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Shadowgate 64: Trials of the Four Towers (Nintendo 64) artwork

Shadowgate 64: Trials of the Four Towers (Nintendo 64) review


"Having solved numerous other adventure games since finding Shadowgate many years ago when I was but a boy, I still always seem to find myself coming back to it. It's truly a great experience -- brooding, challenging, discreetly humorous and devoid of filler. No other game has matched up to it in my mind, and I can't conceivably imagine one being able to. Besides, the genre has been dead since the early 90's. "



Having solved numerous other adventure games since finding Shadowgate many years ago when I was but a boy, I still always seem to find myself coming back to it. It's truly a great experience -- brooding, challenging, discreetly humorous and devoid of filler. No other game has matched up to it in my mind, and I can't conceivably imagine one being able to. Besides, the genre has been dead since the early 90's.

Two sequels have arisen to the game since its various releases on numerous platforms(DOS, Windows, NES, Macintosh, etc.) and all told have been quite different but still much the same. Their greatest folly perhaps has been limited distribution and choice of platform. Beyond Shadowgate was a Turbo Duo Super CD, something most people probably haven't even heard of, and Shadowgate 64 crept onto the Nintendo 64 amongst games that had absolutely nothing to do with it -- and to boot didn't have nearly the press needed to bring its status above Weird Obscure Game That No One Plays.

S64 in particular was an act of defiance against the growing attitude of the industry that action and/or violence were the only things that sold. At the time, puzzle games were regulated only to basing themselves on things like mushy cartoons or arbitrary concepts such as stacking gems, and without some sort of action never made the big leap to incorporating believable stories, full-blown inventories and 3-D worlds. The adventure genre had even been defamed, and kids were starting to label Zelda and its many knock-offs as ''adventure'' games. Apparently no one wanted to have to use their head when they played a game -- reading literature on a television screen and trying to solve clues based on NPC dialogue was considered a drag. Everyone wanted cutscenes, combat, weapons, and they wanted them NOW. There was no time to sit around and try to logically pick apart a problem; a cell-phone would go off, an ''instant message'' would come up on the computer or they'd just get bored and consult a walkthrough. Life had grown too complicated for the old adventure game.

And then Shadowgate 64 came along and changed it all!

Okay, not really, but it was a remarkably authentic tribute to the first -- same publisher, same designers, same world, same goal. Its major deviation dealt with the engine, which turned out quite well taking into consideration how few adventure games had actually been designed with consoles in mind. It kind of works like a first-person shooter, except that you have no weapon at all. The analog stick controls which way you're facing and the little yellow buttons(yes, an nontechnical review for an nontechnical game) allow for movement in all four cardinal directions. A + B are action and inventory respectively, and that's about it. The rest rides on knowledge, deduction and (the big shocker) paying attention.

The story this time around is a bit less cut-and-dry than Shadowgate's. You're the halfling, Del, and your caravan was overtaken by bandits while traveling. By chance you are the lone survivor of the massacre and are dragged off to a dungeon under the castle of Shadowgate(but apparently there's a sewer system under that and a village above it, so it's not just one big castle like the original made us believe) to await a grim fate. Also by chance your cell is right above an escape path, and so you eventually get out of it. From there you get to explore sewers, a town, a church, a cemetery, four towers and even peek into the castle proper long enough to find a nasty surprise.

But it's not all exploration. Each of those towers holds a trial and at the end of it all you have to put some of your finest items to the test in order to dispel a great evil. Unlike the original, there's no clearly defined path, either, which can prove to be confusing. At the start things seem simple enough -- you acquire a bone, later a pickaxe, eventually a map and then heard into the first tower where you'll amass a wealth of documents. However, after completing the the trials of the second tower the choice of places you have to visit grows exponentially, along with the possibility of missing something and having to backtrack. Also taking into consideration the many documents and plethora of items you've stockpiled by this point, having an interface with a Skeleton Button like Action might not seem so basic anymore. There will be all kinds of things like mixing puzzles, combination-lock-type situations, trivia(read any good archaic journals lately?) and even timed mazes to test your wit.

If that wasn't enough, failing to pay attention to NPCs will pound you into a rut instantly. Some of the things you're told are vital, and bypassing them is the easiest route to failure in Shadowgate 64. This is actually cool though, because it's a wholly different type of challenge than button-mashing, and God knows after playing a number of video games in the modern-day, stagnated market, change is always appreciated. Also, even though the puzzles are trickier and more time-consuming than in Shadowgate, they're now much more logical and easier to stomach. Perhaps the only thing holding them down is that there aren't enough deadly consequences for messing up. This was one of the major selling points of the original, so it's a shame to see it mostly squandered. You can still die by falling, drowning and rubbing some of the villager's the wrong way, but it's not the same. The only thing even tying them with the original is the same writing style in the death descriptions.

But it's nice that this tongue-in-cheek method of conveying both deaths and the story has been retained. I'm not sure on the specifics of the Infinite Ventures design crew, but I do know that they're largely a gathering of ICOM Simulations expatriates, which wouldn't entirely rule out the same writer having taken the job again. It's definitely believable in just how familiar a lot of the descriptions of rooms and their contents are. Less exclamation points and short-hand, but a lot more room for asides and focused literary imagery. The back-story is also exceptionally well-done and there are none of the annoying anachronisms or plot-holes that typically come about after changes in a design crew. All in all, I feel Shadowgate 64 still holds a lot of the charm from the first in everything from mechanics and writing to even visuals and sound. And the latter two can hold their own against many other N64 titles as well.

Some people claim the visuals are dark(admittedly they can be excessively so on older televisions) and boring(well, there aren't any monsters popping out at you..) and I agree completely. But I also think this is how Shadowgate 64 builds much of its ambiance. The darkness is kind of self-explanatory -- gee, guy, usually forsaken castles aren't terribly uplifting -- but the intentions of the lifeless atmosphere might not be readily apparent. They're trying to go for build-up here(it all makes sense at the end) and don't want to blow how cool it'll seem when you encounter you first creature. It's not typical fantasy -- laden with orcs, trolls and the like -- but then again, we experienced that in the original, so why would we want to do the same thing again? The attempt at a more subtle approach is commendable and shows this was less a cash-in on the name than it was a labor of love -- with the game largely trying to be more of an expansion than a retread.

With the music, too, it manages to reach atmospheric heights rarely experienced in video games. The Chamber-esque Celtic music here is authentic and most of it seems to have actually been recorded live, or if not, it's a remarkable masquerade as such. There are all kinds of instruments most people have likely never heard before, including mandolins(and not the kind sitting on your grandma's wall), lyres, fiddles and genuine Celtic percussion. Add onto that some orchestral elements like strings, contrabass, flutes and pounding drums, and it becomes apparent that this was no rush-job. There are themes for the towers, cutscenes, title screen, church(obligatory organ music), sewer, dungeon and also a nice collection of music for the closing moments. And it's all quite listenable.

The effort here by the newly-formed Infinite Ventures is genuinely an impressive one. Known mostly for rehashing old names on systems like the Gameboy Color, they proved here that they can do more than simply redraw sprites and switch some code around. Shadowgate 64 is a tight production, adequate both sonically and visually, with a plot very characteristic of the world of Shadowgate. The puzzle-solving elements are wholly satisfying while at the same time often teeth-grindingly difficult to figure out, and the game makes no bones about calling you out on what its shown up to a point; second-chance hints being few and far between. The only minor complaints are that, like the first, it's probably still a bit too short and, unlike it, the deaths have been watered-down significantly. But fans of the original shouldn't miss this one. It's a lot more affordable than Beyond Shadowgate and in particular the system it comes on($200-300 or so), which makes it the optimum choice for continuing to learn more about Shadowgate's fascinatingly dark fantasy world.

Rating: 9/10

sapharos's avatar
Community review by sapharos (May 24, 2004)

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