Review by Tachibana Ukyo
Reviewed: 06/13/03 | Updated: 06/13/03
If popular opinion is to be believed, you are even now hovering dangerously close to a review for the worst Nintendo game of all time; Irem’s Mashou, better known in the West as the otherwise identical Deadly Towers, is almost universally despised by the common folk as the twisted spawn of Cthulhu (ancient devourer of worlds) and a (really) drunken baboon-like creature. And after all, if you can’t trust the validity of popular opinion, what can you trust?
Our towering tale of . . . er, towers (deadly ones) is another notable entry in the annals of early 8-bit storytelling - foul Rubas, King of Devils, schemes to invade the peaceful kingdom of Willner by sounding the magical bells from his castle’s seven belfries and thus summon untold infernal legions of monsters to arms. Our hero - the young, inexperienced, and completely helpless Prince Myer - is for some baffling reason entrusted with the quest to destroy Rubas by none other than God himself. You’d think that the Creator Almighty could find someone else to do it, possibly someone armed with a decent weapon and the training to use it. You’d be wrong.
Aha! But Rubas has inexplicably constructed his lair right atop the Sacred Flame, a consecrated conflagration that can reduce magically cursed bells into a molten puddle of magically cursed ore. In other words, exactly the sort of place a King of Devils would seek to construct his evil bell towers. (Property values, perhaps? The high monthly cost of heating? . . . weekend barbecues?) Nintendo logic aside, US publisher Broderbund deserves a cookie for somehow ducking the big N’s obsession with purging religious references and iconography even as their own Legend of Zelda altered the Holy Bible into the “Magic Book” (which, if you think about in a certain light, is probably more offensive; at least before you were hurling righteous fireballs and not heathen ones.)
This magical journey of self-discovery and pyromania begins by the moat surrounding Rubas’ castle and its two gates, one of which is a winding path through his castle and ending at the towers; the other leads to Rubas himself, always in plain sight but locked tight until all the bells have burned. Despite large horizontally-scrolling areas to explore, the visuals are rather simple, often depicted in only a few different shades of color, and the early monsters (bouncing spheres and puddles of ooze?) are unquestionably bland. The bosses ahead are lackluster, occasionally little more than a blob of color with eyes and teeth, despite a few exceptions (namely Death Bear, the mammoth grizzly. Of death.) But now that I think about it, most of the later areas fare better, featuring flame-spitting devils, giant snakes, and large translucent specters high atop the sprawling verticality of the cross-studded (Where are you, Nintendo?) and ladder-laden towers.
So what about the evil?
From the beginning Mashou attempts to present itself as a promising action/RPG . . . and fails. Myer can collect money from his defeated foes to purchase various items, weapons, and armor that will surely increase his power and make the game easier - but what one can’t ignore is the fact that our protagonist begins his journey in an incredibly weak state. Scratch that -- a pitiably weak state. He can maneuver in all eight directions, yet plods along at a snail’s pace; moreover, upon firing his
d e r
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sword at an enemy, you may as sit back and watch it either strike the beast or drag itself clear across the screen, because you won’t be able to fire another until then. What’s that? You scored a hit? Way to go! . . . pity that the swarms of enemies can shrug off an obscene amount of damage while your own character enjoys all the staying power of wet Kleenex™. Expect to see Prince Worthless melt away into nothingness a few times, “a few” meaning “countless.” Were it not for the infinite continues and game-saving passwords, this game would probably be considered an act of aggression on the part of Japan.
Perusing the manual, it appears that we need to seek out one of the various hidden dungeons in order to bulk up our laughably inept hero; the entrances to these lairs are invisible, making it woefully easy to accidentally teleport into one and remain stuck there until locating the (visible) exit somewhere deep within its walls. These dungeons are by far the most hated aspect of this game – picture an immense maze comprised of roughly 200 tiny rooms with doors going in all directions, every screen appearing almost exactly alike save for the brutal monsters and occasional floor markers; also imagine, if you dare, that every screen offers merely the slightest of variations on the endless loop of a maddeningly repetitive tune, and you might be able to comprehend the average dungeon. Navigating these torturous labyrinths means drawing your own maps . . . or else. These mazes conceal those healing items and powerful equipment upgrades you so desperately need, yet blindly wandering in circles will undoubtedly result in most players tearing the cartridge free of their still-running control deck in fewer than five minutes, and understandably so.
. . . . . .
Misleadingly enough, this black sheep will prove itself far more enjoyable for those who can surmount the initially overwhelming odds; a properly-equipped Myer can successfully traverse the dangers of the castle itself, which often diverges into separate paths but is thankfully not a maze, and discover the Sacred Flame within the same underground grotto leading to the seven towers. Convenient, no? Contrary to the madness of the dungeons, each tower is a relatively straightforward affair and features its own musical theme, some of which are (gasp!) actually quite well done. Climb the stairs of the outer ramparts, ascend into the inner sanctum of the towers’s walls, and Myer may indeed emerge triumphant if you can overcome the bell’s foul guardians; amazingly enough, our own little hero comes to slaughter everything in his path with a pair of dragon slaying blades that zip across the screen.
Considering its age, Mashou also boasts an extreme level of complexity with seemingly everything well hidden, from the aforementioned invisible dungeons to mysterious necklaces, scrolls, and potions whose functions are never fully explained, forcing you to risk using them and observe their effects. Stepped into a dungeon? You can be never quite sure where you are. Where is the Magic Mace, and what does the Cursed Shield do? You might find out. The game’s predilection for the unseen continues into the towers as well; secret rooms and parallel zones – far more difficult palette swaps of the original tower - hide the best equipment and additional inventory items of curious use. After recovering the bell you’ll find that the denizens of each tower are replaced by stronger monsters for the trip back down, and burning one causes even more repercussions – enemies become increasingly quick and the dungeons sometimes change position or even rearrange themselves. Burn all seven of the bells and you can look forward to a nasty reception on your trek back to the beginning, to the oft-sealed portcullis of the devil’s lair. In a way, this may very well be the role-playing incarnation of the masochistic epic Ghosts ‘n Goblins.
If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to recover the Disks of Mishakal from nude midgets, bottomless pits, and waterfall keepers. Mashou was possibly designed by sadistic programmers lashing out at the easily frustrated, but inventive, determined, and above all patient players seeking a incredibly complex action/RPG should find “the worst Nintendo game of all time” a challenge like no other.
Or they could just, you know, cheat.
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