The Tower of Druaga is an important part of gaming history — yet it’s also a game that has somewhat divided opinion over the years.
Back in its native Japan, it was widely loved and appreciated for its revolutionary nature at the time of its original release; in the West, however, it was lambasted for its slow pace, obtuse mechanics and monstrous level of difficulty.
Regardless of your feelings on it, you can now play the Famicom version as part of the Namco Museum Collection 2 cartridge on the Evercade retro gaming system. So let’s take a closer look, and see why this game is so important.
The Tower of Druaga is the brainchild of Masanobu Endou, who was also the man responsible for bringing the world the influential vertically scrolling shoot ’em up Xevious. Speaking in a 2003 interview (preserved and translated by Shmuplations), Endou noted that his one regret with Xevious was that it didn’t have an ending; players who were good enough could theoretically play it forever on a single coin.
“I remember I resolved to make a proper ending for my next game,” he said. “Arcade games would loop endlessly if you didn’t die, so I wanted to create a real ending that would act as a forced stopping point. I thought that if the ending tied into the story and gave the player a sense of completion and achievement, then no-one would mind.”
This was a radical idea for video games at the time, as relatively few titles in the mid-’80s had actual endings — and especially not arcade games, which were typically designed to be played for high scores or player-versus-player competition more than anything. But Endou was convinced that this was something that would work for contemporary audiences. Inspired by both a copy of Dungeons & Dragons that he had picked up on a business trip to North America and an enjoyment of genre-defining dungeon crawler Wizardry on the Apple II, he set out to create a new type of game that combined arcade action with role-playing elements.
Whether or not The Tower of Druaga is actually the first ever action RPG is a matter of debate; The Demon Crystal by Masami Nakamura (aka “Game Roman”) came out around the same time for the Sharp MZ-80K home computer and shares many structural and mechanical elements in common with Endou’s title — though as you might expect, with an arcade release and numerous home ports, The Tower of Druaga is the one that has been much more widely remembered by history. Regardless of whether or not it was actually the first, Druaga was definitely an early example of the item-centric action RPG — a subgenre that would go on to spawn classic series such as Ys, Hydlide and The Legend of Zelda.
Endou felt that his initial prototype for his action RPG project — initially dubbed simply Quest — leaned too heavily on the role-playing side of things, and subsequently decided to rethink things with a bit more of a focus on action. That second prototype went on to become The Tower of Druaga — and Endou subsequently returned to the initial idea for its lesser-known follow-up title, The Return of Ishtar.
In The Tower of Druaga, you take on the role of the knight Gilgamesh as he attempts to scale the titular tower in order to rescue the maiden Ki. The tower has 60 floors, and passage to the next is locked by a key found somewhere on each level. Gilgamesh will need to locate the key and then safely make his way to the exit in order to progress.
So far, so simple, you might think. But The Tower of Druaga’s defining feature is that it’s not simply about negotiating mazes, avoiding enemies and reaching the exit; it’s more than just “fantasy Pac-Man“. No; in order to successfully clear the game, you need to track down a variety of hidden treasures throughout those 60 floors, each of which can be triggered to appear by fulfilling a particular condition. These conditions range from the simple (kill all the enemies) to the obtuse (touch the northernmost wall, then immediately move south) via tasks that require you to go against all your natural instincts (open the exit, but don’t go through it).
The “fun” twist is that, unless you’re playing the Namco Museum version of the arcade game on Nintendo Switch, The Tower of Druaga does not tell you any of these conditions up front. And indeed if you’ve never played the game before, the game doesn’t even tell you that there’s a hidden treasure on each and every stage; you may stumble across a few by accident, but without foreknowledge of how the game works, it’s easy to assume that they might be bonus items that appear randomly, similar to the fruit in Pac-Man.
This aspect of the game is where opinion became heavily divided between Eastern and Western audiences. Japanese players lapped up this sense of mystery, hunting for secrets and sharing their findings with their friends and peers, while Western players found the deliberately obtuse objectives and lack of helpful feedback frustrating. Even Endou had a few regrets about the way things eventually turned out.
“I’m glad that The Tower of Druaga was loved by fans,” he recalled, “but the fact that the game made players more paranoid about looking for secrets, and that it put a new emphasis on ‘clearing’ a game are two consequences I’ve had time to reflect on. Was it really setting a good example for other games?”
That’s a matter of debate and personal taste — though Endou did also note that he was quite pleased that his game led to the birth of “notebook sharing” culture among Japanese arcade players; it helped to build a community around the game, and allowed people to enjoy it together.
The moment-to-moment gameplay of The Tower of Druaga takes a little getting used to, particularly if you’re expecting something along the lines of The Legend of Zelda. Most notably, combat is a deliberately cumbersome affair that requires Gilgamesh to draw his sword and hold it out in front of him; defeating an enemy requires the player to guide Gilgamesh so that the sword collides with an enemy without the enemy moving into him, which isn’t always entirely intuitive in your early hours with the game. And just to confuse matters, certain enemies in the game that resemble knights must be defeated by moving right through them several with your sword extended; this definitely takes a lot of getting used to, as it requires a degree of aggression that doesn’t work on some of the other enemies.
When his sword isn’t drawn, Gilgamesh holds his shield out in front of him, which can block projectile spell attacks from some enemies. Interestingly, the game actually bothers to take into account the fact that Gilgamesh holds out his shield to his left side while his sword is drawn, meaning you can actually block attacks from the side while attacking to the front. It’s rare to see this level of mechanical detail in a game from the period — though in practice it’s quite hard to take advantage of.
At the outset of the game, Gilgamesh is very slow and weak, but many of the hidden treasures allow him to increase in power in various ways. Initially, you’ll be able to find a pickaxe that allows you to break through walls in the maze, and subsequently a pair of boots that increases your move speed considerably, along with better swords and suits of armour. Notably, though, some of the hidden treasures throughout the tower are required to actually beat them game — though again, you’re not given any indication of this upon finding them. And to make matters worse, there are some treasures that actually have a negative effect on Gilgamesh, too, either weakening him or, in some cases, actually sending him back a few levels — often costing him some precious treasures in the process.
The Famicom version found on the Evercade cartridge is a little more forgiving than the arcade original in that, upon losing all your lives, you can choose to continue the game from any of the floors you have previously reached in that play session, keeping all of your collected treasures intact. This means that if you’re just interested in getting a high score, you can choose to deliberately start the game from the beginning with a powered-up Gilgamesh and romp through the early levels for enormous time bonuses. In some ways this can be looked at as a very early take on what we know today as a New Game Plus mechanic — though it’s also worth noting that outside of the Evercade’s save state function, the game itself has no save facility, meaning players of the original would have to start from scratch each time they powered on their Famicom.
The Tower of Druaga can be hard to enjoy today. Initially, it’s slow, clunky, confusing and can often feel quite unfair. But take a bit of time to get to know it and there’s fun to be had — particularly if you enjoy self-imposed challenges such as speedruns or attempts to attain high scores. While it might initially seem impossible to remember the conditions for treasures on all 60 floors of the game — let alone actually getting through those 60 floors without dying — it’s one of those games that rewards perseverance, memorisation and commitment. And then once you beat it, if you’re a real glutton for punishment there’s a whole second tower to take on, with different, harsher requirements for attaining all its treasures.
Regardless of whether or not you’re someone who finds the way The Tower of Druaga does things palatable from a modern gamer’s perspective, its importance as part of gaming history should not be underestimated. After all, the format of this game (and The Demon Crystal) led us to what would become one of Nintendo’s most long-running, beloved series and numerous imitators over the years. And can you imagine a world without The Legend of Zelda?
Once again, the Evercade provides us the opportunity to spend some time with some defining classics from gaming history; even if you don’t end up spending long with The Tower of Druaga, it’s worth at least paying your respects. Because there’s a lot of great games from over the years that might not exist at all without this one!
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