Posted on November 7th 2021
What a better topic for an article on Staircase Spirit than a game from 1994 that we only just finally were able to finish!
Mystic Towers is a long-forgotten DOS game that honestly deserved more fame than it ever got. There's nothing really about it to criticize, but somehow it just never took off.
As a child, Rosy had a shareware floppy disk with the first few levels. They were the first level Apprentice and first level Wizard tower, which use only the same pool of monsters. Upon finishing the demo, the game would show you a preview of all the other amazing monster designs and give you a phone number to call to get the rest of the game!!!
For tiny baby Rosy in Southern Italy in the 90s, the thought of placing an international phone call to Texas and ordering the full game was about as much high fantasy as the game itself. It wouldn't be until about 15 years later, with Apogee long defunct, that Rosy would be able to find the full version of the game on an Abandonware site. The game has since been released on Steam, ported to Windows or Mac.
The set up of the game is the high fantasy classic: Monsters are appearing because of a Dark Wizard! You have to go through the many dungeon floors of this tower, solve the mazes, defeat the monsters, and end this evil menace once and for all. Except, it is not a strapping young hero that is doing all of this. You play as the geriatric Baron Baldric Pedabouche, who, frankly, already looks to be on the brink of death before having to deal with all of these monsters. However, he is the baron of the land, and he is the only wizard around, and it turns out that the evil wizard responsible for all of this mess is Baldric's ancestor, Baron Lazarus Pedabouche, so it falls on him to right the wrongs of the past.
Mystic Towers takes place in the towers built by Lazarus, full of all sorts of obstacles, traps, puzzles, and, of course, monsters. Wonderful, quirky monsters. Some of the best monster design ever, honestly. A blue duck-like monster on a unicycle, with a metal beak on the front and an exhaust pipe out the back, both of which shoot fire. A worm with three feet, that walks by wheeling its whole body around. An eyeball with staples for legs that walks by rotating onto itself. A rocket-propelled frog head that looks just as unhappy about this as you are. A penguin-like bird with no eyes and one giant beast foot that hops around to peck at you. A living monstrous carpet that lurks around like a crocodile until it strikes!
For all of the monsters, the concept is wonderful, the spritework is wonderful, and the way they are animated is wonderful. In general, this game looked amazing in 1994 and still looks amazing today. The rooms are all different, and fully decorated and detailed with furniture and tapestries and gargoyles and busts of Baron Lazarus and carpets and crests and even things like drains and the pipes of the gas-powered lighting system. And we must mention the amazing animation on Baron Baldric himself. When he turns, he turns his head, and then the rest of his body. As he walks around the tower, old man that he is, he will randomly need to stop to catch his breath, or to shudder, or to sneeze, or even to fart. His idle animations include cleaning his ears. And if you put the game into pause, he will meditate hovering over the ground. What attention to detail!
Also the music is great! There are only two tracks throughout the towers, but they're long and they are so good, you'll love to listen them over and over again. Feel free to listen to this one as you read the rest of the article for the appropriate atmosphere!
The game plays like an isometric exploration game with puzzle elements. Whenever you enter a room, it is not immediately obvious what game mechanics are at play, and because there is so much detail in each room, you might not even know for sure which details are interactable or not. Some things that seem interactable are only decoration, and some things that look like decorations are actually traps or secrets. This keeps the game fun and fresh, even once you know your way around.
For example, say there's a switch. The switch could open and close the door. Or it could turn the lights off and on. Or it could drop a bomb from a trapdoor somewhere in the same room (maybe onto your head!). Or it could cause a seemingly-decorative gargoyle to shoot a fireball. Maybe it opens a door elsewhere in the dungeons. Or maybe it is part of a larger combination lock where multiple switches need to be switched the right way in order to achieve something.
You can use the environment to your advantage when fighting the monsters. For example, if the switch drops a bomb in a convenient location, you can wait until the monster walks near the trap to drop the bomb on its head instead. Or you can draw the monster into a neighboring room that has a more convenient layout for fighting the monster. It's not always simply a matter of choosing your spell and shooting away.
Besides, this game is about survival. As the game progresses, decreasing amounts of ammo are provided, so ammo conservation becomes important. You don't want to waste your best spell on an easy monster. And you want to check the rooms around the monster to see if it would be easier or more resource-effective to face it in a different way.
Beyond the attack spells, there is also an array of spells that are useful for exploration. They, too, are limited, and sometimes they are absolutely critical to reaching the end of the level, so you need to balance using them to explore a possibility or saving them to make sure you will be able to progress to the end.
For example, take the reveal spell. Many rooms have hidden treasures or traps that can only be found by using the reveal spell. You could cast it all the time to find bonus ammo, but if you run out of reveal spells, you may find a room full of floor tiles that will poison you, and without a reveal spell, you have no idea where it is safe to walk. You could use a reveal spell to lighten a darkened room, but what if do that only to see that the light switch was just over there? Maybe it would have been better to have felt around against the wall in the dark in order to find the switch. Then again, maybe there was a monster in the room and it would have attacked you in the dark as you fumbled around for the light switch (which may or may not even exist). So, it's up to you to decide, is this the right time to use the reveal spell or not?
Even though the levels are all designed and don't change playthrough to playthrough, the answer may be different each time depending on the current location of the roaming monsters and the given situation.
Another feature of this game is drinking and eating. What, you think you can just fight your way through an evil wizard's tower on an empty stomach? Scattered throughout the tower, there is a limited quantity of food to find. The monsters also turn into food when you defeat them (unless they are exploded with a bomb). Some rooms may have fountains of fresh water that Baron Baldric can drink from, but they are very few and far between. It is important to keep in mind where the sources of food and drink are, and to make sure you won't run out at a critical moment. Otherwise, you will start losing health.
Be careful not to eat the mushroom, however, because it will kill you instantly. Also, don't try drinking the nasty green water, because it will poison you. You may also find casks of wine, which (unrealistically) will resolve Baron Baldric's thirst, but will also make him drunk - at random intervals, he will spin around as you attempt to walk or aim, going "woo!" all the way. He's a happy drunk.
We mentioned that there was the possibility of being poisoned. Not only are there poison tile traps on the floor, some monsters shoot venom clouds that are poisonous. If Baron Baldric is poisoned, in that case the otherwise-harmful mushroom and the green water become antidotes. But will you manage to get to one of them before your health runs out? Maybe it's better to use one of your limited healing spells instead?
But don't think you can just speed through the floors of the tower, fight all the monsters, and then leave. The reason why Baron Baldric is even venturing into these towers is because each tower contains a monster generator that is producing an endless stream of monsters that are overrunning the land, and new monsters will continue appearing until the machine is destroyed. Baron Baldric needs to find a special explosive spell to destroy the monster generator, and then defeat any remaining monsters. If the tower is cleared of monsters, a special key will appear somewhere in the tower, so you have to find that location and get the key, and bring it back to the main door to make your escape. So, actually, rather than fighting the monsters, in the beginning, your more pressing objective should be to explore and find the bomb spell and the monster generator. If you take too long to destroy the monster generator, more monsters will be created, and don't forget that your ammo is limited!
Exploring the tower is not that easy, either. Some locations may only be accessible through very roundabout paths and going up and down ladders from floor to floor, or through the use of teleportation spells on special carpets, or through secret doors that need a reveal spell to appear, or even through invisible doors in fake walls. Looking at your map is important. In the harder levels, the minimap won't appear until you find it as an item in the tower, so you may choose to prioritize finding the map too.
Generally, this game does a great job of giving the player a lot of decisions to make about where to go and what to do and what to prioritize given the situation. For example, let's say you have the bomb spell and you're so close to the generator, but you're getting thirsty, and your health is low. Should you charge ahead and hope to destroy the generator before you start dying of thirst, or should you backtrack all the way to that fountain you saw at the beginning of the tower and risk more monsters being generated? Do you even remember where the last fountain was? Do you want to gamble and explore a little bit around you and hope there's a drink nearby - but if you're wrong, both of your problems are now worse?
Besides, the whole game is made out of 12 towers, which you have to access in order, and on one continue. A catastrophic run of one tower may jeopardize the whole playthrough, since the number of lives you have at the beginning of each tower is the number of lives you had at the end of the previous. Sometimes you may earn a new life, but not very often, and the monsters are strong. You do not want to use up your lives frivolously. You might even put yourself in an unwinnable situation in, like, three towers later.
So, yes, this is a hard game, and not in a superficial way. You need to make the right decisions at the right time, and there's luck involved too. And the difficulty curve ramps up over time. The first few levels, you may think you have this down, but wait until you see what the later levels have in store for you. By the very end of the game, you will have very little room for mistakes. We're not complaining, though; we think the game is fair, and gives you fair challenges.
Overall, highly recommended. We have no critiques for the game itself. We can only think of enhancements or expansions for a theoretical remake or spiritual successor that would use modern computing power and newer game design ideas. This game seems like a perfect candidate to be made into a procedurally-generated roguelike, so that each time you play, the tower layouts are different. Naturally, that might not have been possible with the processing power of the average computer in 1994, but today, why not? Another improvement would be in the way monsters are fought: it seems like this game is missing some variety of attack spells. However, it's really not its fault; while things such as area of effect damage or damage per second stuff are standard in games now, they weren't standard then! Still, overall, we imagine this enhanced game to be almost unchanged. The original game is that good. You can fire it up any time and enjoy it, even all these years later.