|Title: Shadowgate Developer: ICOM Simulations, Inc Publisher: Kemco
Console: NES Release Date: December 1989
Genre: Graphic Adventure Rating: N/A
Shadowgate’s tale of legendary heroism begins at the unsettlingly modest gate to the castle. The unnamed knight reminisces about the last words he heard; he is the last of a long line of kings and it falls to him to prevent the evil Warlock Lord from raising the nightmarish beast, the Behemoth, a creature that will surely raze the lands, from the depths of hell. From this auspicious start, you’ll open the strangely small wooden door and enter the castle proper. You’ll solve a basic puzzle to open the next door, which will give you a false sense of confidence. In the next room, a dusty book lays on a pedestal. You’ll pick it up and immediately regret it as the floor drops out and you plummet to your death, the first of many to come.
I’ve forced many people over the years to try their hand at Shadowgate, and all of my motives are completely selfish. Its ancient design and esoteric puzzles are hard to overcome, and I take great pleasure in watching the uninitiated perish at the hands of that book. It happens every time without fail, too, and I simply cannot stifle the roars of laughter that shake my body. And no, that didn’t need a spoiler alert. If you want one, though, let me say this: Shadowgate is designed to kill you. The castle is lined to the walls with the most nefarious of traps and you will undoubtedly die. I saved you from the book, but you’re just as likely to walk into the next room and die anyway.
A point and click interface drives the game and you’re given nine options with which to interact with the environment: move, look, open, use, leave, take, close, hit, and speak. While your options are self-explanatory, it’s important to note that “move” is used solely for moving from one room to the next. It doesn’t let you move anything in the environment, which can actually be an issue for newcomers. For example, if you wanted to use an object like a lever, you can’t use “move” to move it; you have to use “use” to move it. An object that can open (whether you know it or not) might only respond to open, even if you try to “use” it. It seems pointless to mention, but understanding how you interact with the world is key to your survival. I’ve never found a use for “close” and I’ve never been able to “leave” anything either. You can also use objects on yourself. Using a cloak will equip it, while using a sword on yourself will, not surprisingly, cause you to stab yourself to death.
The goal of Shadowgate is to defeat the Warlock Lord, but it’s not like you’re given instructions on how to accomplish that daunting task; you’ll have to figure it out along the way, although, there are scrolls that can provide you with hints, if you can find them. And he isn’t hanging around at the front door smoking either; he naturally resides in the castle depths. Countless rooms full of entirely obtuse puzzles stand in the way of your quest. Locked doors aren’t the only obstacles either; for example, one room contains a dragon that will burn you to death if you try to grab any of the items off the floor, but you have to get those items to progress. A wraith blocks your passage in another room, while a troll demands a toll to cross his bridge in yet another.
The gameplay in Shadowgate demands a keen eye, intuitive thought, and a metric ton of luck. Quite often, there’s no way to tell if an object will kill you until you interact with it, and even the most basic of actions can result in your death. A seemingly safe hallway might crush you to death or that vial you picked up could contain poison, but there’s really only one way to definitively know. Looking at everything is your best chance for survival, but it still won’t keep you alive.
The trial and error nature inherent to this gameplay style would seem like a turn off, but there are several redeeming qualities to it. First, getting through a room, past or door, or by an enemy impasses an incredible sense of relief and accomplishment. When you finally figure out how to vanquish that wraith, steal the dragon’s loot, and slip by that cunning troll, you’ll practically cry out in triumph. The game is so unapologetically ruthless that even the simplest of actions that don’t result in your death will feel like outlandishly large accomplishments. With its point and click interface, the game is also a passive experience; nothing occurs until you move or interact with it. If you die, it’s because you, to quote that knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “chose poorly.”
The second redeeming quality of this gameplay style, and the game itself, is its odd sense of humor. An almost otherworldly narrator somehow describes all of your actions as they take place. A description is provided for each new room you enter and some of them are outright hilarious. My favorite occurs when you walk into a blisteringly hot room full of lava. “Sulfurous fumes rise from the hot molten lava some thirty feet below you. Swimming would not be wise,” is what you’re told. Even better is what happens if you try to cross the room without solving the room’s puzzle first, “Shouting a battle cry, you catapult yourself off of the platform. You are brave, warrior, but stupid! Your body explodes as you plunge into the lava.” In a game that features death around every corner, it’s made bearable by descriptions that are either surprisingly gory or just hilarious. It’s certainly macabre content that you wouldn’t expect to see in 1989, particularly on the NES. If you drink the aforementioned vial, “your body convulses and death spasms quickly follow.” In a room with mirrors, as soon as you break the wrong one, “shards of glass fly through the air and slice into your body!! Blood pours from your wounds and your body slumps to the floor.” Dying is usually seen as an inconvenience, but in Shadowgate, it’s half the fun.
I also appreciate the “narrator’s” sarcastic and biting remarks. You can receive hints by pushing select (it’ll suggest something you should look at or interact with), but it quickly devolves into positive thinking, with comments such as “don’t give up!” becoming the norm as you progress. However, this narrator also has a knack for pointing out the obvious. If you try to interact with an object in a way that the game doesn’t allow, such as trying to use something that can’t be used (remember what I said, though!), the result is often, “You seem to be wasting your time” or “nothing happened.” You’ll also get the scathing, “What you expected hasn’t happened,” and the hilarious, “No!! Wait a minute!! It’s best if you don’t do that!!” They all fundamentally mean that you’re on the wrong track, but it infuses the game with another layer of humor and another impetus to beat the game. There’s hardly any better motivation to solve a puzzle than the game itself mocking you for your own stupid death.
While there’s no life meter to speak of in the game, since anything that can kill you most certainly does, there are torches to contend with. While the game itself doesn’t appear dark, it is, because, you know, there’s no electricity. There are a set amount of torches in the game and you must have at least one lit at all times. If your torch goes out, you stumble around in the dark and break your neck. I’m honestly not sure if it’s based on time or actions, but your torches eventually do fizzle out, and it’s entirely possible to have to restart the game. The game does sound warning music when a torch is about to burn out, though.
Shadowgate’s pixilated graphics are nothing to write home about and there’s very little animation to speak of either. The quality of the musical compositions is sure to catch you off guard, though, and coupled with the narrator’s detailed descriptions can often create a spooky environment. A hopeful little tune plays at the outset of your journey, but the standout tracks are the scary ones. The aforementioned lava room and wraith encounter feature this creepy track, and the song that plays when a torch is about to go out still to this day sends shivers up my spine.
Shadowgate holds a special place in my heart, despite being a relic from the past. It’s one of the first games I can recall playing together with my father, the thought of which makes me all warm and tingly, but even I recognize its flaws. The game’s length resides solely in how long it takes you to best its designs; a trait that is recognizable even in today’s graphic novels and point and click adventures. Much like Phoenix Wright, Trace Memory and even to some extent, Virtue’s Last Reward, there’s not much of a reason to return once you have the answers. The experience is about the journey, not the end, though, and if you don’t cheat and use a guide, you will find yourself stumped. My father and I even had to buy the official guidebook, back in the day. There’s a surprisingly rich and enjoyable experience found within Shadowgate’s walls, as long as you have a sense of humor and a staggering amount of patience for its trials.