Content Warning: Horror themes, descriptions of blood & gore, references to pagan lore, use of magical spells
“The last thing that you remember is standing before the wizard Lakmir as he waved his hands. Now you find yourself staring at an entryway which lies at the edge of a forest.”
You are the errant knight, sent by the wizard Lakmir to stop the evil Warlock Lord from raising the dreaded Behemoth from the depths of Hades. If you fail in your quest, darkness will cover the land. As you are the last in the bloodline of hero-kings who can wield the mighty and legendary Staff of Ages.
However, neither you nor Lakmir possess the staff at present, and before you face the Warlock Lord, the staff must be found. Fortunately, the staff is located somewhere within Castle Shadowgate, which just happens to be where the Warlock Lord is performing his dark summoning ritual. What luck!
“Five to find, three are one. One gives access, the Bladed Sun.”
As you adventure about the castle, you are able to interact with your surroundings via your HUD, which takes up about two-thirds of the screen. Objects you decide to take along with you are listed in order of acquisition under ‘Goods.’ You will also have need of a few magical spells along the way, which are kept on a separate list. For convenience, torches are kept together, in a stack, and are the only set of objects to be organized in this fashion.
Shadowgate is a rather large place, and in the spirit of solving puzzles and completing your quest, you will need to backtrack occasionally. That’s right, this place is full of puzzles and traps. If you become lost, examining everything in the room may set a light bulb off in your head. If nothing clicks, as a last-ditch mulligan, you can hit ‘select’ to receive a hint. In some rooms, however, the hint is only “Don’t quit now!”
“The Silver Orb, to banish below, the Staff of Ages, to vanquish the foe.”
Shadowgate has some of the best-drawn environments of the 8-bit era. Every room is unique, with its own personality and aesthetic. Your first-person perspective, paired with the detailed and colorful environments, gives this game a level of depth that was virtually unknown on consoles at the time.
There are many little details in this game that serve to help you appreciate your gameplay experience as a whole. A quill pen scrawls its way across the screen, narrating your entire adventure. Adding to the immersion is the constant flickering of your torch or torches. They are a constant reminder that you are here on business. There are even animations for a selection of key moments in the game. In an age long before full-motion video was the standard for gaming, this stands out, giving you the sense that you are actually doing what the game says you are.
“Joining two, the Golden Blade. The last to invoke, the Platinum Horn.”
The music of Shadowgate stands head & shoulders above 90% of the music in all of gamedom. All of the tracks serve to enhance their environments so strongly that the impact is visceral. You actually begin to feel courage, confusion, dread, anxiety, determination, or happiness, depending on the room you happen to be in at the time. You’ll even experience to a little sudden change in the music if you let your torch burn down for too long. This can have a heart-wrenching effect if you happen to be concentrating particularly hard when the music abruptly switches to “torch emergency.” Finally, the music of our buddy the Grim Reaper down there is like something out of Alfred Hitchcock. As a child, when I heard this music for the very first time, and saw the face of the Grim Reaper, I felt a sense of malaise that I can’t remember feeling since.
All of your actions in Shadowgate are narrated by an animated quill pen. You receive in-depth descriptions of most any item or piece of scenery you examine, and your actions are recounted as you perform them. You even get full descriptions of every new room you enter, and then a brief description if you ever re-enter that room. In addition to that, the countless death scenes you can experience are told in explicit detail as you experience them.
Shadowgate is an excellent game that will help you exercise your masochistic side. As you will keep coming back in an effort to figure out how to “beat this room.” Few games have a player stumble as hard or as often. Also, this game is far from linear. While there is a soft sequence that must be followed to beat the game, you are free to explore the rooms you’ve successfully accessed at your leisure. Make sure you have plenty of time if you’re sitting down to Shadowgate for the first time.
Fun Fact: In, 2012, original Shadowgate designers Dave Marsh and Karl Roelofs started their own company, called Zojoi, and embarked on a kickstarter campaign to recreate the entire game in stunning HD graphics.
Photo Credits: Moby Games
The Bottom Line
As a forerunner of the point and click adventure genre, this title stands out as a masterpiece. While it never experienced the mainstream attention of other Nintendo games like Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda, the presence of Zojoi and their modern remake are a strong testament to its loyal following.