Then and Now: The Immortal (NES)

This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.

All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.

The Immortal was an ambitious game for its time. It started life as an Apple II game called Campaign, which was intended to be an online multiplayer RPG. That doesn’t sound ambitious in 2012, but when you consider this was developed on a computer as old as the Apple II in the late 1980s—when TCP/IP was in its infancy and when NSFNET was the backbone of educational networks—things start to look a lot more doe-eyed. The game’s creator, Will Harvey, had created the Music Construction Set, effectively the backbone for all modern music writing software; and Marble Madness, a racing game involving an early physics engine on an isometric plane. Campaign eventually became The Immortal, a single-player game with PC roots that was ported to the NES and later the Genesis, giving console gamers previously unknown levels of depth in role-playing and combining isometric investigation with one-on-one battles.

The Immortal was exceptionally deep for a game released in 1990, and on the NES, it was unlike anything seen up to that point. Is it still playable in 2012?

The Immortal
Original Systems: Apple II, Amiga, Atari ST, MS DOS, NES (reviewed), Genesis
Developer: Sandcastle
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Original Release Date: November, 1990

HOW WAS IT THEN: The Immortal blew the minds of gamers that were used to Mario-style platformers being the height of their gaming. Just in the first room, everything was set up: a confusing message denoted some intrigue and, if you weren’t careful, the fact that a sand worm could jump up from the ground and eat you alive.

This trend continued all throughout The Immortal, where even the heavily toned down NES version was brutal. Virtually every step had the potential to be fatal as pits would randomly open up from underneath the wizard’s feet, giving players only a few seconds to save his life. This was in addition to the sand worms, arrows, flame pits, trolls, and many other immediate dangers that lie within the seven-floor dungeon. On top of this, the puzzles which required listening to clues, reading the very well-done instruction manual that came with the game, and sometimes blind luck. The negative consequences of a mistake being either a brutal death or getting stuck outright and requiring a restart.

Even by NES standards, The Immortal was a hard game as virtually every step could get you killed, and there wasn’t much help outside of random Nintendo Power hints for those who needed it. Nintendo games are historically notorious for their difficulty, but this game and Solstice stood out to me as the most genuinely difficult games of my youth. Still, I loved what I saw, as did anyone else who bothered with this game in the 1990s.

THEN: B+

HOW IS IT NOW: What do you get when you combine a game that made NES gamers cry with antiquated controls that don’t quite work the way you want them to? You get a game that doesn’t stand up well in 2012. The Immortal has not aged well.

The main problem is the isometric view. In 2012, we have cameras that can mitigate the dangers of going behind walls and the like. There was no option for that in 1990—Final Fantasy Tactics was still seven years away—so the main character frequently gets stuck behind a wall, or more annoyingly, something important does. Control is also an issue since the player always has to go diagonally to move anywhere on a straight plane. This is important in areas with numerous traps and becomes torture later in the game, especially when you’re trying to raft the river.

The battles are exciting but easily gameable since all you really need to do is just mash the B button and swing back and forth in most cases. In later stages, it’s possible to get caught in a heavy attack pattern as the enemy spams swings. This is hard to get out of once it happens and borders on cheap.

There are a lot of nice bits about this game, but they’re hidden behind the occasionally cheap difficulty. Many spots in the dungeon are trapped, which means every step is important as there’s often little to no warning that you’re about to trigger a trap. While it can be humourous to see all the ways you can kill the main character, dying all the time—especially with only three lives—gets old fast. As the game advances into the later stages, it becomes frustratingly difficult to piece together the various bits into coherent puzzle solutions, and many of them sometimes make sense only after the fact. The password system is equally antiquated; while it’s easy to get passwords online nowadays, that isn’t the same as continuing your own progress should you lose the password.

The Immortal was great for its time and would be well served with a remake. But the NES version, in its current state, just doesn’t play well in 2012.

NOW: D+

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.