Trawling through the new Shadowgate’s Steam forums for clues some twenty-five years and one college education since I played the 1989 NES version, I’m once more made to feel inadequate by the living castle.
I count the NES Shadowgate among my greatest gaming regrets. In a time before tutorials, its death-dealing dungeon was notably, and at times absurdly, cryptic. At some point in the early ’90s, a room full of elementary school–aged boys spent an entire summer staring dumbly at a pixelated sphinx whose riddle left them stupefied. This may have resulted in irrevocable damage to my sense of personal intelligence.
Zojoi’s re-imagined Shadowgate puts a new paint job on the 1989 NES classic and mixes up some of the puzzles—but deep down, where it really matters, the point-and-click adventure game remains the mind-ravaging challenge I remember from childhood. And like pure paraffin wax play, the pain becomes pleasure once you get into it.
As far as I’m concerned—and I concede to maybe just not being all that bright—Shadowgate’s better suited as a test than a game. I imagine there’s a deleted scene from Men in Black in which Will Smith is forced to reach the end in 400 turns or less. Of course, eureka moments or stumbled-upon solutions are twice as rewarding here as they might be in more standard adventure-game fare, but that sort of interest in challenge for challenge’s sake also makes Shadowgate weirdly hard to recommend (to most).
For the life of me, I can’t imagine Shadowgate caters to anyone but nostalgics, and for them, you don’t really have to flex harder then uttering its name. Eight-bit pixel art replaced with concept art–style digital paintings? Sure. A modernized soundtrack featuring actual instruments as opposed to bleeps and bloops? Rock on (literally, during the credits).
These, of course, amount to the obvious improvements Zojoi’s Kickstarter-funded remake touts. Aesthetic might be hit-or-miss for some—I’m partial to scratchy, rough-hewn concept art myself, and maintain that it produces a world with a lot more personality than something stock. Besides, once you’re in the thick of it all, navigating the winding corridors and locked doors of the living castle, there’s a Matrix Code moment when you stop seeing the world as it’s drawn and start seeing it as a complex series of puzzles to ply.
Those puzzles range from the immediately familiar (first key to first door under left skull) to minor twists on original solutions (say, the silver sphere and freezing a once shark-infested lake now home to something a bit more…monstrous). With such a limited amount of interaction available—look, take, open, close, go, use, hit, eat, speak—you’d think that, if nothing else, trial and error will take you to the end.
And that may be true, depending on how creative a thinker you are. But for many, especially those of us who’ve grown doughy from years of modern game design’s handholding, elucidation is left elusive by your own mental hangups, while others require the sort of scrutiny and physical paper note-taking that’s probably already viewed as adorably retro. In a world when slashing something’s throat and looting it is typically a two-button ordeal, the tiered process of choosing use: self on a fiend and then open: bag and use: stabby device on that same fiend to kill it dead is both intuitive in a duh sense—and yet counterintuitive to expectations of rapid response.
No doubt, Shadowgate is a throwback—a throwback to how simpler times yielded more complex design, a throwback to weirder times, and a throwback to a point in gaming history when mainstream interest wasn’t the end goal. Shadowgate was not made for everyone. Shadowgate—the new Shadowgate—was made for the original Shadowgate players, as uselessly circular as that is to say. Do I think that others should take a peek behind its curtain? Definitely. There might be a goblin or something lurking behind that curtain, and it’ll probably kill you, but besting it will offer you a glimpse at history, at something that really doesn’t exist anymore out in the wild, and something that, for many who cut their teeth on a mere eight pixels, is probably at the center of a story about that one game they never beat…