I recently dug out the ol’ NES and played a game that – to this day – still gives me goosebumps: Shadowgate. It seems silly but even as I’m typing this and thinking about the “death” music, I’m getting chills.
“After all these years, I’m going to beat this!” I said to myself. With my phone in hand for a quick walkthrough lookup (believe me in those days it’s a wonder these things were completed without them being chucked out a window first) and many deaths, I finally completed Shadowgate. With this done I went on and said to myself “Were there any other games like this for NES?” I found that Uninvited and Déjà Vu were released so I hit up eBay and bought myself a copy of each. After beating those, I hooked up my N64 and dug out my copy of Shadowgate 64 and I just finished that.
So what did I learn by playing these older games?
All of them are bad in their own special ways, but there was a reason that the original Shadowgate for NES was the only one originally in my sister’s (now my) NES collection: it’s the best out of the 4 games on many levels. Let’s explore those levels shall we?
A Brief Overview (or why I love/hate these games)
In case you’re not familiar with these games, they are in the adventure/puzzle-solving genre that was popular back in the late 80s/early 90s computer scene. Due to what was out when I was born and started getting into games, (4-5) I started out with these kinds of games. Depending on how the game was written, it’s mostly you against the developer’s logic. Most developers at the time (it seems) were assholes (or clever!) for putting in some crazy logic. Some of the puzzles are ridiculous.
The 4 games I listed were all developed by the same developer: ICOM Simulations. (now Infinite Ventures)
I’m going to talk about features of these games but not score them. (as per my review mantra)
Fiction/Story and Communication
A smart guy once said:
A well-written story can make a bad game good, but it can make a good game great.
…or something to that effect. His point is story isn’t the end-all be-all; it’s simply one piece of the puzzle. So how do these aged games fare today?
Déjà Vu (once you figure out everything) was a very ambitious game for its time. It tried to portray a murder mystery wrapped in a framing. Unfortunately it fails to convey some things that would have helped solidify the story (and characters) within the player’s mind. For example, how were we supposed to know that Ace and Joey had a troubled past? You only find out about this “bad blood” by reading an FAQ or finding out (seriously) at the end of the game. Another example of this is that the office of Joey’s secretary has the faint smell of perfume. Later in the game you find this faint smell somewhere else, softly denoting that the person in front of you is the secretary. Unless you’re paying close enough attention, you’re probably not going to put 2 and 2 together based on how far apart these events are spread throughout the game. ICOM needed to solidify the image of the secretary in the player’s mind more. They must beat the player over the head with it for us to remember it amidst all of this wacky puzzle solving.
Uninvited was a very simple game: save your sister from a spooky mansion. (or brother if you’re playing any version besides the NES one) Unfortunately there aren’t many characters within our mansion. We don’t even know who our brother and sister (or brother) are or why we should care. ICOM decided to shoehorn a story about dueling wizards in there which doesn’t make sense unless you read everything, and even then it’s anticlimactic.
Shadowgate wins on the story front. Sure, it’s not a unique story in any way (you’re a knight and have to enter a crazy castle to stop the Big Bad) but at least the story is simple enough so that you can concentrate on the puzzles. The puzzles and story go hand-in-hand, thus helping to boost each other.
Shadowgate 64 shouldn’t have been called Shadowgate 64. It barely latches on to the Shadowgate license, and only uses the name to sell the game. Only one item (the Staff of Ages) and a bunch of text in random books hold the Shadowgate universe together in this game. Without it, it would just be another confusing mess of a game.
If you’re making a puzzle game you’d better be damn sure that the puzzles are able to be figured out by some logic. Logic is all well and good but taking the time to communicate that logic takes a skillful designer who’s thinking about the player’s mindset.
Shadowgate wins in this category due to the fact that the puzzles are right in front of your face and the item descriptions are helpful. There’s one or two puzzles where the logic is way off, (“moon logic“) but it’s doable with some poking.
Uninvited has very simple puzzles and the most “junk” (useless) items out of the 4 games. I didn’t find the game that hard, but some item descriptions may throw you off the gameplay trail. There’s actually a ruby that you can pick up that will slowly kill you. Of course, in the original (non-NES) version, the mansion would slowly kill you instead. It’s good that Nintendo forced ICOM to change the game “timer” to an optional item so in case you spent most of your game time foolishly, you don’t have to start a new game again due to a stupid timer. However, since this is a game in which you are accustomed to collecting everything in sight, the ruby actually ends up making you scratch your head and say “Why am I slowly dying?”
Déjà Vu starts out good, but it drags due to the diverging goals. You end up having to use your gun a few times to solve some puzzles, but it doesn’t jive with the fact that you start finding keys so you end up thinking you’re missing things. There’s also one puzzle near the very end of the game that’s moon logic. The items make sense together, but the way they are used together is just…odd. You wouldn’t think of it. There’s no “A-HA!” moment.
Shadowgate 64 has no descriptions for items and no items-inside items like the other 3 games. Some items are hard to find due to where they are placed so you could be retracing your steps for hours looking for something. The flow of the game is scattered. When you finish something you’re left wondering “Where do I go next?” There’s no clear roadmap as to what to do due to the world being huge and your character (and game pacing) moving slowly. The least fun of the 4.
All 4 games have descriptive death texts. Some were pretty detailed and I’m surprised that they got through NOA’s censorship era. This applies to the NES games only as the ESRB hadn’t been invented yet.
Graphics/Look & Feel/UI
I am going to be comparing NES graphics to N64 graphics. Seriously.
Shadowgate, Uninvited, and Déjà Vu all use the same UI, but Shadowgate is the best of the 3. It seems to have a richer color palette and a bit cleaner (and slightly themed) UI. Uninvited gets last place in the 8-bit era while Déjà Vu lands somewhere in the middle. What about Shadowgate 64? The original Shadowgate was better. “But Shadowgate 64 was in 3D!” you say. Well yeah, but the framerate and the texture work present in Shadowgate 64 is pretty bad compared to other N64 games of that time. I’ll have to admit, the 2D work in Shadowgate 64 is the best part. Don’t believe me? Check out some “Let’s Play” videos. In fact, it looks like the emulators ran the game (according to those videos) better than the N64 could.
Another thing that bugs me about Shadowgate 64 is that it’s like the designers of the original Shadowgate said to themselves “We have all this power now! Let’s use it!” They definitely used it, but they didn’t seem to use it in a smart manner. The sprawling castle and the overdone texture work says “over-design” to me.
There can be some confusion when playing the 8-bit trio of games due to the text-only inventory and the limited descriptions. Both of these were limitations due to porting to the NES.
Shadowgate 64 doesn’t have death music, which is disappointing. The other 3 have death music and all of them make me have goosebumps.
Besides dying, the tunes in Uninvited are forgettable and some are even annoying at times due to how simple they are and how fast they repeat. Add that to the fact that you’re reading item descriptions onscreen while things are blaring in your ear and you get the point. The first tune in this video proves this point:
Shadowgate 64’s tracks are disappointing due to the fact that they’re not scary or eerie. They’re simply ho-hum. Nothing special.
The original Shadowgate wins on the music front as well. All of the tracks are memorable and fit the theme of the game well. In fact, one track may have ripped off another:
Here’s another sample of Shadowgate’s music:
Shadowgate and Déjà Vu also have great winning themes as well:
Déjà Vu does a great job of portraying the 1920’s detective feel:
If you’re looking for some head-scratching puzzle games, Shadowgate or Déjà Vu may fit the bill.
Special thanks to Charles for enduring these games with me