Released: September 1987
US Cartridge ID: NES-DE-USA
Genre: Action RPG
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 1 megabit
Mapper: BNROM (128k PRG)
Deadly Towers presents an interesting conundrum when viewed in hindsight. When originally released in North America in the fall of 1987, it represented an interesting twist on the established RPG and action game conventions of the time, and it sold reasonably well. With nearly three decades having passed since Deadly Towers‘ NES appearance, however, it has become one of the most reviled game titles of all-time, being commonly considered amongst the worst NES games ever produced.
Prince Myer of Willner, contemplating his place as future king, is visited by a god as he sits looking at the moonlight’s reflection on a lake. The deity informs the prince of a coming evil threatening to swallow the kingdom: Rubas, a powerful lord, has begun construction of a stronghold on the northern mountain. He has placed seven bells in seven towers, each with the power to summon wicked monsters when rung, and plans to use this unholy army to usurp the throne. Once the god leaves, Myer returns to the castle to inform the king of what he has just learned. Believing this spirit to be Khan, the deity named in a famous prophecy, the king sends Myer to destroy Rubas.
Player-controlled from an oblique overhead perspective, Prince Myer must climb the mountain and retrieve the seven bells, destroy the towers that house them, incinerate the bells in the heat of the holy flame, and finally end Rubas. While exploring the mountainside, Myer can search out hidden dungeon areas where shops may be found, allowing him access to armor, weaponry, and other useful items, providing he has enough ludders (the currency of the Willner Kingdom). Once he has sufficiently armed himself, the prince must then take on each of the seven towers in any order that he chooses. At the top of each tower lies the bell, protected by an appointed keeper, a large boss monster.
Prince Myer can improve his fledgling abilities by finding special “parallel zones” and “secret rooms” within the towers, both of which provide upgrades to his sword’s strength, armor efficacy, and attacking speed. These power-ups are essential, as are the heart containers (granting an additional ten hit points to the prince’s maximum life when collected), as the hero is virtually defenseless in his virgin state. Since these rooms are loaded with enemies that Myer cannot handle without advanced armor and weaponry, there is a lot of strategy (not entirely unlike Mega Man) in choosing which order to conquer the towers. After the boss has been conquered and Myer escapes, the tower burns to the ground and the door seals shut, making any items not obtained before leaving the area forever forfeited.
Deadly Towers‘ graphics and sound are reasonable considering that the game was developed in 1986. Though the graphics are plain and lacking detail, the gaudy color schemes make identifying each area easy. As each dungeon is stretched across a 16×16 grid, this ability to visually distinguish between rooms becomes important in keeping track of where Myer is in relation to the starting point, the exit, and the locations of the stores. The towers and their entry areas feature much better art than the “overworld” mountain, though they all look extremely similar. Strangely enough, for all of the stringent requirements that publishing houses would have to meet for a game to be deemed “family friendly” by Nintendo’s standards, crosses are prevalent in each tower area, and the religious overtones to the entire story are far more pervasive than in most games on the platform. Nintendo did draw a line, however, when the game was not approved under the original intended English name, Hell’s Bells.
The controls are usually responsive, and much like Mike in Zoda’s Revenge: Star Tropics II, Prince Myer can move in eight directions. Unfortunately, the level design itself can make maneuvering the character much harder than it should be: Myer often will get stuck on angled walls, turning him into easy cannon-fodder until the player thrashes the D-pad enough to dislodge him. Enemies also have the tendency to attack from angles just outside of the reach of the player’s attack, resulting in many foreseeable yet unpreventable deaths. The would-be king also has trouble using doors – it is not uncommon for Myer to be struck by an enemy attack the instant he enters a room. While typically resulting in a harsh reduction of life, he is also bounced backward every time he is hit, making it difficult to enter many rooms without being killed. Though entering a door from the side rather than the center does help alleviate this problem somewhat, the only way to completely avoid such unfair enemy placement is to memorize the positions of potential threats in each room.
Exploring the towers is a great deal of fun, as they are linear in nature, and enemies can easily be seen before they hit the player. Unfortunately, the ridiculously complicated layout of the dungeons (many of which contain over two-hundred rooms) guarantees that a player lacking the foresight to carefully map each area will lose all of their health long before finding the exit. This particular issue will prove to be a massive stumbling block to the novice, as upgrading Myer in these dungeons is absolutely required in order to withstand more than three or four hits without dying. Once the prince is completely upgraded, survival becomes much easier, and the game becomes significantly less frustrating. It is a shame that such a barrier to entry exists here, as Deadly Towers is far more enjoyable in its second half, once the player is given a fighting chance.
Progress is recorded via a password system, but even it has some significant flaws. Though Myer’s maximum life, bells destroyed, and equipped items remain the same, his entire inventory is emptied upon restarting, potentially wasting several hours of saving money in order to buy things like health potions and orange scrolls (which allows Myer to teleport straight to the holy flame at any time). As the final boss is virtually impossible to defeat without the blue necklace, restarting from the end of the game with a password requires a great deal of backtracking, demanding that Myer again farms gold from fallen enemies so that he may face the dungeons to replenish his stock. Deadly Towers easily earns its reputation as one of the most difficult games ever created, as the odds are badly stacked against the player, and few have the patience to die every couple of minutes with such a severe penalty in place.
While Deadly Towers falls far below most of its NES genre-mates in all aspects, it isn’t nearly the failure that most seem to want to believe it is. It’s brutal from the get-go and the entire experience is riddled with annoyances, but the fun that can be had in the latter half of the adventure once Prince Myer has been well upgraded salvages the game from lying among the lowest dregs of the NES library.