Some videogames require skill and sharp reflexes to conquer, and I am generally not good at those games. Other videogames force you to use your mind, to plan and to strategize, and I'm not good at those games either. Today, however, I'm playing a game where the most valuable talent you can possess is the ability to pay attention. That I can do, and I'm feeling pretty confident about my chances in this game - the 1989 NES version of ICOM's classic sudden-death-em-up Shadowgate!
I'm sure many of you are familiar with Shadowgate. I know I am, having played it a lot as a kid. That's why I'm playing the NES version rather than the original Apple Mac release - because I never managed to finish it when I was a kid, so this article is a chance to answer questions that have haunted me for almost twenty years, questions like "what lies in the depths of the Warlock's lair?" and "is there anything in this game that doesn't kill you if you so much as look at it funny?" The NES version is also in colour. That's not true of the Mac original, which looks like this.
Still, the Mac version doesn't look bad. Hell, if you slapped a filter over it that replaced the white with a sepia tone you could get away with saying the game looks like an illustration in some ancient tome. The NES edition is in glorious 8-bit colour, though, so summon your courage and grip tightly your trusty sword as we step into Castle Shadowgate! Except you can't grip your sword because it's not there; our hero neglected to bring any useful items with him despite facing almost certain death in the lair of a mad wizard. At a push you could argue that he brought a sack of some kind, because he ends up carrying a large amount of items and he surely can't just be shoving them all in his pockets, but there's no sword, no book of magical spells, no packed lunch and carton of Capri-Sun, nothing. The druid Lakmir has tasked our hero with entering the mysterious castle and stopping the Warlock before he can summon the Behemoth and destroy the world, and the least he could have done is given us a greeting card with an inspirational poem inside.
In case you haven't guessed yet, Shadowgate is a point-and-click adventure, with a cursor and everything, which I think makes it the first "proper" point-and-click adventure I've ever covered here at VGJunk. The top-left of the screen shows a first-person view of whatever you're looking at, (usually something that can and will murder you in an instant,) the top-right is your inventory and the bottom of the screen either shows your available commands or a text description of what's going on. To play, simply click on the command you want to use and then click on the thing you want to use that command or item on. In this case I need to OPEN the door and walk through. This is not the most taxing puzzle I have ever faced, admittedly, but things soon take a downward turn.
Beyond the first door is a hallway where the disembodied eyes of the evil Warlock peer into your very soul and give you some vague jabber about how you don't stand a chance, blah blah blah. He calls you a buffoon and everything, the cheeky prick, and while you may at first write this off as the hollow threats of an unimaginative villain, there is some truth to the Warlock's words, because the first time I ever played Shadowgate I couldn't get past the first two rooms. The doors at the end of the hall are locked, and I don't have a key. "It's got to be around here somewhere," a youthful VGJunk thought to himself as he scoured every pixel of these opening screens, unable to progress until he buckled and asked a friend how to proceed, the shame of not getting three screens in outweighed by the need to see the deeper mysteries of Shadowgate. Can you guess where the key is, dear reader? Go on, have a think. In fact, here's a clue.
If you press start or select, the game sometimes gives you a hint about what you're supposed to be doing. I say "sometimes" because it usually says "don't quit now!!" like a desperate tobacco marketer, but in this case it reveals that a skull is involved and hey, there's a skull above that door. I can't USE or HIT the skull, so maybe I can OPEN it?
Cue the Zelda item-get fanfare, because there is the key, nestled behind the skull. The skulls rises "as if by magic," huh? Yeah, the magic of me opening it with my hands. For my next trick, you can see that I have nothing up my sleeves except for this key that I'm going to open the door with.
See, when I was a kid I didn't know about the hint feature, and I wonder if the ICOM placed such an obtuse puzzle right at the start of the game to force the player to learn that the hint feature exists. It seems unlikely to me that you'd figure this out on your own - the skull looks like such an innocuous part of the background, and many a time a friend and I have joked about testing people who've never played Shadowgate before to see if they can find the key. I'm certain there are people out there who will be thinking "well I found the key straight away," but if five years of this site hasn't clued you in, I'm a bit thick.
Beyond the locked door is the world shittiest library, where a single book sits on a plinth sticking out of a drab grey wall. Graphics adventure games engender a kind of kleptomania in the player, where any item that isn't bolted down should be picked up in case it comes in useful later, and Shadowgate is no different. I collected the book, thinking that maybe I would later encounter a demon whose one weakness is bad puns and I could defeat it by throwing the book at it, but doing so caused a pit to open up beneath my feet and I fell to my death.
The end of your mortal existence is easier to take when you're ushered into the twilit world by this particular personification of Death, a grim reaper of unusual cheerfulness who has even gone for the comedy option of popping cherry tomatoes into his eye-sockets to give you a laugh before your soul is stripped from its prison of flesh.
Death is what Shadowgate is most famous for. Constant death, sudden death, deaths resulting from poor decisions or the unknowable whims of the monsters that infest the castle or simply from clicking on the wrong thing. The general rule seems to be that if the action you take isn't the specific thing you need to do to progress, you will die, and because it's not always clear what you're supposed to be doing a lot of these deaths can only be avoided through trial and error.
For example, here is the room that I consider "peak Shadowgate," the room that best sums up the game's desire to cause more deaths than cholera. There are three mirrors that you can smash with a hammer you picked up earlier. One of them has a door behind it. The other two lead to immediate death, either through the shards of flying glass slicing our hero in tagliatelle or, as seen here, by sucking him into outer space via a portal behind the mirror. As far as I know there's no way to tell on your first playthrough which of the mirrors is the non-lethal one, so you just have to experiment, die, and remember why you died for next time.
"The Grim Reaper is super needy!! He gets so lonely without you, but he doesn't understand personal boundaries!!"
The constant dying could get aggravating very quickly, but Shadowgate mitigates that frustration in a couple of ways. For starters, if you die the only penalty is that you're sent back to the previous room.
The other way is that the descriptions of your various deaths are the best part of the game. The puzzles aren't up to much, and ninety-five percent of them are simply figuring out which item to use on which thing with a couple of riddles thrown in, and while it is still satisfying to solve them the real joy of the game comes from the (often surprisingly gory, given it's on a Nintendo console) descriptions of your latest fatal fuck-up. Take, for example, the screenshot above where I tried to LOOK at the lava but accidentally MOVEd into it. "Bellowing like a fool" is such a great textual flourish, and everything is written in such an over-the-top, hyper-dramatic way that it's impossible not to be charmed by it. I think a lot of it's down to Shadowgate's steadfast commitment to the double exclamation mark, and everything has such a breathlessly excited air to it that it's like being a kid again and listening to a friend tell you about the super awesome horror movie they saw last night without their parents' permission, it was like, totally gross and a dude got instantly fried!!
There's one death that's not so much fun, and that's when you fall foul of Shadowgate's built-in time limit. Our hero must have a flaming torch lit at all times, collecting spares as he travels through the castle, and they gradually burn out as you explore. If you let your torch run out completely then you stumble around, trip over and break your neck. If I wanted to play as a character who's a bumbling, clumsy idiot with poor control of his own body then I'd go back to playing as Accrington Stanley on FIFA 15, thanks. The torch time-limit doesn't even effect the game in any meaningful way, either, because there are plenty of extra torches just sitting around in wall sconces where any light-fingered adventurer can grab them and you're unlikely to forget to light a fresh one because a strange and wonky piece of music plays when you're about to be plunged into the lethal darkness. It's pointless busy work, essentially, especially if you've played the game a few times and you can get through the early stages briskly.
It's been a long time since I played Shadowgate, and the pervasive air of imminent doom did occasionally play on my mind. Here, for instance, are two bridges. One of them is a sturdy stone construction, which the other one looks like it was built by a drunken dad who decides he's going to make a ladder for his kid's treehouse, half a bottle of breakfast scotch be damned. "Nice try, Shadowgate," I thought to myself as pondered my choice of paths, "but your attempt to trick me into taking the stone bridge will not work. I'm on to you!" With this this notion in my mind and a warm glow of pleasure at outsmarting ICOM suffusing my cheeks, I stepped onto the rickety bridge. It collapsed, and I died. Turns out you need to come back later with a magic potion that makes your body lighter, or as the game charmingly puts it:
Thanks for that, Shadowgate. Now I'll have to turn to this box of Tesco bakewell tarts to ease my pain (other brands of bakewell tart are available).
By the way, on the other side of the rickety bridge is a large snake that is transformed into a staff when you use a magic wand on it. A staff of tremendous beauty, in fact. Phwoar, just look at it. I'm getting hot under the collar just being in the same room as this radiant piece of dowelling.
As I said at the start, the key to playing Shadowgate is to pay careful attention to everything. Any slight anomaly in the background art, no matter how minor, might serve a purpose even if using the LOOK command to investigate it doesn't make it clear. In this laboratory, for example, one of the stones in the floor has a metal ring attached to it. If you LOOK at it, the game tells you it's for chaining up animals, but it you USE it a secret compartment is revealed that contains a very important vial of water.
These things are not always so well hidden - the glaringly obvious rock in the wall of this cavern is the most suspicious thing I've seen in a videogame since last time I played Doom and there was a rocket launcher lying out in the open. I HIT it, and there were gems behind it. I eagerly await my honorary membership of the Association of Gemstone Miners.
Speaking of the HIT command, there is also a SELF command. That's right, in Shadowgate you can punch yourself in the face. I am amazed that doing so doesn't kill you.
Paying attention also extends to the items you collect, and if you want a chance at clearing Shadowgate without referring to a guide then I suggest you use the LOOK command on each and every item and make a note of any pertinent facts revealed by doing so. For example, LOOKing at the sceptre I found tells me that it's "made for a King," so when I found this extremely skinny and frankly rude king who would not talk to me, I knew what item to use on him. LOOKing at a coin revealed it had a well drawn on it, so when I found a well that "puzzle" was solved, and so on.
There are a couple of situations where you have to solve some more involved riddles, mostly relating to combining certain items into a weapon that can defeat the Warlock. Oh, and there's this guy.
He is a sphinx, and sphinxes love riddles. Riddles are like catnip to a sphinx. As is catnip, presumably. You have to answer a riddle to get into the next room, the answer to which is one of the items in your possession, which you USE on the sphinx to answer. The answer to this one was not "David Cameron's true and horrifying form" (my first guess) but rather "a broom." I think that means I solved the puzzle by poking the lion-man hybrid with a broom. He's lucky the answer wasn't "a spear."
So that's Shadowgate. Entertaining in its exuberance, not too heavy on actual logic and occasionally frustrating if you forget to examine every little thing that finds its way into your magical bag of holding. I struggled to get past this hellhound because I forgot to examine the WATER I was carrying. It just says WATER - which doesn't sound helpful in getting rid of a hellhound, it's not like spraying a cat that's taking a dump on your lawn - until you LOOK at it and you're told there's a cross on the bottle. From this I deduced it was holy water, which meant I could use it to banish the hellhound back to its infernal realm. It also means that this fantasy kingdom of wizards, dragons and idiot heroes who can't walk across a dark room without dying is at least familiar with Christianity.
This is confirmed when you fight a cyclops by using a sling to throw a stone into its eye, and upon doing so our hero references the biblical tale of David and Goliath. Maybe Christianity in this mystical land is the same as the Christianity of our world, but I'm going to go ahead and believe that they have their own, slightly different version where Goliath was an honest-to-God (pun not intended) giant cyclops monster and Jesus possibly fought a dragon by throwing a magical talisman at it.
As for the cyclops... well, the shot from your sling was only enough to stun it. Unless you want to to recover and terrorise you once more, you'd better finish it off by running it through with your sword while it's defenceless!
Yeah, hero of Shadowgate, what did you expect? Your actions have consequences, you know. That cyclops probably had a family, hopes and dreams. You have a SPEAK command right there, but you didn't even try to use it, did you? You went straight for the weaponry. Typical bloody adventurer.
Actually, I don't know why the SPEAK command is even there. I don't think you even have to use it once to finish the game. A subtle commentary on the futility of diplomacy? Or just the hero being such an idiot he can barely talk? No, wait, I have a more likely third option - given that everything else is trying to kill him and magic saturates the very atmosphere of Castle Shadowgate, he's probably worried that an innocuous word like "door" or "hello" will turn out to be a secret incantation that turns him inside out or something.
Before I head to the final confrontation, here are a few more of my favourite Shadowgate moments. In this comical tableaux, I forgot that the cursor defaults to MOVE, so rather than LOOKing at this window the hero jumped out of it for absolutely no reason and died. No warning, no hesitation, just "well, I've had enough of this shit. Goodbye!" It was definitely my favourite death in the game.
Our hero the pervert, ladies and gentlemen. C'mon, man, help her out. She'll probably be so grateful that she'll give you that pickaxe blade, it's sure to come in useful later.
Never mind, she was a werewolf, employing the usual werewolf hunting tactic of pretending to be a damsel in distress. Well, it beats roaming through the forest beneath the light of a full moon, I suppose. No need to be picking pine needles out of your fur afterwards, no angry woodsmen throwing the family silverware at you, if you bring some magazines to read while you wait it's the perfect plan. I hear the latest issue of Lycanthropy Monthly has a good article about how spandex underwear can help prevent embarrassment when you revert to your human form.
Singing "shoot that silver arrow through my heaa-aart!" after dispatching the werewolf is probably grounds for my expulsion from the Adventurer's Guild.
You know what they say, if something looks too good to be true then it probably is, but given everything else I've seen in this castle I didn't think it was too far beyond the realms of possibility that a leprechaun really did leave his pot of gold on the castle battlements. It was not death but rather the sense of shame that I fell for such an obvious trap that was my punishment as the floor well away. Considering most of the game takes place either indoors or far beneath the ground, I seem to be suffering a lot of deaths by falling.
Do you really consider pockets a "frivolous adornment," Mr. Shadowgate Hero? What are you, Amish? Considering you're carrying more miscellaneous tat than a whole city-centre's worth of charity shops, I should think you'd be terribly disappointed with this cloaks lack of pockets.
Between the staff, the captive were-woman and this unbelievably beautiful horn, Shadowgate seems to be casting our hero as a hyper-sensitive Romantic aesthete, barely able to function in the real word as the heart-rending beauty of everyday objects overwhelms him. It makes a nice change from grizzled, taciturn military men, although this side of his character would have more impact if he was deeply moved by items that didn't look like crap.
Okay, it's time to wrap this up. Far below the castle, our hero finds a giant door shaped like a skull with laser-beam eyes, locked by an intricate mechanism. I get the feeling I'm on the right path to find the Warlock. The only people who have giant skull doors are evil magicians and James Bond-style supervillains. Actually, if it wasn't for the fact that our hero started the game with no gadgets more advanced that "a stick with fire on the end" I could make the case that Shadowgate is the fantasy equivalent of a Bond story, a lone hero sneaking into an enemy fortress to stop a megalomanaical evildoer from taking over the world. The big difference is that James Bond would have had more quips on hand had he happened across a woman in chains.
Our hero finally enters the Warlock's inner lair, but it's too late - the Behemoth has already been summoned! "The beast is indeed incredible!" it says. Yeah - incredibly adorable! Look at that big sleepyhead, all pink and dribbly and bleary-eyed. The Behemoth does not look too impressed at having its ancient slumber disturbed, so I feel we have some common ground. Still, we can't let the Warlock take over, so we'd better banish them. That's accomplished by bolting together various items you've collected along the way, including the staff and an orb, which somehow turns it into a "living entity" but still remains a staff. That sounds like a pretty terrible form to be alive in. You wouldn't be able to do anything without a wizard's sweaty and no doubt terribly unhygienic hands all over you. Anyway, once you've assembled the magical Staff of Ages, you can USE it on the Behemoth to send it back to the depths.
As it falls, the Behemoth drags the Warlock down with it. Two birds with one stone, nice. I'm glad that we didn't have to kill the Behemoth, I felt sort of sorry for it. I don't think it really wanted anything to do with the events it was rudely dragged into, so it's nice that it can return to whatever dimension of untold horror that spawned it. It won't be so much fun for the Warlock, but then booby-trapping that ledge with a sack of gold was such a dick move I can feel no sympathy for him.
Shadowgate draws to an end, a brief text epilogue is displayed and our hero is granted the throne of a small kingdom and a princess' hand in marriage. The princess is described as "fair" so I'm sure our hero will be paralysed by her radiant beauty. That'll make the wedding night awkward.
I can wholeheartedly recommend that you play Shadowgate, so long as you're not looking for an adventure game that's all about taxing your brain with logical puzzles. If you enjoy ridiculous, overblown descriptions of things like stabbing a werewolf, you'll definitely have a good time, and there's still enough thought required for it to work as an adventure game. I know I enjoyed it, and it's nice to have finally finished Shadowgate after lo, these many years. What will I take away from the experience? Well, I'll have the main musical theme stuck in my head for weeks, but most importantly I have learned to be very careful when looking through windows lest I accidentally jump to my death.