NamCompendium 17: The Tower of Druaga

The Tower of Druaga

June 1984 (ARC, Japan)

The Tower of Druaga belongs in a broad academic category of “important games”. It’s a class of entertainment products which, while not exactly “fun”, are nevertheless wildly groundbreaking and/or influential in their day. Druaga was groundbreaking, and it was influential. It is also slow, repetitive, obtuse, and punishingly difficult. Beyond that, the game’s fleeting appearances outside of Japan have been met with a rancor generally withheld for the true dregs of this medium. Even so, Druaga is the most “important” release this blog has covered since at least Xevious, and more likely Ms. Pac-Man. The Tower of Druaga represents a touchstone in Japanese gaming culture, a genuine arcade hit which influenced the design of some of the most celebrated video games ever made. It is also not entirely absent of merit, though as we’ll find there are perhaps better ways to experience the game in our present epoch than the coin-op iteration.

Endou Masunobu, who we have previously encountered as the chief architect behind

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Endou-san, back again to confound you with “riddles”.

Xevious, is the principle behind this work as well. Recall that Xevious, while on its face a straightforward but brilliantly executed vertical shooter, contained a few cleverly hidden secrets for massive bonus points and extra lives. These could only be found by paying what I myself find to be an exhaustive amount of attention to the bomb reticle, which changes color whilst passing over hidden Sol Towers. While not every arcade enthusiast was into the Xevious deep lore, the game was nevertheless enough of a success that Endou had leeway to create his next game on a fairly large canvas.

It will not surprise the reader to hear that Endou is a bit of a dork. Already a fan of the perennial Apple II classic Wizardry, Endou took advantage of a business trip to America after the success of Xevious and bought himself a copy of Dungeons & Dragons. It was in exploring this very early, heartless vision of computer fantasy that Druaga began to take form. In roughly a year’s time he had worked from some basic dungeon crawler prototypes, fiddled with various levels of role playing statistics, and finally arrived at what has been described as “fantasy Pac-Man.”

On first blush, Druaga may look familiar. “This looks like a very clunky Zelda clone,” one might say. A particularly traumatized subsection of the readership here might even watch Druaga footage and be reminded of renting Hydlide as a child, only to experience their first instance of crippling regret. Upon taking control of character-avatar Gilgamesh (Endou went through a heavy Babylonian myth phase around this time) the player will likely wish they were playing as Link. Gilgamesh moves like a barge, and the stifling maze of right angles isn’t all that fun to navigate. But lo, there are some baddies to be stabbed! On to the stabbing, right? That’s likely the first death you’ll experience, when you realize that the sword “swing” is in fact a lengthy animation sequence rather than the immediate stab one associated with a later more famous Hylian. So you dust yourself off with this newfound knowledge, and spend the next life with the sword button held down at all times.

This iterative learning process is the beating heart of The Tower of Druaga. If that doesn’t sound appealing, this game is not going to be your thing. What’s even wilder is that the learning process gets ever more wild as the player endeavors to complete 60 goddamn levels of this with no ability to drop another 100 yen coin for a continue. Three lives by default, lose them and you’re back to level one with no items to show for it.

Oh, did I mention items? Yeah, in each level of this tower is an item. Because Endou designed this game, the items are not simply out in the open. Take for instance the first item, a simple pickaxe which can break down a single wall. To reveal this pickaxe, the player must kill three slimes on the first floor. This, while also navigating a maze to locate a key that must be brought to a door, with a time limit. The pickaxe on level one is very useful. The second floor item, a pair of speed boots that make the game feel like a playable and pleasant experience, are basically mandatory. Those are uncovered by slaying two black slimes.

Did I mention the time limit? On each floor the player starts with a potential bonus score that rapidly ticks down from thousands to zero, at which point a 60 second time starts. Once that timer begins, will-o’-wisps appear in the maze and rapidly make their way towards Gilgamesh. The boots improve your odds here, but the wisps are quick little bastards. Still, up to the third level things are manageable by even a novice. You may or may not learn that you need to walk through the knights and stab them in the back to reveal the third item, a potion that acts as an extra life, but it’s plausible you’ll make it to level four on your first go.

If you can get past the fourth level on your first attempt at The Tower of Druaga, you’ve earned a special place in the pantheon of hardcore gamers. The fourth floor introduces wizards, the most diabolical foes crafted by a Namco employee since the opposing cars in Rally-X. The wizards are basically a far more fucked up version of Zelda’s own wizzrobes: they appear quickly, fire off blindingly fast spells, and disapparate. This is also the floor that introduces the concept of “really shitty puzzles for items of dubious merit” to the game: walking over the exit door before gathering the key unlocks the chime item, which will make a ping at the start of each new level if you start facing the key.

It goes on. I’d encourage you to dig up the GameFAQs list that walks through the item on each level, the nonsense required to make said items appear, and the cautions to players over which items are either required to progress past certain floors or (because Druaga is never done hurting you) items that make you weaker. It’s wild. This game is enormous, absolutely gonzo, and would take a mountain of change to grock.

To the dismay of American and European reviewers who first encountered the game in compilation form, it turns out that The Tower of Druaga did in fact earn mountains of change in its home country. Arcade gamers in Japan worked collaboratively on the game, even going so far as to leave detailed notes at machines to be shared and appended by working teams of dorks whose aim was to rescue Princess Ki from the diabolical monster Druaga at the end of this exhausting game. 35 years later the game’s secrets are readily available in convenient hypertext, but in the mid 1980s discovering the secrets of Druaga required patience, collaboration, and a pile of 100 yen coins.

There’s also the games which came to be as a result of Druaga’s reception. Beyond the line of sequels which the game spawned, the most recent being exclusive to Japanese phones, The Tower of Druaga also had a direct influence on some absolute colossi of the Japanese video game market. Ys, Dragon Slayer, the aforementioned Hydelide (better on domestic home computers and more warmly received than you’d imagine) and Zelda all share crucial DNA with Druaga. Just as Namco’s beautiful scrolling stars in the background of Galaxian had played a part in the design goals of the Famicom, here we have another game which helped inspire yet more success for Nintendo.

I’d go even further and say that there is throughline from Druaga to From Software’s Dark Souls. Both feature protagonists navigating worlds full of riddles, puzzles, and hidden bullshit. Both are built upon a certain level of community-driven problem solving. Both also have a certain “hardcore” cache and ravenous fans who are happy to tell you how wrong you are for not liking their special thing, or for liking it the wrong way. Perhaps not everything derived from Druaga was good.

Regardless, the success of The Tower of Druaga in arcades made it a natural fit for console conversions. Druaga landed on the Famicom as an internally-developed conversion a scant fourteen months after its arcade debut on 6 August 1985. This was the shortest turnaround time from source to conversion that Namco had managed so far, the prior best being the twenty month gap between the releases of Mappy’s arcade and Nintendo iterations.

The usual differentiators apply here: art has been redrawn, mazes have been resized or altered to meet the specifications of Nintendo’s hardware, that sort of thing. But there are two very welcome changes to boot: movement speed is notably faster from the jump and, upon death, you are presented with the option to continue your game from the last completed floor. As best as I can tell, this is actually the first Famicom/NES release with any sort of continue option (Druaga predates the release of Super Mario Bros. by a month in Japan), and it makes the game feasibly beatable by a normal human being. As such, this was yet another very popular Namco home conversion. So popular, in fact, that we’ll be seeing it again soon enough. It is also very playable, and represents the conversion which hews closest to its arcade roots.

I must confess that as I took a very long time indeed to write and publish this piece, Jeremy Parish managed to beat me to covering Druaga in his ongoing Game Boy Works video series. Hopefully this project will be of some merit to him and other video game scholar-dorks as we continue to strip mine the history of this medium for content content content.

Anyway. Druaga’s Game Boy conversion was developed by (who else) TOSE, and released on New Years Eve 1990 exclusively in Japan. GB Druaga represents an interesting departure for the game itself, and represents one of the company’s earlier and more direct forays into the realm of honest-to-goodness role playing games. Sure, the core Druaga game is still here and manages to approximate the Famicom look quite well. Hell, the music is even pretty good for the old GB. Where things start to get wild are the additions of hit points and a discrete sub-screen for weapons. The former is a major mechanical departure from the source material, which was built around punishing mistakes to generate a new coin every few minutes. The latter change completes a sort of action-adventure-RPG feedback loop: Druaga inspires Zelda, which iterates on Druaga, which then cribs from Zelda. The third change, however, is the least in the spirit of Druaga. Not only is the Famicom’s continue option preserved here, but now every ten floors the player is given a password which may be entered to resume progress with their entire inventory. How soft and cuddly this game has become!

But fear not! Not only are you not required to use any of these convenient, time-saving features, but there’s also a special treat for you, the real hardcore gamer. Enter ‘BBBBBBLLLLRRR’ on the password entry screen, and you’ll be treated to Another Druaga, a remixed Tower of Druaga experience with entirely new puzzles on each floor! Even better, the “true ending” experience of GB Druaga may only be found by beating Another Druaga. If you’ve seen this ending legitimately, big congratulations also stay away from me because I’m actually scared of you.

This iteration was repackaged alongside Galaxian, Dig Dug, and the completely unique Famista 4 (GB) in Namco Gallery Vol. 2, the second entry in a compilation series which ran from 1996 to mid-1997. That’s a pretty good mix of games on a cartridge.

Ironically, the first PC Engine game put into focus in the NamCompendium was actually Namco’s final release on the platform. Released on 25 June 1992, Druaga represents the end of a four year run of games on the platform, and released on a HuCard at a time when the absolute majority of the system’s games were CD-ROM based.  It also feels like the last huzzah of what began as a spirited dispute between Namco president Nakamura, and Nintendo President Yamauchi Hiroshi. Bickering over the cost adjustments in Namco’s sweetheart license deal for early Famicom adoption pushed the company to focus, for a time, on developing games for Nintendo’s direct competitors. Namco was the first third party publisher on the PC Engine, and their name adorns 24 games on the platform released between 1988 and 1992; for reference, during this nadir in the company’s relationship Namco still wound up publishing 43 games on Famicom/NES in the same time frame. Such was the sheer market prowess of Nintendo at the time. We will have more stories to tell around NEC’s venture into home consoles later, but for now there’s this conversion of Druaga.

It becomes immediately clear that a lot of love was put into this port. The entire visual style of the game has been overhauled here, going for a far more cartoonish aesthetic. Gilgamesh’s sprite more closely aligns to the arcade marquee art, and the mazes have a sort of tilt-shifted perspective that gives the proceedings a bit of visual depth. The equipment has been moved to a sub-screen like its Game Boy forefather, and it’s pretty nifty to see Gilgamesh slowly dawn the better gear you find hidden throughout the tower. As a pretty vocal detractor of the PC Engine’s sound, I even found the music here to be alright. It manages to avoid a lot of the brash, tinny tones which, in my own opinion, sully so many of the system’s titles.

tower-of-druaga_
This “sharp diagonal lines on solid background” trade dress would be used by Namco for several years, and I’m particularly fond of this red on cream combination.

Two years after the GB conversion took a step into adding role playing elements to Druaga, this conversion takes a good jump further in that direction. In addition to hit points, players now earn skill points to be added to stats between levels. There’s also a password given at the end of every single floor now, versus the GB’s ten floor passwords. Namco even added some light narrative elements in the from of Princess Ki providing gentle hints for the hidden items in each level. These hints, and the entire game’s text, have been fan translated into English and make for a very different game from the coin-op as a result. A better one, I’d argue. I wish more of the maze was on screen at a given time, but it’s nowhere near Pac-Man on Game Boy levels of obfuscation. It’s a faster, more colorful, more guided experience than the original arcade iteration, but it is also unmistakably still Druaga. This is the version to try if you want to skip the arcade, and a fine sendoff for Namco’s efforts on the PC Engine. That said, each home port has its strengths and you’re not doing yourself a disservice by going with one over the other.

It perhaps speaks to the differences in expectations of the medium, or of culture, or both, that Druaga was not exactly well received by western audiences when it was first made widely and easily available to them on Namco Museum Volume 3 (1996 in Japan, 1997 in NA and EU). Set aside some real stormers like Ms. Pac-Man and Pole Position II, Druaga was certainly a contrast piece. Compared to the A-tier stuff on the compilation, noted video game dork Jeff Gerstmann described Druaga as “lackluster in comparison” in his review. He went on to describe The Tower of Druaga as “a maze game with some RPG elements that seem like a nice idea, but don’t really stand up to the test of time.” The unnamed IGN staff writer tasked with reviewing NaMuVo3 was even less charitable in their review:

I could go on and on about how bad Druaga is but that would only seem to give it some sort of undue merit. If moving around very slowly in a maze and attacking giant jumping beans only to discover how lame your sword attack is sounds like retro fun, well… Only for the true video game completist [sic].

(It’s also worth noting here that NaMuVo3, which was also developed by TOSE, includes a few hidden Druaga goodies. Some tinkering in the weird NaMuVo Museum GUI thing will reveal a hidden scene of Gilgamesh battling Druaga. Along the same lines, some more fiddling will reveal a second arcade cabinet, “Another Tower”, which is a new and more challenging remix of Druaga. Some more fiddling from that point, including in-game dip switch manipulation and button codes, will reveal “Darkness Tower”, a third and even more wild Druaga arcade game. That’s three ways to be very frustrated for one very low price!)

This gulf in critical reception, in addition to to the complete lack of nostalgia for the unlocalized original and the stone cold fact that later games have iterated on Druaga’s core concepts to better results, likely accounts for its relative scarcity in the Namco Museum line. It appeared in Namco Museum Volume 2/Battle Collection for the PSP (2005), Namco Museum DS (2007), Namco Museum Virtual Arcade (360, 2008), and then a lengthy break until it was included in Namco Museum for the Switch in 2017.

As far as digital reissue, the Famicom game was released on the Japanese Wii Virtual Console in late 2007, with the arcade version released on Wii Virtual Arcade in the US, Japan and PAL territories in mid-2009. Famicom Druaga came to 3DS Virtual Arcade in December 2012 in Japan, followed by the Wii U VC release in August 2013. In other words, if you’ve owned a Nintendo home console since the GameCube, you’ve had a way to play at least the pretty good Famicom conversion of The Tower of Druaga.

Oh, wait, did I mention the GameCube? Aww shit, son! Buckle the eff up let’s gooooooo

89113V3

This might not be the actual wildest thing the NamCompendium has touched on so far (it’s not “four versions of the same Pac-Man ROM” wild), but I think it’s pretty buck wild anyway. Looking to sweeten the deal for Japanese buyers keen on preordering Baten Kaitos in 2003, Namco decided it would be normal and good to press and release a sick promotional item: Famicom Druaga, on a GameCube disk, in a GameCube case. Packaged in a cardboard slip case featuring the original Famicom box art (plus new required legalese and a CERO rating), this ridiculous little piece of excess was officially released on 5 December 2003. It now goes for appreciably more than the game it served to help sell on your favorite online auction sites. It’s also a foolproof way to play a digital input game with the worst D-pad ever conceived of by man.

And so, that is Druaga no Tou. It’s worth fiddling with. I don’t know if it’s worth attempting to “beat”, and I can all but guarantee it’s not worth seeking out the end screens of the remixed, omega hard versions of the game. But if you like the sorts of games that Druaga inspired, it may well be worth it to spend some time near the ground floor of Druaga’s tower in hopes of outliving some wizards.

And with that extensively delayed piece, NamCompendium is ready to course forward. We move on to something that is assuredly not as important as Druaga. Nothing as menacing, or as worthy of extensive consideration in terms of its immediate mechanical innovations or place in gaming history. No, friends next we’ll be covering **checks list** oh you rat bastard it’s Pac-Land. God damn it.

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