This Tower of Terror has nothing to do with the ride at Disneyland, although that doesn't stop "In the Hall of the Mountain King" popping into my head whenever I see the phrase through a strange line of pop-cultural osmosis that goes "theme parks, Alton Towers adverts, Edvard Grieg." At least it beats hearing U2's "Beautiful Day" in my head whenever I stumble across ITV's football coverage. But I digress: back to the gaming, and a 1990 Commodore 64 platformer called The Tower of Terror.
Grain Silo of Terror might have been more accurate if this loading screen is anything to go by. I have no idea who the people on the right are supposed to be as they don't appear in the game itself,with the possible exception of the woman. The doughy barbarian is the real mystery man here, because you don't play as a barbarian, you don't fight any barbarians and you sure as hell don't get a sword that crackles with powerful magical forces. The best weapon you get is a stick. In the end, I came to the decision that this barbarian is actually an inflatable decoy used to keep explorers away from the Tower of Terror. I have seen through this ruse because the barbarian has clearly deflated a little bit.
Tower of Terror is a scrolling platformer written by two guys called A. Kirsch and Ingo Wolf and published by a company called CP Verlag, but here's the thing - it was never (as far as I can tell) commercially released. This isn't uncommon for the home computer games of the time, given the relative ease with which they could be created by hobbyists, and there are a great deal of games for formats like the C64 and the ZX Spectrum that are complete and playable but which were never available for sale. So why write about Tower of Terror? Well, that's because to my mind it's an absolutely quintessential example of the 8-bit computer action game, before the influence of Super Mario Brothers and its successors changed the platforming landscape forever, an insect-trapped-in-amber example of the way games design used to be done. As such, I present it to you as a warning from the distant past.
That's your character, down at the bottom of the screen, the knight who looks like a cross between Ghosts'n Goblins' Arthur and Kuros from Wizards & Warriors. He moves like Arthur, too, with jumps that can't be controlled in mid-air and a combat style that consists of throwing sharp metal things ahead of himself - daggers, in this case. It is your goal to reach the top of the Tower of Terror, thus highlighting the one relatively unique aspect of this game: it scrolls upwards instead of sideways. It scrolls smoothly, too, which is nice. In fact, this game is smooth all over. You character controls well, despite the fact he suffers from the dread computer game affliction of having to press up on the joystick to jump, and he can move around at a fair old clip. For the first, ooh, thirty seconds or so, Tower of Terror seems like it might even be worth bothering with. Then it all goes tits-up.
This is approximately one screen up from your starting position. I count nine enemies in this screenshot, with a chance that it could rise to ten - the grey druid / ghost / haunted dressing gown at the top-right is hovering near a pot which, when you sling a dagger at it, either chucks out a power-up or yet another enemy. I suppose I should congratulate the developers on including such a wide variety of murderous fauna. The row of tiny dragons at the top, the ghost and the carnivorous plant are all fairly standard demonic fare, but "giant skeleton with the disturbing proportions of a toddler" and "frog with wheels instead of hind legs" are both new ones on me, and when you've been playing videogames as long as I have a bit of novelty is always appreciated.
Of course, you've probably realised that all these monsters flitting about the place are going to make your tower-climbing task more challenging. Much more challenging, in fact, and that's the first element of Tower of Terror that really gives it that "computer games of the 8-bit era" veneer - the difficulty level. This is a hard game. It's a needlessly, stupidly and worst of all boringly difficult slog. There are monsters everywhere, monsters that seem to have been bred specifically for their resistance to daggers because to kill them you have to stick them with so much cutlery they'll end up looking like a formal banquet at Buckingham Palace. You've got a health bar, which seems like a nice concession and infinitely preferable to one-hit kills, but contact with anything painful drains your health faster than watching golf drains my will to live and enemies are not shy about staying right on top of you until you die.
Power-ups can even the odds a little, but not enough to make combat anything more than almost certain death. Here I've collected throwing axes to replace my daggers. They travel a little further and they do more damage, although what I really needed was a grappling hook. Then I could have just climbed the outside of the Tower of Terror. Sadly, axes are what I have and I shouldn't complain too hard because I'll need them to stand any chance against the boss of level one.
Those suits of armour are not, for once, a new enemy. They're decorations that really brighten up the lair of the boss, who is a giant floating skull. A giant floating Neanderthal skull, if that sloping forehead is anything to go by.
The Tower of Terror is living up to its name, and the soul-shredding fear instilled by this enormous bonebox caused me to run right past it in a mad panic and climb up those ladders in the corner. This let me ignore the boss entirely and move straight on to level two. Anticlimactic? I prefer to think of it as efficient. Guess I didn't need those axes after all. I feel a little bad for the floating skull, though. Maybe I should have stayed, kept him company for a while, given him something to do. After all, he's got no body.
I'll see myself out.
Stage two is like stage one, only redder and with the addition of spike pits and instant-death laser traps, because The Tower of Terror is willing to span all technological eras in order to accomplish it's goal of pissing me right off. Maybe there'll be cyborgs later.
Stage two serves to highlight the importance of a good difficulty curve, which is another thing that 8-bit computer games seemed to struggle with. The problem in this case is that stage two isn't really any more difficult that stage one. More irritating, yes - the fatal laser beams and projectile-firing enemies see to that - but basically the same. The main problem I had to contend with on this level was a slight shift in focus towards platforming. I'm a clumsy platformer, and thus I missed a lot of jumps. That's how I found out that Tower of Terror includes falling damage.
That was something I first noticed here, at stage two's boss. I missed a jump with a sliver of health remaining and fell down to the platform below, only to explode on contact with the floor in a manner that made me wonder if someone had slipped nitroglycerine into my knightly socks.
Oh yeah, the boss. It's a dragon. I think. I originally had it down as a very unwell swan, but then it breathed some fire at me so I suppose it has to be a dragon. Remembering the skull boss and how effective running away was, I tried using the same strategy again. I made a leap for the ladders, grabbed the bottom rung and climbed upward to freedom, victory and... sudden explosive death. There's a laser-beam trap at the top of the ladders. Can you see it? I certainly didn't, possibly because it's only one pixel thick and I was running away from a dragon.
Here's stage three. It's green. There are some enemies about. A solitary tree grows in the middle of the screen, and that tree must be lost as hell because this is no place for a tree to be growing. I found a third weapon, even more powerful than the axe. It's a white stick that was probably meant to be a spear but someone forgot to attach the pointy bit at the end. I'd like to tell you more about stage three, but unfortunately I reached something of an impasse.
Having climbed these small outcroppings, all our hero needs to do in order to progress is to jump to the right and land on that block below the two torches. Simple! Even I can manage this one.
Yes, I could manage, it but sadly my knight cannot. Every time you try to make the jump, your character bashes his head on the ceiling above and falls back down. Because Tower of Terror is the quintessential Commodore 64 platformer, you naturally have no control of the length, height or angle of your jumps and thus my knight became trapped, unable to advance, his plans for the conquest of this tower foiled by a low-hanging ceiling.
Now, I am most certainly open to the idea that I couldn't progress because I am crap at computer games. That is a distinct possibility. However, on this occasion I honestly could not see anything I was doing wrong and I'm afraid I have to concluded that this part of the game is so shittily designed that it is literally impossible. If you have evidence to the contrary, please let me know - I would love to be proven wrong on this one, but when you consider that a game as fondly remembered as Jet Set Willy was also impossible to complete I'm not holding my breath.
Fortunately I had access to a level-skip cheat and can therefore show you Tower of Terror's fourth and final stage. Satan's Refrigerator, I like to call it. I also called it a lot of other words that aren't fit for publication on what is nominally a work-safe website. If your mother heard you saying words like that she's probably disown you, although she'd forgive you once you'd explained just how many monsters Tower of Terror throws at you towards the end.
There's no mercy here, just a dismal slog through more dragons, skeletons and man-sized scorpions than the wet dreams of a thousand D&D obsessives. There's no fun to be had here, at the end, and this is where so many early computer action games fall down - difficulty overrides fun, precision and memorisation become the only things being tested (aside from the player's patience) and you wonder what the point of it all is. To compare this to Super Mario Bros. is perhaps unfair, so instead I'll just say that we can all be glad that Nintendo's 8-bit magnum opus became the guiding light of the era.
Here's the final boss, and I can only hope that his resemblance to a walking pile of excrement was coincidental. I think it's actually supposed to be some kind of cobra-wizard, although it didn't get to show off its magic because I climbed up behind it and managed to throw enough white sticks at it to finish it off before it could turn around.
Never mind the boss, though - I'm more interested in that thing on the right.
Yeah, that thing. A gingerbread man in a wig? Someone doing jumping-jacks and flipping the player off at the same time? This thing deserves closer investigation. Just let me jump over there and...
Oh god, it's exploding... with love! Hearts fly around the screen and yet I remain alive, so I guess this must be some kind of princess who needed rescuing. Well, I am a knight who fought his way up a tower. It would't have seemed right without a princess at the the top.
So, that's the end of Tower of Terror. Grateful gingerbread royalty, hearts all over the shop and a lingering sense that perhaps I shouldn't have bothered.
What else could the ending entail but a single screen of congratulatory text? What could have possibly been more perfect in summing up the Tower of Terror experience, nay, the experience of 8-bit computer gaming in general? Tower of Terror somehow manages to simultaneously be a bad game and a not-so-bad game, although never a good game: it's too brutal and (assuming I'm not just an idiot) actually impossible for that. So it's too hard, too unbalanced, the level design is poor and it's over quicker than the fame of an X-Factor bronze medallist, but it also controls well, has good collision detection and some nice interesting enemies.
If you weren't around for this period of computer gaming, be it for geographical reasons or a lack of age, this is what you were missing, at least when it came to scrolling action games. There are gems out there, in the back catalogues of the Spectrums and Amstrads and C64s of this world, but they're few and far between. What I'm saying is, we can all be thankful for the way videogames turned out.