So a lot of you are probably wondering why on earth I’d bother to write a review for an NES game that doesn’t fall into the category of “charmingly-nostalgic titles that were fun fun fun back when I was eight.” I admit that the odds of anyone going to any lengths to find a functional copy of this game are more or less nil, but I propose that I had a perfectly valid reason to manhandle my way through this 8-bit horror and write this review about it, and that reason is that we can learn from the past. Any time I find myself frustrated by some programming bug in a modern game, I just think back to those wonderful, innocent years of playing NES games, long before the radical concept of playtesters had been envisioned, and Deadly Towers (or Hell’s Bells as it was originally supposed to be called, thank you very much Nintendo of America) stands proud as one of the highlights in the history of bad game design. Here’s my review.
Deadly Towers begins by setting up a compelling reason to drag you through the tedious hours of survival-horror grade frustration that are about to ensue. It turns out that you are Prince Myer, heir to the kingdom of Willner and one day short of your coronation ceremony. However, while strolling by the side of scenic Lake Willner, the mighty God KAHN himself comes down and warns you that the evil wizard Rubas has an army of unstoppable devils at his command which he will promptly send down to dominate the kingdom if Myer doesn’t get over to his impregnable doomcastle right now and destroy his magical bells. And so, armed with a butter knife and armor that serves a merely cosmetic purpose, Myer embarks on one of the most piss-poor excuses for a dungeon crawler of my life.
Now, where do I begin describing what went wrong here… The game’s premise is simple enough, and a quick read through the instruction manual gives you a pretty good idea of what you’ve got to do to win: find your way into Rubas’ inner sanctum, climb seven towers, destroy seven bells, slay Rubas, get crowned, have cake. It all seems simple enough on paper, but it turns out to be a little tricky to execute. First off, our boy Myer is terribly unsuited for the job, at least when you first get him. He handles clunkily, he’s got no defense to speak of, and his only attack is lobbing his sword across the screen. Combat generally amounts to finding a slow-moving enemy you can get close to without it tearing your head off and firing dozens of your crotch-swords at it before it dies, all in the hopes of it dropping a few ludder (the in-game currency you can spend to purchase fancy new gear).
Battle becomes virtually impossible once the screen starts filling with more and more monsters. Most of them move much faster than you, and the in-game AI eventually has them approach in such a way that your shots will just barely miss them. Add to that the fact that you can only have one of your sword-projectiles on screen at a time and the fact that your swords initially take somewhere around three seconds to reach the end of the screen and you have a situation where one easy miss generally means instant brutal death for Prince Myer. Many of the later areas are so chock-full of sprinting vicious bad guys that even if you do connect with your impotent little attack the others will instantly be on you and tear you to shreds.
Assuming you have the tenacity to keep at the game in spite of your truly staggering number of deaths, let’s assume you play long enough to get through the first handful of rooms. By this point you’ll discover one of the key methods of improving your odds in this garishly-colored death trap: heart containers. Throughout the castle are white circles with hearts in them that increase Myer’s maximum HP by 10. Because they respawn, farming these early on until you max out your life meter is suggested.
Aside from life upgrades, finding and buying new equipment also significantly ups your odds of surviving. After you’ve killed enough baddies to have a sizable pile of ludder, your next goal will be to find a shop and buy some survival gear a bit more suitable than the armor-shaped bathing suit you wore to the lake. The problem here lies in the fact that shops are invisible. Entering one involves wandering around every inch of every map until the world suddenly blinks out around you (the game’s manual mentions something about the evil bells creating magical dimensional vortexes or something) and you suddenly find yourself in some anonymous stranger’s flea market buying trinkets. These shops usually sell one or two useful items each and are sparsely spread throughout the world in odd nooks and crannies. They would be much less stressful to find if not for the fact that you are more likely in your wandering to stumble across an invisible dungeon than you are to find those eldritch WAL*MARTs you so desperately need to live. In fact, most of the better shops are found inside these very dungeons.
So what’s the Deadly Towers interpretation of a dungeon? Dungeons are collections of anywhere from sixty to two hundred nearly identical cramped-rooms full of those really nasty opponents I mentioned earlier on. Navigating them requires making a map by hand, keeping track of which rooms contain pleasant shopping and which kill you as soon as you enter. I’ve had far too many instances of walking into a room only to find myself immediately being bitten repeatedly by giant cobras for an improbable amount of HP. A very sizeable amount of your experience will involve carefully mapping out these places, buying gear and leaving corpses.
Eventually, however, you manage to gather up a decent collection of armor and sword upgrades. Now you’re ready to take on the towers themselves! By this point it becomes pretty easy to march your way past the starting area of the game to Rubas’ inner sanctum, and here you have seven towers to choose from, all of them more or less the same in design with varying degrees of impossible monsters thrown at you. Myer must scale these each of these structures to their pinnacle, at which point you face one of the seven boss monsters that all fight by throwing fireballs at you and hopping around the room in varying fashions. These fights are hard but not impossible, so long as you’re well-equipped and remembered to stock up on gallons of life-restoring potions beforehand (and didn’t waste them all on the way up). You beat the boss, you grab the bell it guards, and you complete the tower which is then locked off forever (convenient since it’s hard to tell the difference between them except by color-scheme, and you’re usually too busy getting thrashed to take notice).
However, there is a catch! As it turns out, each of these towers has at least one secret hidden world to explore, each of which contain all the obnoxiousness of a dungeon compressed into a handful of rooms. Because all of the best gear in the game is hidden in these things, gameplay goes right back to repeatedly testing your luck against too many baddies until you get it right, and if, like me, you don’t happen to find them all before beating a particular tower, too bad! No glowing hyper armor for you.
If you’re still playing by this point, the rest of the game plays out as more of the same, forcing you to explore and punishing your curiosity every inch of the way until you fight the last boss who simply kills you outright, but really, it was your fault for expecting anything less.
There is no story to speak of, which is really par for the course for NES action RPGs, but the near complete lack of dialogue and strange localization are a bit unusual. It gets a handful of points for using the phrase “age of copper and stone,” which is just kinda cool.
The game’s graphics are basic by any standards. The backgrounds have some interesting textures, but there aren’t too many of them so they’re repeated again and again. Nonetheless, the overhead room angle is a neat little attempt at implementing depth. Coloring is bright and gaudy and helps tremendously with finding your way around the place. Enemies are mostly either weird wobbly masses or vaguely anthropomorphic humanoids, fairly average fare for the NES. The main character and more or less all of the enemies you encounter don’t exactly animate very much. If the game weren’t so unplayably bad, I might actually be annoyed by the lackluster visuals.
The game’s musical score is actually partially responsible for my coming back and playing again. Most songs played throughout the game are decent enough adventuresome MIDIs, but what really caught me was the music played in the dungeons. Here, each room plays one of about a dozen or so variations on an extremely simple 30 second-or-so loop, and since you only spend seconds in each room, it creates a very neat little organic series as you explore. Or at least until you die three rooms in. As for sound effects, there are, I believe, about six in all, none of which are very impressive.
Finally, we have controls, which are unbelievably the game’s weakest link. You move with the grace and style of an R/C racecar missing a tire, which makes the game take several hours longer than it already was simply in covering long distances. Bottomless pits exist here and there and wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that getting hit by an enemy drives you back uncontrollably a bit, making these things MUCH deadlier than they rightfully should be. Myer often gets caught while walking along walls or up stairways due to bad clipping which will account for another two dozen or so deaths. Continuing your game relies on a password system like most early NES action RPGs, but doing so doesn’t carry over any of your expensive consumable items and plants you back at the very beginning of the game. Your armor and weapons do stay, because the game would be impossible without them, but gathering the more useful consumable items in the game can set you back a lot of money and require trekking through some of the nastier dungeons to acquire.
Really, though, all this would be bearable if the general layout of the game wasn’t just bad. There are too many areas where, for no fault of your own, you simply die by entering a new area, and because many areas are invisible, you don’t have too much say in the matter. Walking past bottomless pits is stressful due to enemies materializing beneath you without warning, and with the password system not saving most of your items, you are set back farther than seems appropriate with every one of these very-regular deaths.
I could go on if I felt like it, but I think I’ve gotten my point across properly. The game is weird enough in spots to have a certain charm to it, but there’s no point in trying it out for anything other than experimental curiosity or as a learning aid at one of those fancy-shmancy game design colleges on what not to do.