Shadowgate Retro Review: Welcome to Your (Many Forms Of) Doom!
When ICOM Simulations Inc. was still doing point-and-click adventures, back in the days before they were bought out by Infinite Ventures, their eariler projects included classics like “Uninvited” and “Deja Vu” for early personal computers and the Nintendo Entertainment System. The games were detailed enough to work with the restricted graphical capabilities of the NES, and still manage to provide a well-developed horror or noir story. After those releases, ICOM went on to develop another game, “Shadowgate,” using the same system of item collection coupled with multiple screens of text and images to tell a suspenseful and immersive tale, where you just happened to be killed - almost constantly. “Shadowgate” was the third game to use the “MacAdventure” system as mentioned above, just before the sequel to “Deja Vu” finished off the series when it was released in 1989.
“Shadowgate” was the game that most old-school players would recognize as the one that was actually designed to kill you. More than any of the other game, “Shadowgate” could end you right from the first screen if you did things wrong. Even after it gave such a wonderful introduction to your quest; you’re an unarmed vassal of a nearby kingdom, meant to save the world from a powerful Warlock Lord who is rising a Behemoth from Hell… and this is before the censorship at Nintendo became insane, folks, so even the implication of H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks was impressive for the time.
The gameplay was as simple, and basic as it could get. The control pad moved the on-screen pointer that substituted for the mouse that would have been used if this was played on an old computer. Moving the pointer around allowed you to move and use items and the interaction commands to, essentially, play the game. It takes a while to do this, since the game suffers a fatal flaw where you can’t increase the speed of the cursor. This is a problem when you realize that the game is timed; the torches on the top of your inventory must be kept lit, lest you die in a rather embarrassing fashion. To make sure you don’t, a plethora of items from brooms to magical ice spheres, along with weapons of all kinds are at your disposal. From the mundane to the magically-extreme, the items available are many, but they tend to suffer from a big problem; most of the puzzle solutions don’t really have any semblance of forethought. Sure, a shield to block dragon’s breath makes sense, but using an arrow against a werewolf to kill it when you have a sword? It doesn’t even give you any good reason to believe the arrow would work better, and you never even get a bow. Trial and error through death is your friend, as the battery save function the game came with was more refined in this game than others, allowing the player to save in each room instead of subsequent areas with requirements.
The graphics for this game are extremely well done, encompassing the very best detail possible, within the small windowed area where they display, despite the 8-bit limitations of the system itself. Each item, however small, is treated with care, and the game, much like many early NES titles strived to be pixel-perfect. Even adventure games cannot escape it.
One of the best aspects of “Shadowgate” is the music; it was an exceptional composition, and really made you feel like you were on a epic quest as it continuously changed as you progressed through the story. From chilling to grand, the music held on to you and made you keep going through the pile of corpses you’ve had in order to hear the next track. It looped, but it never lasted long enough to get irritating within the game’s time limit.
“Shadowgate” was developed by ICOM Simulations Inc., and published by Kemco for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989.