If you were around for the point-and-click adventure boom on computers in the 80s and early 90s, then you’re probably already aware of Shadowgate. While Sierra and LucasArts battled it out for the number one position – Sierra always won, by the way, even if it didn’t have the better games – there were a handful of developers that released lesser known adventure titles. Of those, one of the more prominent were known as “MacVenture” titles, which were menu driven point-and-click adventure games specifically for the Macintosh and created by ICOM. These games were so popular they ended up getting ported to microcomputers, received color, and eventually even made it onto the NES. Shadowgate was one of those MacVenture games and when I played it on my NES as a youngster I couldn’t believe the amount of horror, death, and adult themes that appeared on a console riddled with childlike concepts. Much like other adventure titles I had to try everything on everything, but unlike those other titles I would die all the time and merely be sent back to the scene just before my death. This meant that if I was patient and persistent enough, I could overcome the challenges and complete the game. The idea that I couldn’t get stuck and barely got penalized for being experimental was the key drawing point of Shadowgate and its peers with the enchanting story being the icing on the cake. Now, almost 30 years later, Shadowgate has been re-imagined and somewhat brought it into the modern times resulting in a title that is unapologetically retro and yet refreshing for veterans all the same.
Your plot starts barebones with you waking outside of a the entrance to Castle Shadowgate. Your quest is to journey into the castle and do away with the evil Warlock Lord that has holed up within. Along the way you will encounter countless puzzles, scenarios, and of course enemies that attempt to stifle your progress. I love the way Shadowgate’s story unfolds before you as you journey within the castle, each room adding onto the overall plot that captures that hybrid between fantasy and gothic horror – D&D’s Ravenloft brought to life. The interface is relatively unchanged from the original with the various ways to interact with objects (use, talk, open, etc.) placed at the top of the screen and a basic “do this on this” gameplay mechanic. Those less familiar with the classic adventure style can toggle the interface to being much more like modern mobile adventure titles and have the interactions appear on an icon-based wheel when clicked on. I first saw this in Gabriel Knight 20th Anniversary and I must admit that I like the format, so I found myself using this style instead of the classic style as I revisited Shadowgate. As with other adventure games you will have an inventory and popular items can become hotkeys so that redundant actions can be performed with ease. Much like the classic game, you will want to save first and save often as it’s not too far into the beginning of the game that death-causing hazards can cross your path on a regular basis. Some may think it frustrating or bad to themselves in a death state, but you will die so much in the course of the game’s 6-8 hour campaign that you might as well embrace it and enjoy what Shadowgate has to offer in terms of unique ways to die. Another adventure game similarity will be getting stuck, which will happen at times, and you’ll be forced to backtrack and try anything you can possibly think of. It may seem annoying at times but rest assured that you’ll never be permanently stuck and have to start over, which was common for games like this back when it released. There’s also a hotkey to have every object you can interact with glow in the room, another staple I first saw in Gabriel Knight, that will remove the frustration of not knowing an object can be manipulated. It’s the old game brought back to modern day, but not without plenty of thankful updates.
This new version takes the classic story and rebuilds it with gorgeous hand drawn art for both cutscenes and setpieces, making it so easy to immerse yourself in the world. While I felt the same way back in 1988, these days the original graphics look extremely dated and cartoon-like to the point that it wouldn’t intimidate a small child, let alone a player who wants to lose themselves. The world of Shadowgate is brought to life with casual animations, realistic sound effects, and incredible oil paintings that sell the world in spades. Not only that, but the NES soundtrack has returned, albeit updated to be actual music instead of chiptunes. Anyone who played computer games back then will note that the soundtrack suffered the most because these machines were incapable of generating much sound, so ports to consoles like the NES with multiple sound channels always sounded much better than the computer counterpart. The fact that the developers decided to revitalize that score and integrate it is a thankful addition. It’s not just the same game either – although the entire original game is more or less present – but more rooms, puzzles, and content have been added. There are now multiple difficulties that do a decent job of accounting for the story-driven casual adventurer and the hardcore superfan that dares this game to get the best of them. I found the normal difficulty to set pace just fine with me and given that higher difficulties increase the consequences of failing and puzzle difficulty was discouraging, even to someone who has completed the original a couple of times. You’ll want to be sure of the challenge you ask for, but I assure you whatever you pick you will definitely receive.
I wasn’t able to find any true issues with the game outside of the nature of what it is. The updates and changes are welcome, the visual and audio update makes for great presentation, and it’s a re-imagining of an already rock solid adventure title. On the other hand this is a genre that died out long ago and I’m not sure how eager the modern gamer is to experience. I will admit that if you want to give the genre a try, you really can’t do much better than this new Shadowgate to get acquainted with the genre. Despite being such a fine example of the adventure game, it’s so good at capturing the genre that the repetitive and frustrating process of figuring out what to do next is still present and you’ll be tempted to pull up an online guide multiple times in your journey. I highly recommend you do not since this breaks the very nature of what makes these titles compelling, but that’s only valuable if you are able to embrace and tolerate it. Shadowgate is back and it’s a great update on a classic formula that I highly encourage those curious about the genre experience. It was recently released on mobile platforms, which may be an ideal way to play because the gamplay easily lends itself to slow progress and short bursts of play. Unfortunately if you’ve always had trouble connecting with games of this type, it still stays too similar to the original to offer a more palatable title for the masses.
Final Score: 4 out of 5
A review copy was provided by the publisher. Shadowgate (2014) is available on Steam (Win/Mac/Linux) for $14.99 and iOS for $4.99. Alternatively you can purchase a Steam code via the Shadowgate web site for the discounted price of $10.99. It took approximately 6 hours to complete with a total play time by the reviewer of 8 hours.