If you haven’t heard by now, The Walking Dead adventure game won Spike’s VGAs as Game of the Year. Even if you might not think much of the VGAs, or just wanted something else to win, it was big recognition for a genre that hasn’t been in the limelight much since its golden years back in the eighties and nineties — even though indies and others continue to pump out remarkable titles like Wadjet Eye’s Gemini Rue today.
Adventure games have long been a staple of early PC gaming, but the point-and-click interface wasn’t. There were a few early stabs at making it work with a number of titles in the early eighties such as the relatively obscure, Planet Mephius, in Japan. But the Macintosh’s arrival had also helped in a big way. One of the developers to take advantage of it was ICOM whose hardboiled crime caper, Deja Vu, was completely point-and-click driven. And it would be that experience that would help them slip into deadly fantasy with Shadowgate.
It initially came out for the Amiga and the Mac in 1987 and would be ported to other platforms in the following years…such as the NES in 1989 along with another ICOM classic, Uninvited, in the same year. And both of those games translated the point-and-click interface over to Nintendo’s control pad making it accessible to a generation of gamers that might otherwise have never seen an adventure game outside of a computer.
Shadowgate was a departure for ICOM after Deja Vu and Uninvited, both of which took place in relatively real-world settings. This time, it was a fantasy adventure game filled with monsters and deadly puzzles captured within a fortress of evil under the control of a terrible Warlock Lord. The only thing that can stop him from summoning a terrible Titan known as the Behmoth is our brave hero, the player, who must dive into this den of darkness to stop him.
It was also something of a surprise to the NES crowd, too. Instead of a platforming, action packed, twitch-centric adventure featuring monsters, mobile tanks, or a heroic cyborg, this was an honest to goodness adventure game in the same vein as as those from Sierra On-Line, Activision’s, Mindscape, or EA. And it was just about as forgiving.
Before FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls made it fashionable again to die and die often to learn a game, adventure titles back then weren’t shy about killing players, either. Shadowgate celebrated killing players with a variety of dangers whether it was self-inflicted or from lethal mistakes — such as trying to move down a hallway while being eyed by an angry dragon who quickly crisps you. Fortunately, the game had a battery-backed save feature that allowed you to pick up where you had left off.
Players used the d-pad to move an arrow cursor around the screen to check out everything that they would see through a first-person perspective. Most of the screen was taken up by the GUI featuring the basic commands on the bottom, like “Take”, and an inventory status on the right. But there was enough space to cram the detailed rooms and spaces of Shadowgate in to make it all work.
The game proved to be a solid title on the NES and a perfect way for a new generation of players experience an adventure that they might not otherwise have without a computer much like its sibling, Uninvited. Both also stood out as remarkable ports for making everything work with the control pad as well as bringing the puzzles and dangers over mostly intact.
Shadowgate wasn’t all perfect, though. There wasn’t much story to the game. The room descriptions and books read in the game provided more backdrop than actual story and the puzzles could be a bit frustrating thanks to Death making Shadowgate a vacation home. The tantalizing nature of these brief descriptions of its world, however, would continue to sit with fans for years afterwards who wanted to dive back into another adventure taking place there.
A TG-16 only sequel by ICOM, Beyond Shadowgate, came out in 1993 and the classic game returned to the Game Boy and the Palm in 1999. Another sequel arrived on the N64 in the same year developed by a company called TNS. Unfortunately, getting a hold of any of these classics can be a bit tough as they’re not a part of any modern compilations or have been offered up as a part of a digital download service.
More recently, however, a group of devs at Zojoi have successfully funded their Kickstarter to resurrect the original game with a sort of HD “re-imagining” featuring fantastic new art, music, and even new puzzles and rooms on top of what will already be there, bringing a new classic back to today’s generation and those that have fond memories of the original.
Seeing as it can be somewhat tough to find the originals, especially the older PC versions, it’s great to see this coming out. For adventurers looking to scratch that fantasy itch, Shadowgate will be waiting to welcome them in once again…with traps and dragonfire.