Review by Psycho Penguin

Reviewed: 09/16/03

That damn song's still stuck in my head.

Shadowgate is one of the more interesting games I have played on the NES. Usually, point and click games are delegated to personal computers or dismissed as games that only geeks play. Never did I know that these ''geekish'' games not only came out for such a popular system as the NES, but they also manage to be quite fun and engrossing when given a chance. When I first got Shadowgate, I was disappointed by the fact it wasn't a normal action game or something that required actual skill to complete. However, once I finally devoted some time to it and managed to figure out how the unique gameplay actually worked, I found myself hooked.

The storyline may be the most unoriginal part of the game, so I'll get it out of the way first. You play the role of, um, you, and you have to go into the castle to destroy the evil wizard. He plans to bring back this evil master named Shadowgate, who will do bad things, so you might want to take care of that before he does so. And so the adventure begins..

.. and what a way for it to start out. You can't even get in the door without figuring out a puzzle. The answer is pretty easily figured out (you have to find a key and then place it in the lock), but the way in which you have to figure it out (there's a skull above the door, and this skull contains the key), is pretty awesome. Expect lots of these puzzles throughout your journey, and that's all part of what makes Shadowgate so engrossing. You have to use your brainpower to figure out how to get your way out of rooms.

You get a cursor, and that's pretty much the only movement you'll get to make. A list of options on the side shows the commands you get to utilize at any time: everything from move to item is listed here in all its glory. People who are used to moving manually are going to be disappointed with the ''screen-to-screen'' movement via a move button, but those used to the point-and-click type of games, as well as those looking for something new, will find nothing to complain about. The options are relatively easy to figure out, and you'll never find yourself blaming the game if you die.

However, you will be pissed off at yourself. Shadowgate requires a high amount of brain power to complete. To solve puzzles, you have to use items you receive in thought-provoking ways. Enemies are placed in areas, and the only way to defeat them are by using items you received earlier on. Again, those wanting to actually phyically attack the enemies, or wanting a fight, will be disappointed. At no time does the enemy actually attack you, or vice versa, it's either use the item on it or die. You don't get hit points, it's one hit and you're dead.

Castle Shadowgate is a really confusing place, so confusing that many people will be frustrated. The castle is strategically mapped, and each room has meaning. You won't find a room that is completely useless for the entire game. Many times, you'll have to backtrack to previous rooms you already visited, to use a new item you received. This opens up a new area to explore. I love backtracking and trying to figure out where to go next, but it does get confusing and challenging at times, especially if you get lost.

Fortunately, Kemco decided to do the smart thing this time out and include a save system. Therefore, you don't have to complete the game in one sitting. You can save at virtually any time, which is awesome. No more struggling to find a save point when you're completely lost and just need a break from the game. The only downside to this is that saves can erase. That's it. There's nothing bad about it at all, especially considering it's pretty hard to complete Shadowgate in one sitting, even if you know exactly what you're doing.

The save system wasn't the only great thing about Shadowgate. The graphics are actually excellent for a 1989 point-and-click game. It's done in a 1st person point of view, which usually meant death for old NES games (especially Fester's Quest and Friday the 13th, which had horrific ''3D'' looks). However, the areas in Shadowgate are quite detailed and look nothing like the plain areas I was used to (and expecting).

The menus are brown this time, replacing the traditional (and quite ugly) black and white screens of old. This gives the game a much more medieval look, which I rather enjoyed. The commands are clearly labeled, as well, so you'll never have to figure out what is what. The areas themselves are varied and pretty well detailed. Each area looks different, and the minor details, like cracks in the wall, and floating skulls, add lots to the overall feel of the game.

I usually have one video game song stuck in my head, and that's the Shadowgate Castle theme. Once you hear it, you'll probably never forget it. It's not an annoying song, which is good. It's actually one of the better video game songs out there, and one I quite enjoy listening to all the time. It's very chilling and dark, which is perfect. The death song and accompanying sound effects are awesome, as well. Most of the sound effects are limited and plain, but add a great deal of feeling to the game. The outstanding music more than makes up for it, despite the lack of variety.

Shadowgate's challenge lies in the fact that most of the game requires a great deal of patience and brain power to figure out. Deaths are frequent if you know what you are doing. The problem is that once you know what to do, you're basically assured that you will never die again upon replay. Enemies won't kill you if you know what item to use on them, and traps won't get you if you know how to prevent getting them. Therefore, the game is extremely challenging on first playthrough, then easy as hell if you remember what to do.

And that's pretty much the only thing stopping Shadowgate from being a top-10 NES game. It's an absolutely outstanding game upon first playthrough, and one you will gladly be addicted to. Until you figure out how to beat it. Then, suddenly, it loses all replay value. There's no secrets, no second castle, nothing. And since you already know what to do, the second time through will be kind of boring, provided you already know what to do. All of the excitement and challenge will be taken out of it, replaced with a boring ''okay, so I collect this, and I'll use it on this.'' attitude.

Regardless of the limited replay value, Shadowgate is a classic. To those that have never played it before, I strongly urge checking it out. It's something completely different than most of you have played, but it's original as hell and deeply engrossing. The music and graphics are chilling, the gameplay is unique, and most importantly, the game is just plain fun. Those who think that all point-and-click games are geekish adventures for losers that can't play real games should strongly check this game out. It will change your opinion very quickly.

And you may even get the castle song stuck in your head. What more can you ask for?

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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