Last Saturday, I wanted to try out a different genre of NES game. I enjoy the occasional point and click adventure game, a la Myst and Curse of Monkey Island, and I wanted to start out with a game that I was at least peripherally aware of, Shadowgate. After playing through it, I somehow had the energy to play the other games in the series on NES, namely The Uninvited and Deja vu. I’ll run through each game individually in separate posts, and then talk a bit more about the MacVenture engine in general, which is the engine that these games run on.
Shadowgate is a black-and-white 1987 point-and-click adventure video game originally for the Apple Macintosh in the MacVenture series. The game is named for its setting, Castle Shadowgate, residence of the evil Warlock Lord. The player, as the “last of a great line of hero-kings” is charged with the task of saving the world by defeating the Warlock Lord, who is attempting to summon up the demon Behemoth out of Hell.
Created by ICOM Simulations, Inc., Shadowgate is a game where you die. A lot. You die, you die, and then you die some more. Now, all of the MacVenture NES games are stuffed to the gills with opportunities for the player to meet a grisly fate, but Shadowgate in particular feels like it has the most unique ways to end the player’s journey prematurely.
Dying frequently is the meat and potatoes of Shadowgate, but thankfully it doesn’t get annoying because it only ever places the player 1 or 2 screens back. The player can save anytime, but because of the forgiving nature of the game, it’s really only necessary for when the player wants to turn the game off. All of the MacVenture games are reasonable with the death punishment. Part of the game’s fun is finding all the unique ways the player can meet their end!
So what’s good about Shadowgate? First off, the music is killer. All three games have amazing soundtracks, by the way. Shadowgate’s music is deeply mysterious and dark, daring the player to plumb the horrors within. It’s also quite catchy, which is good because without a strategy guide, this game is likely to take quite a while.
The graphics are interesting as well. They aren’t always stellar, but what they are is nice and varied. The game world isn’t gigantic, and the rooms all have unique looks to them, so you’ll likely never get lost, which is something good for a first person dungeon crawler-like game. There’s some pretty cool looking monsters in the game, like a wyvern, a sphinx, a troll, some gargoyles, a mummy, a wraith and even some more bizarre creations. It makes you feel like you’re exploring a dungeons and dragons dungeon, but with puzzles only.
Now onto what I didn’t care for so much. The most inoffensive part of the game is the story. It’s the generic “defeat the bad warlock who’s summoning a terrible beast from hell to conquer the world” kind of stuff. Nothing special here, so let’s move on.
The inventory system is next. Being that these games are point and click on the NES, I expected some clunkiness, but these games get crazy tedious with the inventory. It’s frustrating because you have to scroll through the inventory cards 1 at a time, and they hold only 7 unique items on each one. Now, if the game didn’t give you too many items at a time, this wouldn’t be unbearable, but the game gives you so many items that are just plain worthless. To add to the difficulty and length of the game, the game throws tons of extra items at you that are completely unhelpful. They might give you a humorous death, but otherwise, are worthless troll items. So late game you really have to start digging through your item screen looking for the right item for the situation, which completely kills any pacing by bringing the game to a crawl. This leads me to my next point.
The puzzles. I’ll start off by saying some of the puzzles in this game are interesting, like torching a mummy for a staff, opening a skull for a key, or using a shield to protect you from searing dragon fire breath. However, some of the puzzles are insane moon logic. Like a picture of a shooting star that you pick off a drawing that you’re supposed to know to use against a wyvern because it turns into a fireball and kills it. Or a wraith you kill with a “special” torch that the game explains diddly squat about what it does or why its special. Or even a flute that, when played randomly for no reason, makes a hole appear in a tree to get a ring. The game could have alleviated some of these issues by adding hints about where to use some of these items. There are some hints in the game, particularly for the final battle items you need, but some of the more esoteric puzzles needed them as well.
Second, some of the puzzles are doable, but they have problems because it’ll be a tiny few pixels on the screen you have to notice and click on them with the finest of touches. But really, chances are you’re likely to miss them first time through and get frustrated. Gee whiz, I’m supposed to know to click on that? How was I supposed to figure that out? The solution here being, don’t make clickable stuff too small or too hidden. Playtesting from people unfamiliar with your games can help immensely, since something like item size can be arbitrary.
Third, some of the puzzles are completely arbitrary and have no logic to them. They turn into a guessing game. Oh, I’m supposed to know to break the middle mirror, not the ones of the side. Now, this isn’t that big of a deal since death is so forgiving. There’s even some great moments, like when breaking the mirror on the right transports you out into space randomly and kills you through suffocation. Why does it do that when the mirror on the left simply kills you with glass shards? I don’t know, but it’s cool!
Red Herrings, aka Choice Overload
My last issue with the puzzles relates to the inventory. Because there are so many godforsaken items in this game, Shadowgate is an extreme example of “try this with this on this”. Lots of needless time wasting with troll items, and even the huge inventory of items given to the player. Hell, even the first 10 minutes is likely to net you way too many items to reasonably think about. Especially because the game is incredibly arbitrary with what items work in certain situations. You can knock down the troll with a spear no problem, but a sword or dwarven hammer? Forget about it. There is a way to dump the extra trash items, but it’s quite tedious.
So the solution here would be, reduce the cognitive load on the player by cutting out the useless items, and only permit a slow growth of the player’s inventory size over time.
The Torch Mechanic
One final thing to gripe about: the torch mechanic. Oh god, do I hate the torch mechanic. So throughout the game, you can pick up torches, and these torches help you see your way. At any time, if you don’t have at least 1 torch lit, you die instantly by tripping and falling. Now, there are a limited number of these torches throughout the game, and they only last a few minutes each. As such, you have to hurry through the game and get all the torches to survive for as long as you can.
If you know what to do, the torches are no biggie, but because many of the puzzles are crazy hard, there’s a decent chance you’ll run out of them by the end. The only reason I didn’t was because I had to look stuff up on occasion to figure them out. Why oh why would you put an arbitrary time limit on a point and click adventure game of such ridiculous difficulty? I’ll never know. Apparently, the Mac version had an extra time limit where you had to get to the warlock in time before he summoned the behemoth, so at least that element is gone. The game would be way better with the torch mechanic just completely gone. Also, the music accompanying your last torch about to fizzle is as stressful as the drowning music from Sonic the Hedgehog.
There’s one more thing of interest about Shadowgate I’d like to mention, and this goes for all the MacVenture games. This game is dark. There is so much brutal killing in Shadowgate, either of the player in a horrible fate or straight up killing other monsters in bloody, viscerally described detail. You can even kill yourself by impaling yourself with the sword or spear! I don’t know how this game, or the other MacVenture games, made it past Nintendo’s strict censorship policies at the time. Still, it makes for some pretty rad moments.
To sum up, Shadowgate is a really cool game with some really horrible game design problems. Because of that, it’s hard to recommend the game without at least consulting a strategy guide from time to time. The clunky controls don’t help either. It may very well be better to just play the remake since that one is likely to be less needlessly frustrating, but if you can look past the controls and are okay with periodically reading about certain game tips, the game has a really cool charm all of its own that deserves a less arduous design. Or you could play the remake…I don’t know if it improves the game mechanics at all, but it looks cool as heck!
Next time: we venture through the spooky haunted undead mansion in The Uninvited.