Saturday, November 5, 2011

Shadowgate (NES)

Rating: 2 out of 5
Pros: Some puzzles are thought-provoking, fun to see how many different ways you can die
Cons: Constant deaths to indecipherable puzzles with cryptic trial-and-error solutions

Shadowgate is a point and click adventure game developed by ICOM Simulations in 1987 and published by Mindscape for the Apple Macintosh. It was later published by Kemco Corporation in 1989 for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

The game takes it's name from the setting, Castle Shadowgate. As the last descendant of a line of hero kings, it's apparently your mission to enter this foul place and vanquish the evil Warlock Lord before he summons a demon from hell to destroy the world. Shadowgate revolves around collecting items and using those items in various ways to proceed through puzzles and work your way to the evil Warlock Lord. Many times progress will involve a lot of trial and error, as a lot of things are not obvious. Then there's the fact that a great many incorrect actions will actually kill you instantly. Thankfully you can just continue from the same area you died in and not have to start over from the beginning or some random save point at an arbitrary point in the game.

At one point, there's a bunch of caskets in a room. Open one, it's empty. Open another, a banshee comes out and screams and then goes back in but nothing happens. Another, slime spills on the floor. If you try to walk past the slime, it gets on you and kills you without warning. In another place there are 3 mirrors, you have to break the middle one to uncover a hidden door. If you break the left one, broken glass kills you. "As soon as you break the mirror, shards of glass fly through the air and slice into your body!!" If you break the right one, it opens a magic portal into outer space that sucks you out and kills you. It can get pretty rough trying to figure out which random action out of 10 doesn't result in your death. While occasionally frustrating trying to figure out what to do next, and how not to kill yourself, it does add a sense of danger to the game. Since you can continue from the same area all the time, without that sense of danger that comes with every action you perform, the game would be a little bland and meaningless.

Then there's the convoluted puzzles that take forever to figure out. At one point, you're confronted by a wraith blocking your progression. It just stands there looking stupid as you scroll through your dozens of items, trying each one out in turn to try and kill the wraith or make it move out of your way. You try the sword, the sling, the spear, the hammer, some random spell you read from a scroll earlier... nothing's working. You have 6 or 8 torches in your inventory, and one is in a stack by itself instead of lumped with the rest, so you decide to try it out and it engulfs the wraith in flames and destroys it. Or in another area, where you have to kill a werewolf. Neither the sword or spear work, and you don't even have a bow... but you have to kill it with just a plain arrow randomly that you grabbed off a wall earlier.

The interface is pretty simple and straight-forward. There's a pane down the right side of the screen that lists your inventory, spells, etc. There's Card Up/Down buttons that let you scroll through the different inventory cards (pages), and each card holds 7 items. There are also 2 torch icons, one on each side at the top of the inventory. If both of these torches go out at the same time, it gets dark and you trip and fall on your face and die. You must remember to pick up all the torches from the walls on your way through the game so that you can keep re-lighting new ones. This acts as the game's timer, as there are a limited number of torches in the game.

Across the bottom of the screen is another pane with all the actions you can take listed on it. These include MoveLook, Open, Use, Leave, Take, Close, Hit and Speak. The Move button is on the left and is accompanied by a small box with squares inside representing all the possible exits from the room. This lets you know at a glance which ways you can go, and you can click on these squares as well as the actual doors to move from the room. If you uncover a hidden passageway it will appear in the move square as well, but does not show up prior to uncovering it.

You can try all the various actions by pointing to one and hitting the A button, and then pointing to the object you wish to try it on and hitting the A button again. There's also a Save button, and one labeled Self on the right underneath the Card Up/Down buttons. The Save button is pretty self-explanatory, and the Self button allows you to use items on yourself. This bottom pane also doubles as a place for text - when you enter a new room, interact with a new object, die, or any time the game feels the need to impart some information upon you for any reason. "As you go down the trap door, you realize you took a big step. The fall is quite fatal. It's a sad thing that your adventures have ended here!!"

The main portion of the screen in the top left is for the view of the game world. It's a first-person type of view, with mostly still pictures of your surroundings that you can click on to interact with. When trying different things, you'll usually get feedback in the bottom pane so you know if what you are attempting is having any effect. You'll end up with a lot of responces such as "You seem to be wasting your time." or "What you expected hasn't happened."

The graphics are all still images of different rooms in Castle Shadowgate and their contents. They're pretty varied, and they're drawn well enough that it's really obvious what most of them are, but they're pretty pixelated even for a NES game. As you take objects from the room or kill creatures in the room, they disappear from the picture. If you open doors they open up in the picture as well, but otherwise the pictures remain static and don't really change. At least it's a pretty big maze-like castle with a lot of rooms so there's some variety.

Other than the occasional whoosh when you open a door or the blippy jingle when you move between rooms, there's not much in the way of sound effects in Shadowgate. Mostly just blips to indicate you've interacted with something in one way or another. The background music is dark and foreboding, breathing a little atmosphere into the game, but it consists of pretty short loops and the novelty wears off pretty quick. On top of the short time between looping, there's really only a few different pieces in the game in the first place. A couple main pieces, one that's often played in rooms with enemies, and an unnerving faster-paced piece that kicks in when your last torch gets low to give you some warning and time to light another.

It has it's moments, despite being occasionally aggravating. There's also not much replay value, as once you finally trial-and-error your way through all the puzzles, you'll know exactly where everything is and how to breeze through it in a half-hour the second time through. There's very little that's different from one play-through to the next. It might be worth a single play-through if you can find it at a flea market for buck or two.

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