If you are a glutton for punishment, or just feel that modern video games are a touch on the easy and/or fair side for you, it’s high time you checked out Will Harvey’s classic 1990 title, The Immortal.
As it happens, at the time of writing it’s just become easily accessible in not one, but two different places: you can now play the NES version as part of a Nintendo Switch Online subscription, and the Mega Drive version appears as part of the Piko Interactive Collection 1 cartridge for the Evercade retro gaming system.
It’s the latter version we’ll be focusing on today, but expect similar amounts of death in both. Roll up your sleeves, and let’s get mortal.
In The Immortal, you play the role of an elderly but spry wizard who has come to the forgotten, lost city of Erinoch in search of his former mentor Mordamir. Erinoch was devastated by dragon’s fire a thousand years ago, but it seems that there is still some life there — mostly in the form of goblins and trolls who have taken up residence, but you’ll stumble across the occasional adventurer in varying degrees of dismemberment, too.
As such, you have quite a mission ahead of you: explore eight levels of Erinoch, find the treasures concealed within, make use of them to solve various puzzles, and try not to suffer frequent, gory deaths at the hands of all manner of horrible things. Emphasis on try.
The Immortal is a peculiar hybrid of genres. Some describe it as an RPG, but that isn’t really accurate; while there is combat and you can find equippable spells with which to defend yourself and solve puzzles, there’s no character progression, no meaningful choices to make and the solution to the game is strictly linear.
Instead, it’s more akin to an adventure game that happens to feature combat and instant-death traps that you need to memorise — in some respects it can be looked at as an early example of a survival horror game, particularly with the limited number of items you can find throughout the game, and how they all have a specific purpose.
The game unfolds from an isometric perspective, in which you can control the unnamed protagonist in eight directions. This was actually rather unusual at the time of original release, since isometric-perspective games of the period tended to feature “tank” controls (i.e. push left and right to turn in that direction, then push forwards to walk the way you’re facing) and movement limited to the four cardinal directions. In The Immortal, however, it was a simple case of “push a direction to walk in that direction”, and it’s much more intuitive — particularly for those of us accustomed to more modern control schemes.
As you explore Erinoch, you’ll find various items to take with you. Sometimes these are in treasure chests, sometimes characters will give them to you (perhaps after you trade or use an item on them) and sometimes they’ll just be on the floor. The latter can be a little troublesome, since they tend to be just a few pixels in size, and sometimes a very similar colour to the floor tiles — this means some objects can be quite easily missed, putting you at an impasse until you uncover that one puzzle-essential item you need to continue.
Puzzles are generally a straightforward case of finding an appropriate item and then using it in the correct location. Clues tend to be provided both through notes you find around the dungeons and in the dreams your protagonist has when you settle down for a rest on each floor’s bed of straw — a process which also restores a few lost hit points.
The text in the game is actually remarkably well written, especially when you consider that games with any writing in them at all were relatively rare at the time. This is probably where the game’s adventure game roots are most apparent, however; the prose in the dream sequences in particular is highly evocative and atmospheric, and there are a few bits of sly humour here and there too — most notably the “it might be a good idea to move” sequence in the very first room! You’ll almost certainly know what I mean as soon as you play for the first time.
Erinoch is inhabited by the aforementioned trolls and goblins, both of whom are hostile. While there are a very limited number of spells in the game you can make use of to deal with these foes from afar, more often than not you’ll end up having to fight them up close. Upon engaging an enemy, you’ll enter a close-up fight scene in which you can jab and slash in two directions with a dagger, along with attempting to parry or leaning left and right in order to avoid or deflect enemy attacks.
The combat system is a real weak point of The Immortal, as it’s all too easy to find yourself caught in a stunlock loop if the enemy happens to get a hit in on you first. In other words, if you take a hit, your character takes a moment to become responsive again, which means you’ll probably get hit again before you have the opportunity to dodge or parry. Instead, it tends to become something of a matter of luck — hoping you get the first hit in and that you are the one that catches your foe in a stunlock loop instead!
The one saving grace of the combat system is the incredible array of ridiculous, gory animations that ensue when you are victorious. Sometimes your wizard will tap their foe on the head, causing it to explode — which makes you wonder why they didn’t just do that immediately. Sometimes, you’ll cleave them right down the middle, shearing them completely in half. Sometimes you’ll decapitate them, leaving a throbbing mass of bloody neck-flesh visible as they slump to their knees. And occasionally you just take the simple approach of turning them to stone.
The combat will be one of your main sources of death while playing The Immortal, but it is an aspect of the game you can at least prepare yourself for. The instant-death traps, meanwhile, are something you just have to discover for yourself, then remember to avoid on future visits to that area. Thankfully, up until the final level, death isn’t an immediate Game Over; you instead have three “lives” per floor, so you can spend one or two figuring things out for yourself — or perhaps weakening enemies — before attempting to solve the level’s core puzzle.
The lives system actually ends up rather meaningless, since there is no scoring mechanic for the game, and completing a level rewards you with a “certificate” that you can type in in order to pick right back up where you left off. In modern versions of the game — including both the Switch and Evercade releases — you can also make use of save states to save having to type in strings of letters and numbers. For those who like to challenge themselves, however, the pursuit of a “one-credit clear” of The Immortal is definitely something that will keep you busy for a while.
The Immortal can be a hard sell for a lot of people, because it is brutally difficult and completely unfair, but it’s an experience worth exploring at least a little — and it’s very satisfying to finally figure some things out for yourself. It also has a very distinctive atmosphere — particularly when compared to its peers from the era — with its excellent music and graphics helping to create a real feeling of “dark fantasy”.
Whether or not you’ll have the patience to see your quest through to its conclusion will depend entirely on your own attitude towards games like this. But as an early, clearly experimental example of some mechanical and structural features that have been considerably refined over the years, it remains a fascinating curiosity — and a game whose notoriety is well-deserved.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via any of the services below! Your contributions help keep the lights on, the ads off and my shelves stocked up with things to write about!