The draw of B-movies, such as the ones shown on Mystery Science Theater: 3000, isn’t the fact that the movies shown are asinine. That would be too simple. The fun part is the idea that somebody sat down and wrote a script for such a ridiculous concept. Then, somebody else decided that they should give it a lot of money so that a bunch of other people can act in it.
Ultimately, somebody will probably pay to see it in a theater or at home. It’s about how everything came together behind the scenes to create something either purposefully ridiculous or accidentally over the top. There’s complexity to even the worst filth to make it worth a watch.
This is something that “Deadly Tower of Monsters” fails to comprehend. In order to create something that can deliver on the camp of 1950s sci-fi, you need more than just bad acting or special effects (and in this case, intentionally terrible special effects). There’s heart and purpose to the hilarity. The game clearly wants to pay tribute to the pulp shown on MST3K and in beloved cult films, but it doesn’t know where to begin or where to end.
ACE Team, the company behind the equally-ludicrous “Rock of Ages,” managed to make a game that also relies heavily on a zany aesthetic, but unlike its predecessor, doesn’t create entertaining or unique gameplay. It’s a static, 3D top-down platformer with hack-and-slash controls, reminiscent of “Bastion.” You need to fight your way up the titular tower, battle against a changing but still oddly-stagnant roster of monsters, upgrade your weapons, and discover the conspiracy that keeps the apes of the planet hostage… or something.
The story isn’t really important compared to the commentary that interjects itself throughout the game like a special edition DVD. The narrative focus is on the behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Director Dan Smith–pompous and immoral but also self-aware of his own incompetence–tells the story behind the “film” to innocent audio engineer Patrick, who tries his hardest to get something more out of the director, but is unsuccessful. Was anything in the film an artistic choice? No, it mostly came down to budget. Were the freefalling sequences a projection of the director’s fear of heights? Anything? There’s nothing there and the game is aware of it. Instead of adding something to make the characters seem more three-dimensional or interesting, ACE just draws attention to it.
It’s all what you would expect from a low-grade sci-fi film: no budget, terrible costumes, little reasoning for certain artistic choices, and a filmmaker who doesn’t care about the well-being of his crew. It’s a running joke that Dan didn’t pay his employees and worked them nearly to death. There’s one monster that appears towards the top of the tower that he says was made by taking crewmember’s dogs and putting them in costumes.
There are a few jokes that work. There are three playable characters: Dick Starspeed, Scarlet Nova, and Robot. Scarlet’s introduction includes her basically saving Dick’s life, which Dan treats as a progressive piece of filmmaking that should’ve received more credit. Then later, he’ll undermine her importance by saying that there’s no way a woman can handle explosives. We are meant to hate Dan, so of course this comes off as ridiculous. That’s more of what I wanted from Deadly Tower. It’s 2016, we have the perspective to see the issues of 1950s sci-fi, and to poke fun at them while also asserting the time period is just short of clever. At least it elicited a chuckle.
Any innovation introduced at the start of the game quickly became old after an hour. You can play as three characters, but there isn’t much difference between them besides a few rarely-used special abilities. I would play as Scarlet most of the time, but the game would take her out of cutscenes if I was using her (it’s unclear if this was a jab at continuity errors that these films often had). The combat gets tiresome as well, forcing the player to make their way through numerous identical fights. Boss battles manage to break up this monotony, and some require puzzle-breaking, but these sequences are interchangeable.
The biggest missed opportunity here is with the “real-life” characters. Any comedy surrounding the audio commentary relies solely on the fact that Dan is detestable. When he talks about how he didn’t pay any of his crew, we’re supposed to laugh because of how awful he is. He hasn’t seen the film in decades, so when he sees the end of the film, he gets confused and vanishes.
Patrick is the only sympathetic character in the game, despite us never seeing his face. He doesn’t want to be here. He doesn’t want to be listening to a shallow director talk about his film like the decisions he made were important. During the fourth chapter, after Dan disappears, he takes over commentary duties, and his quips are understandably lazy and tired. As the game because more meta and self-aware of itself, Patrick gets more invested, but that peters out as the game comes to a close.
What I enjoy most about watching old sci-fi and horror is the context surrounding them. “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is considered a classic cult film not just because it’s spectacularly bad, but because there’s a fascinating story surrounding how a director could be that incompetent. 1950s pulp is defined by its generational and cultural attitudes, from post-war fears of invasion, to comments on conformity, to anxieties surrounding technology. There’s history that sits behind “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Attack of the 50-foot Woman,” and so many others.
“Deadly Tower of Monsters” focuses more on the Roger Corman style of filmmaking, which involved making movies as cheaply and as quickly as possible, but there was a reason for that.
There’s little history in this game. It’s hard to see how much the developers wanted to pay homage to the genre or how much they wanted to insult it when the only thing that seems to be defining the game is what amounts to a fuzzy, 1950s filter that makes everything look terrible. It relies too much on those appearances and half-hearted references to entertain and doesn’t pay attention to the heart of cult classics.
Patrick didn’t care. Dan didn’t care. The developers don’t seem to care. Neither should the player.
Carli Velocci is the editor of her webzine Postmortem Mag, and is a culture and technology writer seen at Paste Magazine, Motherboard, the Boston Globe, and anywhere else brave enough to publish her. You can read more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @velocciraptor.