The Spookiest NES Game Ever Made?

Posted by Steven Collier on Oct. 2nd, 2015

Of all the video game genres to fall out of popularity over the years, none was so great as the adventure game. I'm talking about quality point-and-click games like the ones LucasArts used to crank out on an annual basis. Stuff like Maniac Mansion, King's Quest, or our subject for today: Shadowgate.

Originally designed for the Apple Macintosh, as part of the "MacVenture" line of games, Shadowgate's popularity eventually earned it an NES port in 1987. The plot of the game is pretty standard stuff. Players took control of the "last of a great line of hero-kings" who must stop a Warlock Lord from summoning the world-destroying demon, Behemoth. As a "hero-king" players had to investigate every square inch of Castle Shadowgate to solve the puzzles that would lead them to the Warlock Lord's hidden chamber and put an end to his villainy. Like I said, pretty standard stuff.

What makes this game truly unique is that Shadowgate is one of only a handful of NES games that can really be labelled as part of the horror genre. Yes, tons of games like Castlevania used horror elements for their visuals. However, these were rarely intended to scare players. At their core, they were action-platformers through and through. The same cannot be said about Shadowgate. This game is creepy.

Skeletons of fallen heroes lie strewn across the castle's gloomy halls, which the game text describes in terrifying detail. Because of its presentation, Shadowgate relies on the strength of its writing to set an effective tone. And it succeeds wonderfully. Every room, enemy, and trap is vividly brought to life by the text that constantly flashes across the bottom of the screen.

Because it's a point-and-click adventure, players are presented with a series of written prompts that describe the trials at hand, and are invited to take their time in carefully choosing how to deal with each. And you will need to choose extremely carefully. Shadowgate is brutally unforgiving. Any and every mistake is usually met with instant death. Touch the wrong brick, make one false step, take one false turn, and it is all over for you.

Get used to seeing this screen. Because you're going to die. A lot. And this bony jerk will be there, grinning like an idiot at you every time. There are literally hundreds of ways to bite it in this game, and each grisly demise is accompanied by a graphic description your latest ghoulish fate. Honestly, it's a phenomenal amount of macabre detail for an 8-bit game and it adds all the more to the game's oppressive atmosphere.

Now before you write off this game as sounding too difficult to be fun, hear me out. The NES version of Shadowgate features a robust save feature, so there's really no lasting punishment for messing up. You die and can almost instantly be returned to where you were before you made any fatal decision. Consequently, there's actually loads of morbid fun to be had trying to discover all the lethal easter eggs hidden in this game. Many of them are intentionally written to be darkly humorous for this exact reason. Shadowgate's punishments are severe, but they do little to slow down the actual gameplay.

Ironically, death is designed be the least of your worries. No, what'll make you panic is lighting. You see, there is a sort of countdown timer as you wander the castle. You can only survive so long as you have light to navigate the halls of Castle Shadowgate, and you can only get light by using torches, and those torches slowly fizzle out over time. So, when you find yourself stymied by one of the game's many challenging puzzles, there's a very real sense of urgency to solve it as quickly as possible, before the darkness has a chance to swallow you whole. It's kinda' like playing Myst on some sort of extreme difficulty setting.

If there's one thing Shadowgate does right, it's manipulating player expectations. Unlike most adventure games, there isn't a use for every object you can pick up. Tons of your inventory is going to be nothing more than red herrings. Similarly, the game's narration is written to be fantastically unreliable. Usually it will try and guide you in the right direction, but then without warning it will encourage you to march right into a death trap. The entire time you're playing, you'll be constantly trying to guess whether or not the flavor text is conspiring against you. And while you wonder that, your torches will just keep burning...It's pure paranoia fuel, and it works!

Shadowgate does a phenomenal job of keeping its players in a constant state of suspense. But the NES port offers a few features that the original Mac game never could. For one, it is presented in color. For another, it has audio. The music is a mixed bag, but the fact that it's programmed to play at a more frantic tempo every time your precious torches begin to burn out really adds a lot to the game's already nerve-wracking tone.

However, the transition from computer to the NES also came with one major drawback. There's no getting around the fact that this is a game that was meant to be played with a mouse. Now, the NES D-Pad more than gets the job done, but it will feel conspicuously cumbersome as you fumble through the many menus found in Shadowgate. Fortunately, the game has been well paced to accommodate these issues, and it never comes close to ruining the experience.

Final verdict: Shadowgate is an amazing title. If you like classic adventure games, or just want to play something spooky as we move into the Halloween season, then it's going to be hard to beat this sinister puzzler. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

But, what do you think? Did you find Shadowgate truly spine-chilling, or did it just leave you feeling cold? Did you like the difficulty of its puzzles, or did you find them impossible to solve? I'd love to know your memories about this lesser known NES house of horrors in our comments section.

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