Old Towers: Up and Down and Side to Side

As we’ve seen a few times already, the Mega Cat Studios Collection 1 cartridge for the Evercade retro gaming platform contains some great examples of new games written for classic platforms.

A favourite of many players is Old Towers, another game from the Russian collective RetroSouls, who specialise in high-quality short-form games for old-school systems ranging from the ZX Spectrum to the Sega Mega Drive. Old Towers has appeared on a couple of different formats, but the one found on the Evercade cart is the original Mega Drive version.

Grab your popcorn and get ready for some brain-bending puzzle action, then — it’s time to climb the Old Towers.

Old Towers was first released in February of 2019 as a pay-what-you-want Mega Drive ROM download on itch.io, with a Commodore 64 version following a year later. Like many of RetroSouls’ other games, however, it ended up getting a full packaged release via “modern retro” publishing specialist Mega Cat Studios, and that’s how it ended up on the Evercade.

The mechanics of Old Towers are fairly simple. Taking control of either one or two explorers depending on the level, it’s your job to acquire all the coins in each stage, then reach the exit. Sounds simple enough, but the wrinkle in the plan is the fact that you can’t move freely; instead, pushing a direction causes your character to zoom across the screen in the direction you pressed until they bump into something. As you might expect, this means you need to put a bit of planning into how you move if you want to be able to reach all the coins and the exit.

The game starts very simple, with stages that do a great job of introducing you to this distinctive control scheme in a risk-free environment. As you progress, different types of hazard — including gimmicks that affect the paths you can take around the stage, and instant-death traps — are gradually introduced, as is the dual-character gameplay.

The latter aspect is where things get quite interesting, because it’s used in a few different ways. Initially, you’ll simply find that the other character needs to “mirror” what the first one does in order to reach everything, but as the game progresses you’ll find situations where making them “cooperate” with one another will be beneficial — you can, for example, let one stand on the other’s shoulders to alter their position, or simply place one in a position to act as a “block”, allowing the other to move down paths they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to reach.

Initially, the stages are simply about recognising the path you need to take in order to collect everything and reach the exit, but once the hazards start being introduced an element of timing is added to the mix. You’ll need to carefully observe how all the potentially fatal elements of the level move in relation to one another before you commit to a plan — and in several stages the rhythm of the traps’ movement feels like it’s been specifically designed to throw you a little off-balance and rethink what might have initially appeared to be a solid plan of action. What’s important to note is that there’s no randomness in the traps’ movement; if you’re consistently running into a hazard even though it looks like you should be able to make it through, there’s almost certainly another way to tackle the challenge ahead of you.

Herein lies the true excellence of Old Towers’ design; mechanically, it barely changes throughout the entire game, with the only new function introduced after the first stage being the ability to switch characters on the levels where both are present. Instead, the sense of escalating difficulty and evolving gameplay is created entirely through clever level design. At no point does the game feel overwhelming; the early stages are paced in such a way that you’re wordlessly taught to deal with one new thing at a time. Once you start dealing with multiple hazards and level gimmicks at once, you’ll be ready to face the challenge.

That doesn’t mean Old Towers is easy, however. Later levels require split-second timing and the confidence to pull off multiple moves in rapid succession, and it can sometimes be frustrating to feel like your reactions aren’t quite keeping up with what the game is asking you to do. It never feels unfair, however; the movement of the hazards and the “correct” route through the stage are always paced in such a way that you have plenty of time to plan out what you need to do and psych yourself up for actually achieving it. You just need to figure out the perfect moment to start your next movement — and, often, determine where the safest spot to actually stop is.

Like many of RetroSouls’ other games, Old Towers probably won’t last you that long, particularly if you brute-force your way through using either save states or the game’s continue system. There is incentive to replay thanks to the scoring system, however — an improvement over its stablemate Multidude, which is conceptually quite similar in some ways — plus the game itself is one of those interactive experiences that is just consistently pleasing to engage with. The pixel art and animation is lovely; the background music, although limited to just two in-game tracks (including a great chiptune version of classic electronic instrumental Popcorn) is super-catchy; and the overall flow of the game is smooth and pleasant. It’s a game that feels good to play, and proof if proof were needed that RetroSouls most certainly knows their way around a Sega Mega Drive.

Development for classic platforms is alive and well — and thanks to emulation and devices like the Evercade you don’t even need to dig out an actual Mega Drive to enjoy the hard work of these talented developers. Gaming is a richer place for their creativity, simultaneously honouring the history of the medium and embracing the new ways of doing things we’ve picked up over the course of the last few decades.

Next time you find yourself tiring of the excesses of modern blockbusters, pick up a classic system and check out one of these new games instead. You won’t regret the experience!

More about Old Towers
More about Evercade 08: Mega Cat Studios Collection 1
More about Evercade

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