Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!



#137 – Shadowgate

Enter the castle and solve its mysteries, if you dare.

Such an inviting looking entrance.

To Beat: Reach the ending
Played: 10/17/19 – 10/27/19
Difficulty: 5/10
My Difficulty: 5/10
My Video: Shadowgate Longplay

This is another first for Take On The NES Library.  Yes, these are still happening more than four years and over a hundred games in.  This time I have played my first NES point and click adventure game.  The only other point and click games I’ve ever really played are some of the Professor Layton games, though I like them more for the outright logic puzzles.  This kind of game is not really my style, but I was intrigued at the idea of trying one for myself.  I think Shadowgate may be the most popular NES game of this style, and it was an interesting playthrough that I enjoyed.

Shadowgate is the third game in the MacVenture series of point-and-click adventure games that were originally created for Apple Macintosh.  The MacVenture games all have a common interface design but are separate games story-wise except for the two Déjà Vu games.  While Shadowgate was the third MacVenture game released, it was the first of the three games eventually ported to the NES.  Shadowgate was first released in 1987, developed by ICOM Simulations and published by Mindscape.  It was ported to many different PCs before reaching the NES in December of 1989.  The PAL version was released in Europe in 1991.  The NES port was published by Kemco*Seika and I believe Kemco also ported the game to the NES.

Shadowgate has a basic storyline.  The evil Warlock Lord is set to bring destruction to the world by raising and releasing the Behemoth.  You play as the last of the line of kings, and per your lineage you are the only one who can stop the Warlock Lord from his evil scheme.  You start the game at the front door of Castle Shadowgate.  You will need to use your reasoning skills, as well as equipment found along the way, to infiltrate the castle and make your way through to the Warlock Lord to put a stop to his plan.  Do so, and you win the game.  But beware, there are plenty of traps and enemies along the way that are out to get you.

The first puzzle is just getting into the castle.

The MacVenture point-and-click interface seems to be well ported to the NES.  You control a hand-shaped cursor that you move around the screen with the D-pad.  The left side of the screen is the viewing window where you see the scene set ahead of you.  The cursor freely moves across this window and you can set it on top of anything you see.  The right side and the bottom of the screen contain different options for you.  These are little squares labeled with text.  The cursor snaps to these squares as you move the cursor toward them.  The programming here is good as you can move the cursor to whatever you want both efficiently and intuitively.  The A button is used to select either commands, items, or objects in the viewing screen.  The B button cancels one of the commands you have previously selected.  Both the Start button and the Select button display a hint during gameplay.

Interactions in this game utilize a verb-noun structure.  You need to select an action, your verb, and then apply it to an object, your noun.  The actions are all listed out at the bottom of the screen.  The objects are things either visible in the viewing window or in your inventory.  Select your action, then select the object you want, and see what happens.  Sometimes you need to select two objects, most commonly when you want to Use one thing on some other thing.  Actions stay selected until you choose a different one, so you can use the same command over and over quickly.

These are the commands you can perform:

Move: Lets you move from one screen to another.  This command has a small mini-map below it that is freely scrollable with the cursor.  It contains squares for each of the exits relative to their positioning in the viewing window.  Often you can Move somewhere using either the square on the mini-map or the location itself in the viewing window.

The mini-map shows entrances that aren’t immediately obvious.

Look: Lets you examine objects in the viewing window or objects you are carrying.  This gives a text description of the item in question that might give you some information on how to use that item.

Take: Lets you add an item in front of you to your inventory, which is represented by a card system in the window on the right.  Each item is on its own line and you can page through multiple cards worth of items using the Up and Down arrows in the Card section of the menu.  You also learn a few magical spells in the game which are kept on their own separate card at the end of the inventory.

Open and Close: These commands are mostly used to open and close doors, but they do have some non-obvious uses from time to time.

Use: This is primarily how you apply an item from your inventory to something in front of you.  As far as I remember it’s the only command where you have to choose what to use and what to use it on.

Hit: Smacks something!  You may want to tread carefully using this against the creatures in the castle, but there are other uses too.

Leave: You can leave an item behind.  In the right situation you can use this command to thin out your inventory.  Fortunately, you can hold as much stuff as needed.

Speak: Talk to someone!  Not everyone talks back though.

The final two options in the lower right are Self and Save.  You can use Self to perform a command on yourself, such as if you want to eat something or use an item on yourself.  You can even hit yourself if you want, the game will let you try whatever!  Save records your progress to the battery backup.  It doesn’t hurt to save often in this game.

Torches … torches everywhere.

This game also has a system involving torches.  To get anywhere in the castle you need to keep a lit torch on you at all times.  You can see two torches at the top of your inventory and how the flames are doing.  You can also point the cursor to the flame and use it just like an inventory item.  When the torches start to run low, the music switches over a very queasy tune reminding you to light up another one to keep going.  If both torches are out, it goes dark and you end up tripping to your death, every single time.  There are a finite number of torches in Castle Shadowgate, but if your torch goes dark the game gives you back a partial torch for free, so you are never locked out from completing the game.

Speaking of death, there is a lot of dying that goes on in the game.  There are plenty of creatures and traps to deal with and you can suffer a grizzly death if you do the wrong thing or aren’t careful enough.  When you die you get a visit from Death himself as you get to read the description of how you met your untimely demise.  It is fun to see all the different ways you can perish and to read all the text written about it.  Dying puts you back one screen and you will keep respawning on that screen if you die there again without leaving.  A little tip here: I put the respawning system to good use whenever I got into a room with a puzzle where I died a lot.  I would go into that room, leave the room, and kill myself somehow so that I would always respawn in the room I was trying to solve.  It saved me a little bit of time at least.

This was my first time playing through Shadowgate.  I know this was a popular game back in the day, but I didn’t own a copy until my adulthood collecting days and I didn’t bother playing past the first screen when I tested my cart.  I have owned a few extra copies of this game and I think I’ve sold them all.  It is an inexpensive game to buy, floating around in the $5-$10 range.

Tons of items, a ton of danger.

I’m sure you are wondering if I was able to complete this game without any outside help, and the answer to that is no.  I really like to give puzzles an honest effort, but I’ve also decided now that I’m getting older that I value my time more and I don’t feel bad about looking up something if I’m truly stuck and have tried everything I can think of.  Rather than looking up answers directly on an FAQ or something, I decided to try a more official approach.  There is an official Shadowgate Hint Book created by Kemco*Seika that you could mail order from a form on the back page of the manual.  It cost $5.95 plus taxes and shipping, but thankfully we have the internet so I just did a search online and downloaded a PDF scan of the hint book for free.  The structure of the hint book is quite good.  It is laid out in the form of questions roughly ordered to how you would solve those events in the game, or around where you would find an item and wonder what you could use it for later.  The book comes with three levels of hints, A, B, and C.  A hints are gentle, B hints are a little more direct, and the C ones pretty much tell you what to do.  The hints are numbered and are all mixed up as well so that you are less likely to see relevant clues for where you are stuck.  This was the only help I needed to beat this game.  I used several A hints, some B hints, and a few C ones.

It’s hard to talk more about this game without mentioning specific puzzles, so that’s what I’m going to do here.  If you still want to try this game for yourself, now is the time to look away and just skip to the end.

If I had to guess, I would say I solved 80-90% of the games puzzles completely on my own.  Some of those solutions I’m pretty proud of figuring out with only my intuition.  I solved the game’s final puzzle on my own, after re-reading the poem I found early on and piecing the parts together.  The puzzle with the sphere was pretty clever.  That’s one of the few uses for the Leave command and that’s because you need to Take the sphere back after releasing it from the ice it made with your torch.  For whatever reason the entire usage of the sphere was intuitive to me from the start.  Sometimes I solved a puzzle accidentally.  There’s a puzzle where you have to collect a flute from the top of a fountain that I think ends up killing you if you try to grab it unprotected.  You need to find and equip a gauntlet that protects you from the dangerous fountain water.  I figured out the gauntlet on my own before even getting there so the problem was already solved.  There’s also one place where you find a key under a rug that you burn away with the torch.  There are a few rugs you can burn up earlier in the castle to no effect, so it was nice to have that experimentation pay off later.

This was the first of several places where I got stuck.

Here are some of the puzzles I remembered needing significant hints on.  The first major place I got stuck was getting past the room with the high ledge that breaks when you try and climb up.  There are two torches in this room that you cannot take with you.  The secret here is you are supposed to Use the left torch on the wall, which causes you to pull on it like a lever, opening up a passage to another room.  Nowhere does the game indicate you can Use things you don’t possess, so I thought that was a little misleading.  I didn’t figure out the Epor spell because you have to Look at the writing of Epor on the wall twice.  (That spell isn’t mandatory, it turns out.)  I completely missed where you can pick up rocks to equip on your sling to take out the cyclops.  The most significant puzzle I didn’t figure out was near the end when you need to pull a set of levers in a certain order.  Several rooms back with the sphinx, there are etchings on a staircase that show the state of the levers at each move.  I know I saw something in the hint guide eluding to those etchings, but even then I didn’t bother noticing them and as a result I was completely lost on that puzzle.

Now that I’ve beaten Shadowgate, I have three observations about its structure that I hope I will be able to apply to Déjà Vu and Uninvited later in this project.  First, Shadowgate has a lot of room exits that you either cannot reach or die trying.  They are essentially fake exits.  I know I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to climb the broken ledge, or pass the dragon in the hot room, or break down the landslide in the waterfall room, among others.  The hint book helped me understand that these are simply red herrings.  Second, almost all items in the game are used exactly once, if they are used at all.  Some of the extra items were potential solutions to the sphinx’s riddle, but there were plenty of things that had no use whatsoever.  All of these things remain in your inventory.  It would have been helpful to know to stop trying to use items after they were already used.  There is one place in the game I found, the lake room, where you can toss unnecessary items.  Once you freeze the water over, there’s no other way I found to shed excess items.  That happens pretty early in the game too, limiting its usefulness.  Searching through your vast inventory for a puzzle solution becomes tedious at the end.  Third, the torch mechanic is completely useless and a waste of time.  When torches go out, you die, only to be restored with a partial torch good for a bunch of moves thereafter, and then you go back only one room.  The only good reason to light torches when low is to save you some time and avoid the annoying low-light tune.  I think the torch mechanic is unique to this game, which I certainly hope is true.

I am by no means an expert in these kinds of games, but in the end, Shadowgate was a fun experience for me and I enjoyed it, when I wasn’t stuck that is.  The presentation is really nice in this game.  The graphics are very detailed and there are a variety of rooms and settings you will come across in the castle.  The music in this game is top notch and a quality addition to the game.  The controls are excellent, giving you complete control of your cursor or locking it to the menu items when you need it.  I noticed the cursor speed slowed down intentionally in some rooms when you require more granular control.  This attention to detail is impressive for an NES game.  The puzzles in this game are mostly good.  Some were obvious, some were clever, and some were a little unfair.  It’s hard to pin a difficulty on this game, but I went down the middle with 5 because the whole game is a mental exercise with a well defined set of options.  The game becomes trivial to play when you know all the solutions to everything.  I can see why this game is more popular than I realized.

#137 – Shadowgate