Monday, May 9, 2011

Design & Color: Deadly Towers

(Originally posted on February 28, 2011 at my personal blog.)
[Note: about half of these screenshots are taken from Youtube, with others taken from StrategyWiki and the game itself. If you have higher quality screenshots of those, I'd really love it if you could throw them my way!]

As a followup to my last Design & Color post about Kirby's Adventure, I'd like to examine a game which is just about the polar opposite of it. Kirby's Adventure was almost universally beloved and propelled a still-running, successful franchise; Deadly Towers is almost unanimously reviled, with many people first learning of it as Seanbaby's Worst Nintendo Game of All Time. There are a lot of reasons for this, but they aren't important: I come here not to bury Deadly Towers, but to praise it.

Many, many, many words have been written about how flawed Deadly Towers' gameplay and mechanics are. But I've always been impressed by the vividness and outright luridness of some of its color schemes, and the peculiar isometric graphics it chooses to adopt. Like with Kirby's Adventure, I'm focusing almost entirely on the environmental graphics here, as they contribute a lot to the overall theme of the game.

The overall theme which, I'd say, is "disorientation." The game opens with the screen on the left: already the player's eyes are assaulted with tons of contrasting patterns, with more than half of the screen taken up by that L-shaped block of texture. The player's character, Prince Meyer, is boxed in. It's a pretty direct, if clumsy, way of saying "hey dummy, go up and to the right." Even though it's got so many contrasting patterns, though, the overall effect isn't so bad because of the tight color palette: all of the colors are related to Prince Meyer's shade of teal. The fact that the ground is light green with blue shading on it already gives the player a feeling of being in the shadow of a structure stretching above them, and the game is indeed laid out with Meyer at the bottom of the map.

Unfortunately, if the player does go all the way to the right, then they're likely to stumble into the thing everyone remembers about Deadly Towers: the dungeons. Deadly Towers is full of dungeons with invisible entrances, and most of the time they're just there to get you lost. The dungeons are laid out in tight, claustrophobic rooms like the one on the right. Remember how the screenshot on the left kinda tired out the eye, but made up for it? The green in the screenshot on the right is more intense, and the way they box the player in can create a maddening effect...especially after up to 250(!) rooms of it. It's like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" in cartridge form.

So Prince Meyer starts climbing up, up, up, to reach seven towers. These screenshots are of the paths from the castle that lead to each tower, and compositionally they're probably the most interesting part of the game. They twist and curve in blocky formations, at times bordering on Escher-like. The one on the left has a beautiful color palette of cream yellow, sea green and dark green. The colors work very well together, and the layout of the path itself winds around perilously. My favorite part is the curve near the bottom where the path juts out like an arrow, threatening to drop the player. (The sea-green lighting under it actually bends backwards into where it should be shaded, which shouldn't be possible, but it looks good anyway.)

The one on the right, wow. The harmonious color palette's been replaced with eye-burning deep purples and lime greens. There's still lighting, but the light blue doesn't really pop out as much. But what does pop out are the bright green and black crosses (how did Irem manage to sneak crosses into an NES game, anyway?). Even without the weird black holes in the brickwork, it really gets across a feeling of danger and overall this-is-not-a-good-place-ness.

The shot on the left is another tower path; the one on the right is the inside of one of one of the towers. I wanted to point out the little graphical touches in these two screenshots.. On the left, there are things like the cracks in the walls, the little flecks of black, the holes, and even the caged monster (who, if I remember correctly, is only there for atmosphere). Same thing on the right-- like the latticed window and what appears to be some shackles down below. There's even another really narrow, long window, and an oil lamp down and to the left. The details are nice, but they don't seem to be placed with too much rhyme or reason, which makes it strange to look at. Still, it's a surprising amount of detail and variance for a game that's as overlooked as this one. Check out the neat shingle-like brickwork, too.

One of the bosses. Some of the boss chambers are larger than this, but they're still pretty penned-in. It's a bizarre decision to make, considering that most NES adventure games are characterized by large boss arenas and tiny protagonists (see The Legend of Zelda), to give the player room to run and dodge. Deadly Towers doesn't have any of that. Instead, here it boxes the player in, forcing them to go directly up to the boss to throw swords at them until they are dead. This is kinda for the player's benefit, since Prince Meyer's sword is one of those projectiles that can only be thrown again once it disappears off the screen; you can hammer the button until the boss dies. Constructing the arena around this mechanic is a good idea, but it's taken to a huge extreme right here.
Wow, this came out way longer than I ever expected it would. I was honestly unsure if I could spin a whole Design & Color post out of Deadly Towers, but it was a lot of fun! Whether or not you feel like the game is any good, it certainly does a lot of interesting things, and I'd venture to call it one of the crazier, cooler-looking adventure titles on the NES.

On that note, I'll leave you with this profoundly unsettling screenshot.

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