Tower Of Druaga [1984]

If Tower Of Druaga [1984] came out today, there is little doubt in my mind people would call it a Roguelite. By dint being a somewhat-clunky top-down dungeon crawler where to attack randomly-placed enemies you gotta walk right into them until they die, it feels a lot more Like Rogue [1981] than, say, Spelunky [2008], even though it has things like fixed maps and a lives counter. This foreshadows how the genre, once considered the epitome of the hardcore obtuse methodical computer game, became an unlikely savior for arcade-style gameplay. In this respect and many others, Tower Of Druaga has one foot in the past and one in the future.

The hardcore, obtuse, methodical computer game that designer Masanobu Endo was drawing from was not the still-obscure Rogue, of course, but Wizardry [1981]. (I swear, sometimes it seems like the only American video games that made it to Japan in the early 80s were Wizardry and Mystery House [1980]… Japan did really well with those two as sustenance, but it’s shocking because to me they merit the regard of ET [1982].) Once it’s pointed out, the resemblance of Tower to Wizardry is kinda obvious. It’s incredibly streamlined — there’s no “RPG elements” in even the loosest sense (like a health bar) — but the grid-based dungeon with many bespoke floors and general milieu of slimes, knights, and wizards is unmistakable. Another obvious influence is Pac-Man [1980]. After all, this is a Namco game. The “maze game” frenzy of the early 80s was winding down, and Tower Of Druaga kinda brings it all home. In short, it’s the hybridized synthesis of instant-gratification arcade games and longer-lasting computer games, which is the traditional territory of the console game since Adventure [1980]. Some would argue it wouldn’t find its proper home until it hit the Famicom. Tower Of Druaga being spiritually a console game in the arcade (and Pac-Land [1984] too) feels indicative of a change in the weather, maybe even a passing of the torch.

Other stated inspirations for the game include Dungeons & Dragons [1977-1985], which was bought on a trip to America but which was experienced through a Wizardry lens, and The Epic Of Gilgamesh [c. 2100 BC], but in practice that amounts to a couple proper nouns and has less bearing on the game or its story than pulpy high-fantasy genre qualities. As long as I’m influence trainspotting, Tower Of Druaga is a pronounced influence on so-called “Action RPGs” like especially Hydlide [1984], which in turn strongly influenced The Legend Of Zelda [1986], though Druaga’s influence on Miyamoto is already very evident in Super Mario Bros [1985]. It’s also a pronounced influence on Gauntlet [1985], which, through Catacomb 3-D [1991], feeds directly into Doom [1993]. Hey, pop quiz, game nuts: other than well-tuned gamefeel, which they most certainly do not inherit from the sluggish Tower Of Druaga, what do the disparate Super Mario Bros and Doom most obviously share in common?

Power-ups and secrets. (Okay, and defeating enemies, but that’s like every game ever.) Power-ups are as close as Tower Of Druaga gets to “RPG Elements”. Since the power-ups don’t really expire, it’s barely recognizable here as an extremely warped version of buying ever-better gear to stash in your inventory in an RPG. Except there’s no stats in the game, so instead of the gear and the successively-better gear being like a +1 sword and then a +5 sword, the gear has to alter the gameplay experience itself, like making the player faster, and sometimes creating whole new affordances for the player like the ability to tear down dungeon walls, somewhat reminiscent of how Pac-Man’s power pellets change the game’s fundamental grammar. There’s also no buying items, since there’s no coins or anything, and besides deliberating in a store would slow down the pace. Instead, the intermediary step of an economy is replaced with a rather direct transmutation of actions into inventory items. For example: in Level 1, if you kill 3 slimes, a copper pickaxe spawns. A sense of progression up from your basic gear to ever-better gear is maintained by having many upgraded items that you need to have the downgraded (or even utterly useless) version of that item to get.

The trick is that Tower Of Druaga at no point indicates what ritualistic behaviors it requires to spawn gear. It doesn’t tell you what’s going to spawn and what it does, either. And these things change with every single level, completely arbitrarily, becoming more and more obtuse. Nevertheless, it is unequivocally vital to engage with this gear-hunting to progress the game. But there is not even a minor hint to the naive player that this part of the game even exists.

Now, obscurantism has been a main watchword of major computer games since at the latest 1977, and that tradition is going to hold on clean to the late 90s. So this is another sense of how Tower Of Druaga is putting a computer game in the arcade. Again, though, the concept has been both extremely warped and streamlined. See, early 80s computer games that are obscure come by it in a lot of different ways: yes, there are secrets, but also it could have a wide-open possibility space that boggles the mind until you figure out how to pare it down, or have extremely complex systems to figure out when you’re dumped into the deep end, or it could be be vast beyond comprehension, or sharply limit the player’s input in unintuitive ways that have to be worked around, or indulge in enigmatic ambiguity on the level of narrative context, or simply be a game that is implemented or explained very ineptly. Or any combination of those. But whatever the tactic towards obscurity, it suffuses the entire game from the boot. (As a sidetrack, it’s commonly speculated that 1980s games were made obscure as some elaborate scam for the benefit of telephone hint lines, but I don’t buy that hypothesis, because games were brutally and arbitrarily obscure almost a full decade before telephone hint lines started debuting in the late 1980s, and besides, I don’t think developers under hint-line-owning-major-publishers got royalties from the hint lines that would incentivize them to develop in certain ways. Their reasons were not so crass: that is just how they wanted to make games.)

Tower Of Druaga, on the other hand, is deliberately and misleadingly simple and legible on the surface. You careen clear past the “paranoid reading” into the “esoteric reading.” You’re more than leaping at shadows, you’re leaping at a complete absence of shadows, because you know surface appearances indicate absolutely nothing about the true nature underneath. The real game is not running around stabbing monsters in a maze, it’s this metagame of magic rituals where anything could be possible. This is the mode of thought where classic video game playground urban legends come from, only here it’s vindicated.

It hides its delight in arbitrary obscurity, and the unknown wilderness is isolated, formalized, and reduced into the discrete secret, ones you can enumerate, replicate, and collect. It begs to be converted into a database. Or rather, converted back into one, since it’s a database inside the cabinet, but that part of its nature gets obfuscated by the gameplay, and has to be de-encrypted by the player using the tools provided by the game. One might imagine this the fevered, passionate domain of isolated shut-in nerds, but no one person could ever hope to crack Tower Of Druaga. In Japan, where the game was a hit, players would leave notes on the cabinet, decoding for one another about what needed to be done to get the power-ups. Some people to this day think looking up information about a game they are playing violates a sancrosanct covenant between them and the game, but Tower Of Druaga intentionally thumbs its nose at such macho myopia, demanding that an arcade work as a community. We can only ascend together.

4 thoughts on “Tower Of Druaga [1984]

  1. This is great: “ The real game is not running around stabbing monsters in a maze, it’s this metagame of magic rituals where anything could be possible. This is the mode of thought where classic video game playground urban legends come from, only here it’s vindicated.”
    Druaga is all playground rumors.

    Liked by 1 person

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