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Shadowgate (NES) artwork

Shadowgate (NES) review

"You die a lot in Dark Souls? That's cute..."

I might know what you're thinking: we've been here before and it's not frightening in the least. In reality, we've ventured down dozens of castle hallways and dank dungeons without realizing how terrifying it could be, mainly because we're so empowered. We've battled through fantastical tight corridors, chopping up dozens of orcs, goblins and giant spiders along the way. We are accustomed to wielding a sword, blocking oncoming blows, casting destructive magic and laughing in the face of danger with every level we gain. If someone took those perks away, though, few of us would stand a ghost of a chance. In other words, forget the embellished avatar you've created, and instead thrust yourself into a hero's situation and you will understand how truly frightening a fantasy world could be.

In Shadowgate, you're not so empowered. Despite your heroic heritage, you aren't a veteran combatant armed to the teeth with fine weaponry and quality armor. Rather, you're an average citizen with an impressive pedigree. Regardless of those credentials, you're vulnerable, unarmed and alone, and the castle's denizens are hungry.

There are no RPG elements present such as turn-based combat or level building, as this is a graphic adventure rather than a roleplayer. As such, the rewards for victory against what few snarling beasts wander Castle Shadowgate's halls differ from the standard experience and gold. Some prizes are more tangible, like access to new areas and obtainable items needed to advance, but one other reward more appreciable: survival.

It doesn't take much to end your life, either. A simple miscalculation or poorly constructed plan can easily snuff out your flame. For instance, one misstep sends you plummeting to the bottom of a chasm, courtesy of an angry troll. Failure allows a dragon to incinerate you, or a demon to tear you to bits. The game offers you a brief, brutal descriptions of your last seconds on earth, followed by a ghostly picture of the grim reaper.

Thankfully, you are not entirely powerless, as escape options lie around all over the fortress. Each situation is like a puzzle, requiring the use a certain item or spell to subdue or trick your opponent. If you fail to rise to the occasion, though, and you could become a bloody corpse or smoldering pile of ash.

Shadowgate's structure is laudable. It plays out like any dungeon crawler might, except it trades combat for more intellectual challenges. Unfortunately, it's puzzles also serve as its downfall, because you can solve almost all of them through trial and error. That coupled with save scumming lessen Shadowgate's challenge factor, and demean its sense of engagement. When you run afoul of a cyclops, you don't need to fear failure. You can experiment with your inventory, using each item and spell on the creature to see which one doesn't result in you dying. You eventually find that a sling and a rock knock him unconscious, but those don't kill him entirely. A cursory check of your goods reveals an obvious murder weapon in a sword, which you use to keep this creature down for good.

There's also no rhyme or reason why certain items work and others don't. I'm not sure why you needed to use the sling and the sword exactly, when you have a spear and an arrow as well. That strips the experience of some of its genius, reducing its mechanics to selecting items and praying.

Sadly, puzzles are not the only victims of trial and error as there are numerous scenes where you can easily screw the pooch and not realize it. Take a laboratory about halfway through the game as an example. A couple of hidden perils lie here, such as a small cage holding a mutant puppy that instantly kills you. There's also a mysterious vial you can drink that instantly kills you. Numerous, random devices instantly kill you. Open a door and SURPRISE! It instantly kills you. However, the payoff lies in perishing in a handful of interesting ways, ranging from being sucked into a void to becoming an enormous white demon's midnight snack. You have no way of knowing where dangers lurk, because you receive no warning or hint telling you that certain objects are dangerous. In other words, you'll accidentally die a lot in Shadowgate.

[cue obvious metal song]

Not that dying is uncommon or anything. One rather impressive and perhaps troubling nuance is that the developers actually took the time to program tons of death descriptions, some of which involve committing suicide. Your death at the fangs of a werewolf is certainly unpleasant, but it's not as horrible as voluntarily shoving a sword into your chest, crushing yourself with a hammer, setting yourself on fire or lapping up acid that eats through your throat. It's practically a side quest in itself finding different ways to end your life just so you can read the morbid texts that accompany them.

You might wonder why the developers didn't put the level of attention into Shadowgate's puzzles that they did into the multitude of ways to croak. I like to think it's because the game wasn't meant to be a major piece of interactive fiction like some graphic adventures, but more of a light quest that teaches a valuable lesson. I see Shadowgate as a morbid reminder of how fragile and fleeting--not to mention easily manipulated in our favor at times--life can be. Think of it as an 8-bit memento mori. It tells us that sometimes small mistakes can end our lives and lucky guesses can improve our situations. Brute force and intelligence don't always equate victory; especially not in the world we live in, where bullets can fell heroes in a flash and dementia can seemingly erase brilliant minds. Chaos reigns, and sometimes it likes to remind us it does.

However, Shadowgate still isn't an excellent title. It's not the most engaging fantasy-adventure offering available, mostly because its puzzles just aren't up to modern snuff. It's a decent rainy day project for anyone who appreciates simple old school graphic adventures, but aren't up to the task of constant combat.

Project Horror 2019

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JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (October 15, 2019)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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