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Played in 2023
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Born too late to play the games on release,
Born too early to care about a remake,
Born just in time to pay full retail for whatever the heck this thing was
Born too early to care about a remake,
Born just in time to pay full retail for whatever the heck this thing was
As others have said, don't blame the devs, blame 573. I think if this is all you had, it would be better than nothing. But today there are so many better options - I can't feel good about recommending this version of these games to anybody.
Had my save file banished to the deep beyond. Was planning on not picking this back up for a couple of weeks, at least - then said "oh well, we ball" and set my emulator speed to 200%. Was back to where I left off in 30 minutes or less. Then I set things back to 100% and experienced mild whiplash. I'm typing this up from my hospital bed.
Shadowgate is pretty cool. The NES port of the original game is generally the first thing people think of when they hear the name - the one with the creepy grim reaper telling you how sad it is that your adventures have ended there. It's gained a fair bit of infamy for being one of those adventure games; the kind that kicks sand in your face for having the gall to try and play it. It isn't nearly as bad as, say, Infocom's 1984 take on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which was basically Douglas Adams experimenting with how many ways he could dunk on you. But it will still kill you at every available opportunity and mock you in the floweriest language possible. Part of its enduring legacy is assuredly because you're laughing with it for having the audacity. At some point, the decision was made for the franchise to make its jump to 3D, as was the fashion at the time. I played Shadowgate 64 for the first time long before I played the NES game - yet another Hollywood Video rental. I know for a fact I did not get far as a child, for one reason: It creeped me out something fierce. I came back to it as an adult and was at least vindicated to know that even if I chickened out, I probably wouldn't have made it far anyways... For one reason or the next.
Shadowgate 64 takes place an age or two after Lord Jair banished the Warlock Lord in the first game. You play as Del Cottonwood, a halfling that looks more like an elf, who is traveling with a merchant caravan that is suddenly subjected to a brutal ambush. Being the sole survivor of the attack, Del is dragged off to the infamous Castle Shadowgate, which has recently become a hive of bandits. What begins as an attempt at escape soon becomes something much greater - something vile is afoot within the walls of Shadowgate, and the fate of the world of Tarkus may very well be at stake. He is guided along the way by the spirit of the great wizard Lakmir, who mentored the hero Jair so many years ago.
Let's go ahead and get the obvious out of the way: This game is as ugly as a dragon's backside. The framerate is choppy, the animations are stilted, and every texture looks like the end result of asking a a medieval peasant to show you what dirt looks like using Microsoft Paint. Every locale is dark and dingy and crude, and I have to be painfully honest: I'm in love. Castle Shadowgate has changed hands many times over many years, at differing points being a king's stronghold, a warlock's haunt, and an acolyte's academy. The dimly lit halls, creaky doors and dusty furnishings all paint a picture of a place long forgotten by time - and full of secrets to be unearthed. It's very rough around the edges, but aesthetically, Shadowgate 64 nails the mood it's clearly going for.
As to gameplay: It sure is an adventure game. You will sniff around for items and clues that will permit you to progress. Puzzles of varying complexity and obtuseness will bar your way forward, and when you can't figure out the solution with the information you're given, you will devolve into desperately checking every room you've already visited for anything you may have missed, and start trying to use everything on everything when you're sure you haven't missed anything. This is simply the nature of the beast - genre veterans will feel right at home here. Whether or not Shadowgate 64 necessarily does that aspect any better than its contemporaries I'm not qualified to say. I will say that the game does a good job of keeping you invested, drip-feeding you information about your prison and its former inhabitants through a plethora of books, notes and dialogue. If you're the person who eats every word sandwich they stumble across in The Elder Scrolls, I think there's a chance you'll have a good time here. For Del's part, I think he should retire from the adventuring life and open a library, for all of the tomes you end up carting around by the end.
Of course, this wouldn't be Shadowgate without an element of danger, and there are a fair number of pitfalls for you to stumble into that will abruptly end your quest. Shadowgate 64, however, isn't nearly as pervasive in this respect as its predecessor - which may be a bit of a disappointment for somebody who found the myriad ways Jair could bite the dust to be part of that game's charm. You can still die, and quite easily at that - Del can't swim and doesn't have the good sense to not walk into a pit just because you told him to - but your opportunities to kick the bucket are far more sparse, and not nearly as inventive or exciting. When you do fudge up, it's back to your last save. Of course, part of what made the NES Shadowgate fun was that it never punished you too harshly for making the wrong decision. Yes, it was very silly of you to challenge that troll to fisticuffs. Move back a screen and try again. This encouraged experimentation; the greatest consequence for failure was a fun description of your demise and a light slap on the wrist. Shadowgate 64, on the other hand, has its level of cruelty entirely determined by how prudent you are in saving your game. You can save any time you want, and you will want to leverage that liberally, because if you got a bit too absorbed in the experience and accidentally took a long walk off a short cliff, you're going to be set back by a factor of "however long it was since I considered looking at that menu". This is a problem for two reasons: One, because danger is infrequent enough that you're not going to feel pressured to save each time you turn a corner - you're likely to only develop that habit when you're sent grumbling back to the title screen after an otherwise uneventful thirty to forty minutes of gameplay that's abruptly punctuated by plunging through a roof. And two, once you have developed that habit, it further breaks up the pacing as you instinctively save the game before performing even the most mundane of actions, just in case you don't survive. This leaves the game in an awkward spot where it's hard to get immersed in the experience, but also difficult to enjoy those brief moments of self-targeted schadenfreude. By the time you reach the end of the game where the threat level has markedly ramped up, you'll be saving every five minutes anyways, largely undermining whatever tension might have been intended. The original Shadowgate masks itself as being a sadistic game for masochists while ultimately being far more forgiving than other games of its ilk. Shadowgate 64 threatens to be an exercise in true masochism, which I can attest to: Only a truly broken individual would willingly relive an hour's worth of janitorial labor.
There is a lot more that holds this game back from being as solid as it could be. For starters, while I do personally appreciate the presentation, everything looking like mud can be a marked hindrance in a game that's about finding hidden items. There were at least a couple of times where I got stuck and ended up consulting a walkthrough, only to realize that I was on the right track, but I simply could not make out what I was looking for because it looked like floor. There are a few times where the only indication that something you can take or interact with is any different than the wall behind it is that its textures are slightly higher quality than usual. That isn't an issue unique to Shadowgate 64 in any case, but the muted color palette and the need to physically maneuver yourself to a point of interest don't help things much. As to the puzzles themselves: There are going to be times where solutions to your problems are going to be obscure, even when you have all the information the game is willing to give you. By and large, the game does leave a lot of clues in text and dialogue that can let you piece it all together readily enough. Unless I've simply missed a few things, though (and I wholly endorse this interpretation as I am not a clever wizard), some puzzles will simply need to be guessed at to be solved. I can think of one particular early example, and I'll try not to give any details away - I found myself at a roadblock after having picked over every single square inch of space available. I was only able to progress after checking a guide, and the solution not only required the use of two separate items, but also required you to completely throw logic out the window. After reviewing the materials I had onhand, I discovered one small line with regards to one of the items that could constitute a hint, but its usage was still anything but intuitive. In fact, a description of the item in the game's manual did more to hint at its proper use than the game itself did. There blessedly aren't too many more instances of this as you play through Shadowgate 64, but they can be effective pace-killers, and that is only exacerbated by Del's slow movement speed and the choppy framerate. A lot of this game will be spent with your head awkwardly craned downwards, pacing the floor and looking for anything that you could have missed. There's a not-insubstantial amount of backtracking, which is only going to add to the tedium. Add in that at least a couple of the end-game puzzles seem to be explicitly designed to waste your time, and you have a game that overall aims to test your patience more than your mettle. Seeing as one could beat it in a few hours, I suppose it's not being wholly unreasonable.
And yet, I don't think any of that necessarily needs to be a deal breaker. Simply put: Shadowgate 64 is good fantasy. It plays the tried-and-true zero-to-hero angle well, making it clear that while Del has no particular interest in being a hero, he may still be the most qualified in the moment to save the world from destruction. There's spells and staves and swords and dragons. There's plenty of talk about forbidden magic, about ages gone by, about legendary heroes and political turmoil, about lost loved ones and the ravages of war and disease and disillusioned young people, and about aging mentors concerned about who will inherit the future. None of it is particularly deep or mind-blowing, but tied together with the tight aesthetics of the game, it manages to feel surprisingly grounded and heartfelt. A lot of Shadowgate's dry humor still slips through here and there, mostly in the little narrative quips lampshading how silly games like these can be at times. And you can wrest a bit more of it out if you put in a dedicated effort to make questionable decisions, much like in the original. Top it all off with a wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack, and you have a delightfully mediocre game wrapped in a velvet veneer of missed potential. Seconds, please!
Overall, I feel that the gameplay of Shadowgate 64 is only going to appeal to a very specific type of person, but it does have a lot of charm. Calling it a forgotten gem feels a bit hyperbolic; I'd liken it more to a remarkably odd stone you find by the river and can't help but slip into your pocket. Spend a day running your fingers over its various bumps and grooves and see how you feel about it by the end. Whether it finds a new home on your shelf or ends up back upon the riverbed, I think it's worth at least a look for the adventurous type.
Yes, the new avatars are weird. Yes, it's thin on content. Yes, the motion controls are weirdly hit-and-miss. No, it isn't worth $40, let alone $50. Yes, they probably should have just rereleased Resort with extra features. That is not why my heart aches. Nintendo's sin is in not letting me throw the bowling ball backwards and making the people behind me do a funny little spin, and mark me: There will be a reckoning.