In 1984, Apple released the first in what would become an extensive line of personal computers. It was later dubbed the Macintosh 128k and has the distinction of being the earliest mass-market computer to feature both an integral graphical user interface and full mouse support. Around the same time, the debut of King’s Quest paved the way for the adventure game genre, starting the careers of many prominent creators. One group from this scene was the Illinois-based ICOM Simulations. Taking advantage of the Macintosh’s innovative capabilities, they created four games for the platform, starting with Déjà Vu in 1985. This became known as the MacVenture series. Three games in this series would make their way onto the Nintendo Entertainment System, making them some of the oldest adventure titles available for consoles. The third of these games was Shadowgate, which quickly gained a following for its ambience and music provided by Kemco, the NES port’s publisher.
Analyzing the Experience
The evil warlock lord has traveled to the depths of Castle Shadowgate. He intends to resurrect the behemoth, a creature that will spread death and destruction if allowed to escape. You now stand before the ancient, decrepit castle, determined to stop the warlock lord before his twisted ambition can be realized. As the last descendant of the line of kings, only you can accomplish this task.
Shadowgate was a trailblazing point-and-click adventure game, having originally been coded for one of the first computers to feature a mouse. It stars a featureless protagonist and is played entirely from a first-person perspective with static images representing rooms in the castle. On the screen is a basic list of commands such as “look,” “use,” and “speak.” In order to use these commands, you need to move the cursor over the option, select it, and then position it over the object or character you wish to interact with.
What sets Shadowgate apart from many other adventure games is that it has a time limit. However, it’s not displayed as a numerical countdown. The castle you venture in is extremely dark, and this game takes place in a land without technological advances such as electricity. Therefore, for most of the game, your only source of light comes from torches you carry around. Over time, the torch’s flame dies. Once it is about to go out, the music gets overridden by a fast-paced tune meant to induce panic in the player. Should the torches burn out entirely, your character will die.
Shadowgate is a pretty simple adventure game. It’s indicative of the period in which it was created – or so it would appear on the surface. Despite its generic premise, many longtime video game enthusiasts continue to have strong memories of this game. It has nothing to do with the story, but rather the innumerable ways the main character can get killed. For a lot of fans, finding all the various ways to die is part of the fun of Shadowgate. I don’t agree with this sentiment. Incorrect solutions being punished by death wasn’t too unusual for adventure games around this time, but ICOM went too far in this regard; half the time, you’re falling into pits, getting crushed by a heavy object, or otherwise getting brutally killed simply because you went in the wrong direction or opened a door that happened to have a monster behind it. This wouldn’t be so bad if the deaths were telegraphed competently, but examining these areas rarely clues the player into realizing these actions are dangerous.
To be completely fair, the developers were a step ahead of their peers in that dying only sends you back one room with your inventory intact. To contrast, dying in a Sierra game could send you back several steps if you didn’t practice their mantra of “save early, save often.” Although this feature is greatly appreciated, it feels like a way of addressing the flaw without doing anything meaningful to iron it out.
There’s also the issue of Shadowgate having been made when the logic adventure game creators employed was dubious at best. In other words, the puzzle solutions can be thought of as very cryptic and unintuitive. Consequently, any longevity to be found in this game is the result of bumbling around the castle wondering what to do and how to advance in lieu of making progress or going on a journey of discovery. A hint system does exist; occasionally, it will point you in the right direction, but more often than not, it will rather unhelpfully tell you not to give up.
While the game does have a minimalistic story, it does run into the problem of puzzle solutions involving actions that can only ever make sense to the player and not the protagonist. This usually takes the form of using the knowledge of your many deaths to get past an obstacle that isn’t obviously dangerous. For example, using a silver arrow to skewer a woman held captive in a dungeon doesn’t strike me as a particularly heroic action, but the folks at ICOM clearly thought otherwise. It’s revealed that she’s actually a werewolf, but the only way to learn this would be to try to get past her and get mauled in the process, so how would the protagonist know to do this?
If the game only had a myriad of ways to die and cryptic puzzles, it would be easy to write it off as a typical game of its era, but what sinks it even further is the requirement to keep a torch lit at all times. Because these torches burn out quickly and are in such limited supply, the aforementioned time limit is unnecessarily strict. It’s especially bad when you don’t know what you’re doing and it gets even worse later on when cycling through your sizable inventory only causes you waste even more time. As much as some people lambast early Sierra games for operating on insane logic, you were at least allotted a generous amount of time to drum up the solutions. Shadowgate doesn’t even have that luxury; you’d better catch on to how the game works fast or you’ll be left in the dust. At this point, it’s less of a challenge and more of a punishment for having too much common sense.
Drawing a Conclusion
Even though Shadowgate does deserve some credit for pioneering the point-and-click interface along with its contemporaries and being one of the first titles to achieve success from both PC and console fans alike, it’s not exactly an experience I would be quick to recommend. There is occasional good writing here and there, but for the most part, the setting is utterly bland and forgettable. It’s just a regular old fantasy realm – if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It doesn’t even feature any interesting characters to converse with.
Between the cheap deaths, crazy puzzle solutions, and draconian time limit, it wouldn’t surprise me if games enthusiasts from later generations perceive this title as outright bad. I couldn’t blame them either; by the time they fired up a game for the first time, developers had long since adopted superior design practices than those of their predecessors while abandoning the ones that have not aged gracefully. If anything, this game could be used in a case study to highlight the dichotomy between current-generation creators and their counterparts of yesteryear. Many NES fans consider Shadowgate a classic, but I believe there’s no escaping that it was very much a product of its time, and the lack of a compelling story, or even hints of one, ensures that your suffering will not be rewarded with any kind of satisfying payoff. Then again, it would take a lot of talent to salvage a game where 70% of your time is spent staring at the death screen.
Final Score: 3/10