Apart from Sonic the Hedgehog and EA's original NHL Hockey - the two games I first witnessed when my older brother brought home our household's first Genesis console - few games evoke as many fond, and frustrating, memories as Will Harvey's classic adventure, The Immortal.
Originally released for computers like the Amiga and Apple IIgs, The Immortal is a punishingly difficult, but incredibly rewarding experience. Though short in length, it has a surprisingly rich and intriguing story, excellent puzzles, and plenty of memorable setpieces.
You play an old, nameless wizard searching for your lost master, Mordamir. As you traverse eight levels of a dangerous, trap-filled dungeon, you'll unravel the mystery of your master's disappearance. You will also die many, many, MANY times.
It's no coincidence that the game's cover and title screen feature the grisly visage of the Grim Reaper. There are so many ways to die in The Immortal - falling down pits, being eaten by ravenous worms, slain by goblins or trolls, immolated by fire, dissolved by acidic slime, eaten alive by spiders, drowned by a water monster, and even potentially poisoning yourself in various ways. Part of the fun of the game actually stems from making mistakes and watching the gruesome ways your wizard perishes. However, there are an equal amount of even more gruesome deaths awaiting your foes in the Genesis version.
Unlike the previous computer and the NES versions, The Immortal features scenes of extreme violence and gore after successfully winning combat. A crack on a goblin's head with your staff results in their head exploding in a shower of blood, brains, and eyeballs. You'll slice goblins up the middle and watch as their legs flop over the flayed halves of their bodies. Slicing them in half at the waist results in their insides spilling out all over the floor, and trolls have their own separate deaths that include being skinned or electrocuted. The Immortal is easily one of the most shockingly gory games of the 16-bit era, far more so than the wildly popular Mortal Kombat, yet it's relatively low profile meant that nobody complained.
But there's more to The Immortal than just death and dismemberment. The Immortal is, first and foremost, an adventure game with strong puzzle solving elements. Solving each level requires both luck and logic, as well as a heaping amount of trial and error. Many of the puzzles in The Immortal will tax your patience as you die over and over during repeated attempts to solve them, and the solution is seldom obvious.
This will undoubtedly frustrate most gamers, but for whatever reason it's one of the reasons I was so attracted to the game back when I first played it. Though it's a strictly single-player adventure, my two best friends and I would play the game together in the hopes that three heads were better than one when it came to the game's numerous obstacles. The upside to all the frustration is the feeling of elation when you finally do get past a particularly bothersome point. Rarely have I felt so smart for completing a level.
Rarely have I ever been as frustrated, however, once I encountered the game's notorious worm room. Late in the adventure, you discover a sensor that emits a high-pitched squeal relative to the proximity of the game's wizard-devouring worms. The sensor lasts only a short time, forcing you to hurry through the room. The manual attempts to outline a path, but it's largely indecipherable and more often than not you'll find yourself becoming worm food. When I was younger, I once attempted to call EA's hintline - the only time I have ever done such a thing. Their advice, "There's really no help I can give you. You just have to get lucky and hurry through it." Thanks, helpful hint guy! $1.99 a minute well spent!
To that end, I decided that, come hell or high water, I would conquer the infamous worm room and complete The Immortal from start to finish. Until now, I had resorted to reaching the worm room and then using the password system to bypass the remainder of the level - but not this time. This time I was going to beat the game fair and square. After more than 20 years of frustration and over two dozen attempts, I not only succeeded but I captured a video record of the event! You can complain about the poor quality all you want, but I FINALLY beat the fucking worm room!
Worm room aside, the rest of The Immortal is difficult, but certainly doable. Many of the tasks are quite memorable, from navigating a hall covered in sticky spider webs and egg sacs or ferociously using your staff as a paddle while you lure a tentacled sea monster to its demise riding a barrel. Some of the puzzles are even rather ingenious, like using the lethal slimes to your advantage. Certain key items that seem hazardous to your health eventually prove useful, but it's also possible to accidentally waste an item that is needed later on, forcing the player to restart.
The game's graphics look appropriately dingy, but are by no means ugly. The colors are drab and muted, but suit the game's atmosphere perfectly. Lending to this atmosphere is an outstanding soundtrack that easily ranks among the best the Genesis system had to offer. It may not have been known for its sound processor, but the music in The Immortal are fantastic. Each track makes has an eerie quality that compliments the constant mortal danger your wizard is in and creates a sense of foreboding. Sound effects aren't half bad either. Heavy wooden doors thud loudly, entrails spill with a sickening, sloshy plop, and there's even some very basic voice samples for the game's combat.
Speaking of, while the original computer versions all featured isometric combat, the home console versions added a new battle screen. While the overall game difficulty may turn some players off, it's the dull, repetitive combat that is the game's weakest link. The NES version is far more random, but in its 16-bit cousin enemies swing in simple left-right-left-right patterns, making it a cinch for you to avoid. Every combat scenario, be it goblins, trolls, or a giant spider, follows the same pattern of dodging attacks until the enemy's fatigue bar rises, then finishing them off with slashes of your own.
In fairness, The Immortal isn't meant to be an action game. Combat is clearly not the focal point, and the gory death animations of the Genesis version help make up for the lackluster mechanics. Quick players can also avoid some encounters altogether. Either way, there aren't enough encounters for it to bog the game down, but it would have been nice to have a little more challenge. It's ironic that what should be the hardest part of the game turns out to be the easiest.
The Immortal is little more than a footnote in Electronic Arts' vast catalog of games, but it has made its impression on those who've played it for its atmosphere, unforgiving difficulty, extreme gore, unforgettable puzzles, and phenomenal soundtrack. It may lack replayability, but that hasn't stopped me from coming back dozens of times over the years just to experience it again, even if its just to be eaten by worms. But not this time. This time I am victorious. Today, I am immortal!
The Immortal was completed on a real Sega Genesis with no cheats - for the first time! Take that, worms!