Top 100 Retro Games: Shadowgate
Nintendo Entertainment System
Before I played Shadowgate on the NES, I had read about it in game magazines and seen the game on a friend’s Apple II system. The interface was a lot different from what I was used to, and I was fascinated by using the mouse to interact with the game environment. MacVenture games, as they have come to be called, are an interesting genre for sure.
I had played a lot of more text-based computer games or games that just used keyboard inputs, so this was new ground for me. When the game arrived on the NES in 1989, I wished that a mouse had come with it.
I was, of course, already familiar with text adventure games, and, as I said, keyboard-based games, but Shadowgate was something totally different. It was not an RPG, nor was it totally text based. It told a story, almost like a book, but with graphics.
Yeah, novel with graphics. That was how I thought of it back then. I was very intrigued and excited to read about it coming to the NES in Nintendo Power and other magazines.
Shadowgate was a hard, but beatable if you took notes and a clever game with an outstanding soundtrack. More on that later.
So, the plot of Shadowgate goes something like this…well, let me read it directly from the intro of the game. Ahem.:
“The last thing that you remember is standing before the wizard Lakmir as he gestured wildly and chanted in an archaic tongue. Now you find yourself staring at an entryway which lies at the edge of a forest. The Druid’s words still ring in your ears: “Within the walls of the Castle Shadowgate lies your quest. If the prophecies hold true, the dreaded Warlock Lord will use his dark magic to raise the Behemoth, the deadliest of the Titans, from the depths of the earth. You are the seed of prophecy, the last of the line of kings, and only you can stop the Warlock Lord from darkening our world FOREVER. Fare thee well.”
After being previewed in the November/December 1989 issue of Nintendo Power, Shadowgate was a featured game in the January/February 1990 issue with Batman on the cover. Along with Nintendo Power’s usual cool drawings, the magazine goes into great detail about how the game works, including the command menu and how to acquire items. It then, in normal Nintendo Power fashion, goes on to give a pretty exhaustive guide to the first part of the game.
A few pages after the Shadowgate there is a profile of some guy named Shigeru Miyamoto.
While the cover of the PC version of Shadowgate has this remarkable Cthulhu looking monster on the front, the NES port has a Gargoyle with blood-red eyes staring back out at you on its cover. It’s still pretty cool for sure. I have actually seen a few different versions of it over the years, one that has a dark background and another that has what I guess is supposed to look like spider webbing on the back.
After its initial release on the Commodore 64, Amiga, and NES, Shadowgate was then ported to Windows 3.1 and its followups. It was also ported to the Gameboy Color. There were sequels created for the PC Engine and N64, which I have never played.
A few years ago, a remake was successfully Kickstarted and came out on Steam. I own it, but haven’t played it much. It has recently been ported to modern consoles as well.
I replayed Shadowgate via the new collection on the PS4. I did two streams and then wrapped it up offline because there was only about 10 minutes of game play left when the stream ended. This collection also includes De Ja Vu and The Uninvited and is definitely worth picking up.
The story for Shadowgate is so interesting to me. We are only given little bits and pieces of it, which adds a certain kind of atmosphere to the game. There is talk of enslaved mountain dwarfs and references to many names we never hear about again. Also there is a Warlock Lord, which I wonder if it is a reference to the popular at the time Shannara fantasy novels by Terry Brooks.
On stream, I was deeply amused by the double exclamation points on many lines of dialogue. I had sort of never noticed that before, and it is very dramatic and funny. Such a seriously toned game also has a bit of a sense of humor too.
I also love how the Grim Reaper drawing looks like it came fresh off Pushead’s desk.
One time I did groan a bit at the game was when the werewolf, and I did not know they had these powers, turns itself into a pretty woman. Your avatar, according to the dialogue, gets pretty horny about her….uh dude she is chained up for crying out loud! Maybe worry about rescuing her first man. Of course, it is pretty obvious that this is a trap to lure you in, which is such a crappy and very misogynistic trope. It’s a real bum out near the end of a pretty awesome game.
I played the Apple versions of the game for this podcast as well. I love the mouse interface on it. The graphics are a lot more sharp and clear. The black and white looks superb. The sphinx and grim reaper are especially solid.
I wish there were more modern takes on the MacVenture genre. This is a genre that was very popular, and I think could really find a home these days on phones and systems like the 3DS and Switch.
Big thanks to Greg Stewart for his Shadowgate streams that were also very useful for research.