla or vampire would already be a formidable opponent on their own but they’re nearly unstoppable when combined, unless you uh, cheese the fight then it’s not too bad.

Invisible random tiles are bad

There are ten different dungeons in the game that can give you access to more powerful gear and some helpful expendable items. These help a lot but I didn’t find most of them because you can only stumble onto them randomly. Prince Myer is transported to them when he steps on the correct tile in the main parts of the game. These are really difficult. You need to stay alive while battling enemies, find the shop, and then find your way out. If you die in here then it’s back to the start of the game. They’re like bonus levels but from hell. I only found a few of the rooms but the upgrades did help and were worth it. I would absolutely recommend using a guide for the dungeons though because otherwise it’s really confusing and you’ll probably die right when you were about to gain an advantage and make some progress.

Irem, the publisher of the game in Japan, is mostly involved in slot machines and pachinko games these days so maybe they’d be willing to let Nintendo and Supergiant Games do something with it. If Supergiant Games did a version of this informed by Hades then the good parts already here could shine so much more since they wouldn’t be buried under all the issues. It’s just impossible to ignore the problems and even if you can, they still get in the way. I really want to play a good version of this game and it exists under all its issues. Someone just needs to wipe all the dirt off of it and make a few changes to gameplay, structure, the save system, and sprinkle some rogue-lite elements into the mix.

Deadly Towers doesn’t deserve the reputation it has as one of the worst games on the NES. It absolutely has issues and there are flaws throughout the game that prevent it from being super fun or enjoyable, but developers Lenar and Tamtex tried to make something special and it shows. The setting, story, and even the gameplay loop are good ideas. It’s just harder than it should be and progression is gated behind secret dungeons, poor movement, overpowered enemies, and a terrible save system. I feel like it could have been a much better game if it released on the SNES, or even just on the NES but way later, like StarTropics. The game released in December 1986 in Japan and in September 1987 in North America. It was a full year after Zelda’s Japan release and a month after the North America release. I can only imagine how great Deadly Towers could have been if it had Nintendo publishing money and/or if development wasn’t finished before Zelda, Rygar, StarTropics, and other similar but better realized NES classics released.

Games are constantly evolving

Deadly Towers shouldn’t be dismissed entirely though, which is what so many people have done over the years. There’s something here if you’re interested in seeing earlier versions of action role-playing games, which like many genres, took some time to figure out what worked and what didn’t. We wouldn’t have other action role-playing games like Fable, Yakuza, or The Witcher III: Wild Hunt if games like Deadly Towers didn’t trip and fall first. Games are constantly changing, evolving, and growing and sometimes the influence can be there without the impact. Not every game is gonna be like Resident Evil 4 and influence developers while also being one of the best games ever made. Sometimes games release and they’re just fine — and that’s okay! Seeing the line from a genre’s start and tracing it to games that came later is incredibly interesting though and it’s worth either playing or watching a playthrough of Deadly Towers for that reason alone. It would also be fun for anyone interested in exploration and mystery. There’s a frustration and time cost associated with it but that could be reduced a lot that by creating your own checkpoints with save states. Let’s face it: even some of the best NES games haven’t aged incredibly well and also greatly benefit from a little save scumming.

Josh really likes video games. Horror is their favorite but they also like other stuff.

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