Picture a gigantic tower piercing the sky with its ludicrous size, and inside nothing but a legion of ravenous monsters.
That’s the core concept the Chilean videogame developers at ACE Team landed on when tossing around ideas for a new project. They would build a dungeon crawler that let players conquer a vertical labyrinth, instead of the flat maps of its peers.
But a project that set out to make perception of height a central game mechanic soon morphed into something more—a love letter to pulp science fiction.
Freefalling through the air zapping stop-motion pterodactyls with a raygun only begins to cover the zaniness displayed in The Deadly Tower of Monsters, a download-only top-down action title out on the PS4 and PC. Name a low-budget sci-fi tale of yesteryear, and you will find a tribute to it here. Flying brains, mutant apes, man-eating dinosaurs, and dozens of other popcorn flick creatures populate its traversable tower.
“We always do a very unusual combination of aesthetics that aren’t always seen in the game industry,” says Carlos Bordeu, who founded ACE Team with his brothers Andres and Edmundo. Retro-futuristic gadgets and bug-eyed monsters are such an integral part of the game’s identity, it’s hard to imagine that it started out with only a vague setting in mind.
“The original concept was maybe more generic fantasy,” says Carlos. “But then we said to ourselves we weren’t innovating, we weren’t doing anything original from the visuals point of view, and we wanted to do something that was completely different.”
As a genre, science fiction spans decades of cheap, lowbrow entertainment, defined by melodramatic plots and questionable special effects. Rubber suit monsters invade the Earth. Mad scientists tinker in their labs. Flying saucers zigzag the sky. And yet, these campy thrills, preserved on blurry public domain DVDs, helped pave the way for the pop cultural omnipotence of Star Trek and Star Wars.
Carlos and his brother turned to these cheesy roots to find The Deadly Tower of Monster’s identity. Flash Gordon serials and the goofy B-movies of the 1950s and 1960s provided ample inspiration. Along the way, they also drew upon childhood memories of watching Godzilla films and the 1960s family television adventure Lost in Space.
With concepts culled from dozens of old-timey space-bound adventures and creature features, ACE Team settled on an unconventional story. Years after filming his timeless 1970s classic The Deadly Tower of Monsters, fictional director Dan Smith returns to narrate an egotistical commentary track for its newly minted DVD release. Essentially, the game plays out as if you were watching an actual B-movie. Dying even prompts Smith to ask his studio technician to rewind to the correct scene.
Much of the story’s charm comes from the pearls of schlock wisdom Smith regularly drops. “If you’re going to cast a role not on merit,” the character says when musing about his Scarlet Nova heroine, “at least let it be a hot female role.” In another scene, he recalls what a shame it was he couldn’t afford to pay the actor who operated the film’s robot sidekick.
ACE Team’s love of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a TV show about an average Joe and his robot pals riffing on bad movies, partly inspired the sleazy director’s exaggerated personality, says Carlos. The character’s enthusiasm for low-budget filmmaking draws comparisons to real-life director Ed Wood. A cult filmmaker and writer of trashy erotic novels, Wood poured his passion into campy projects like the notorious Plan 9 from Outer Space. I also couldn’t help but see shades of director A.J. Nelson (real name Vic Savage), a con artist responsible for the 1964 carpet-monster-from-space flick, The Creeping Terror.
The Deadly Tower of Monsters doesn’t necessarily provide grand commentary about these and other vintage sci-fi clunkers. Think of it more as a toy box for quickly sampling the genre’s early history. Or a virtual museum that lets you slash its exhibits with a knockoff lightsaber.
In the movie within the game, all three playable characters honor genre archetypes. Dashing astronaut hero Dick Starspeed crash lands his rocket ship on the outlandish planet Gravoria. Fighting his way through rampaging dinosaur herds and warring ape men, he teams up with the magnificent Scarlet Nova, daughter of the planet’s evil Emperor, and reunites with his robotic co-pilot.
Together, they must wallop monstrous critters on their way up the titular tower. Iconic enemies included a massive cyber-enhanced gorilla who harks back to King Kong, and a mechanical chameleon inspired by Mechagodzilla. Further up, players stumble upon a laboratory full of insect-headed scientists paying tribute to The Fly. Other inspirations include Jane Fonda’s sexy heroine from Barbarella, who ACE Team modeled Scarlet Nova after.
“A lot of the references were so antique that we actually had to study them,” says Andres Bordeu. “So I think it’s a mix between having a real interest and love for the base material, but also recognizing that it was probably prior to our time and that we needed to do proper research to get it done right.”
Though heavy on rapid-fire references, the game also makes a theme out of celebrating shoestring budgets. In the age of rubber masks and matte paintings, creative minds worked with what they had to transfer their imaginations to the silver screen. Playing The Deadly of Monsters made me appreciate the enterprising spirit of bargain filmmaking, even as I chuckled at the humorous results. Much of the game’s design principles are geared at making it feel like an old movie recorded on VHS. Trees are modeled like plastic props. Boulders deflate like balloons when destroyed. Wires hold up flying enemies.
“Personally, I really like all the monsters where it’s very obvious that it’s a costume,” Andreas says. “For example, I love the squid creature where you can see the [stuntman’s] feet.”
Pulling off the stop-motion monsters proved to be one of the trickiest old-school effects to replicate. Real stop motion involves physically moving and shooting puppets frame-by-frame. To match this, Carlos says the team chopped down the frame rate for creatures, and animated them with twitchy movements to match the jerky quality seen in older movies.
“It’s kind of funny, because we have to do low quality practical effects using CG,” he says. “But we can’t make it look like bad CG. We have to make it look like bad-quality practical effects. So in a sense, you’re making something that has to look really good and very convincing, but you got to make sure it follows the [movies’] standards.”
Coming up with unusual visual styles has been a hallmarks of ACE Team’s projects—see the punk fantasy weirdness of Zeno Clash or the enchanted action of Abyss Odyssey. Building a massive interactive B-movie is no different. Even if Dan Smith’s masterful vision didn’t work as a make-believe movie, it definitely makes for an intriguing game unafraid to celebrate (and poke fun at) science fiction’s sillier side.
Parker Lemke is a writer from Minnesotan who has spent far too much time modding The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. He served in the journalistic trenches of his college newspaper and once interned at a place called Game Informer. You can follow him on Twitter.