An Hour With: Shadowgate

By John Walker on August 21st, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

Shadowgate is back. The 1987 RPG adventure, probably the most fondly remembered MacVenture and a distinct entry into the NES’s catalogue, has been remade and expanded. It’s out now, and I’ve played it for an hour or so. I grumble.

I didn’t play Shadowgate when it first came out. This was partly due to my being 9, and partly due to its primarily being known for being a NES and Apple Macintosh game. We were not a Mac family. In the mid 80s, my dad’s computer set-up on the spare bit of kitchen counter (behind the door, so you had to remember not to open it too hard) would have been an Atari 520. We’d likely have been playing Dungeon Master. So it is without specific nostalgia that I approach this remake.

But not without nostalgia altogether, of course. Being 9 or 10, and playing RPGs with my dad, is a pretty fundamental happy place for me. He’d get home from work at about 5.30, we’d have dinner, and then at 6pm he’d plonk himself down by the breakfast bar and I’d climb up onto the stool next to him. And help. You can imagine.

So I don’t experience that peculiarly wistful temporal magic when looking at a screenshot of the original Shadowgate, in the same way as I might when seeing a game I’d frequently played then entirely forgotten about (like, say, D/Generation or Nebulous), but it’s evocative of a special era for me.

Shadowgate 2014 will, I suspect, never be such an experience for any current nine-year-olds. I can’t imagine in 30 years anyone will mention the game’s name as a magical incantation. I suspect this because they’ve created something that doesn’t feel like it belongs in any time.

The core concept of the game remains the same, and while that initially sounds like the right decision, it’s too much the same. This new version takes advantage of resolutions a squillionty-times bigger than the original, with entirely re-drawn graphics, new locations and puzzles, but it takes advantage of very little else.

The game – a first-person fantasy adventure-RPG – takes place in static screens, with movement conveyed via transitions. I would have loved to have seen an embracing of something more Legends Of Grimrocky, but understand the game sticking with this format. What I don’t understand is keeping the verb-based interface. What I absolutely don’t understand is keeping the verbs at the top of the screen, in the most clumsy arrangement.

Originally the viewing area of the screen was a small box, in the middle, and obviously that would be daft now. Instead, rightly, the whole screen is the viewing area. Unfortunately it’s one that is then obscured and cluttered by having the original enormous text box covering the bottom fifth of the screen, and the verbs blocking the top fifth. With so much more space, with widescreen now the norm, there was such an opportunity to move the verbs and make the layout more sensible. Heck, the NES version in 1989 moved them to the right! You can hide the UI entirely, but then of course you’re just stabbing at keyboard shortcuts, and it’s even more confusing. There was such an opportunity to streamline this, but instead it’s just as it was.

There were excellent systems invented by the 1990s, such as rotating cursors, or right-click in-frame menus, that dealt with the frustrations of late 80s adventuring. It’s odd that this is all forgotten. And that this wasn’t seen as a chance to try improving things, making it all slightly more intuitive, and having the game realise if I click my lit torch, and then on an unlit torch, I’m probably not trying to get the first to eat the second. That if I want to USE a lever, there’s a fair chance it’s not going to be an unavailable attempt to chop it to pieces with a sword, but just, well, use it.

And in another backward step from the earlier version, your inventory is now a pop-up window, meaning to use something in it, you’re now clicking to open up the needlessly screen-filling box, highlighting an object in there (but not visibly picking it up) then the choosing a verb from the top, and having to re-close the inventory window to be able to actually use the object. If I select “USE” after I’ve clicked on the key, it could just flipping close the inventory for me. It’s just so clumsy. Again, the 90s figured this out, with inventories that slide into view when the mouse hits the edge of the screen.

The result means an extremely archaic system remains laborious to play. Which is an odd choice. I’m absolutely certain that many will be thrilled the verbs are still in there – I get that. A remake of Day Of The Tentacle with the verbs removed would be a difficult thing for me to be happy with. But here they’re more of an obstacle than they ever were twenty-five years ago.

The other massive issue I’ve experienced in the early parts of the game is the choice of how the game’s been redrawn. Originally it was scratchy collection of line drawings for the Mac, then made pixelly for later releases. And it looked smart and pleasant. Now it appears to be a collection of concept art. Nice enough, but, you know, what you’d usually see pinned to noticeboards in development studios, or printed in ludicrously shiny art books accompanying £200 special editions. That’s fine – that’s a stylistic choice, albeit one that makes the game look scrappy. But unfortunately, interactive objects are too often rendered in the same way. So I was left aimlessly clicking at the screen, trying to work out what might be a rock I’m supposed to care about, and what’s just background detail. Even worse, when I have clicked on something I can use, it’s indicated by lightening up slightly – something that’s almost imperceptible in many cases.

And oftentimes, these hand-scribbled scenes just look dreadful. Barren, bland and frustrating to click around.

This, combined with the insta-death for clicking on the wrong thing, for me made for a wholly unappealing process – one that’s a real struggle to want to stick with in the space year 2014. Oh, and they’ve added a smug skull who gives you smug hints – he’s a dick.

The whole thing, weirdly, feels to me like a backward step from the far more optimised NES version. There is, however, quicksave, and they’ve set up a way to assign some actions to number keys, but none of it fixes the core stumbling points here.

If you have particular nostalgia for the game, I can understand wanting to experience it anew. It’s not an identical game – the original team has added new areas and puzzles, meaning it’ll be a new experience even for dedicated fans. But I no longer possess a tolerance for games that enjoy killing me every other screen because I clicked on the wrong thing, and I suspect I’m not alone. I equally suspect that there are many who desperately yearn for this, and will claw at this to enjoy the punishment.

I so wish more effort had been put into updating the game (with options to retro it for the mad). I am certain this will find an audience of those who yearn for the olden days, but equally sure it will not grab a new audience who can only read about such days in dusty old books.

Shadowgate is out now on Steam for a launch price of £13.49 (and £15 after one week).

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36 Comments »

  1. heyhellowhatsnew says:

    Just wanted to say that’s a really sweet story you shared about you and your dad :3

  2. Nenjin says:

    It’s a retro-revamp. It’s going to emulate the older game in most ways. Including “clicking to find stuff” and “dying for clicking the wrong stuff.” That was Shadowgate to a T.

    Asking for a LoGR treatment is….really missing the point of the entire Kickstarter. I can appreciate that for someone in 2014 it doesn’t seem good. But the Kickstarter wasn’t there to completely upend the original design.

    This review reminds me strongly of the Space Hulk review, for how it complains about what the game isn’t despite the game telling you exactly what it was going to be.

    • Orillion says:

      I’m not sure I understand how using the left and right sides of the screens for the interface elements would run counter the Kickstarter’s goal. Hell, in the original your inventory was on the left side.

      • Nenjin says:

        I don’t disagree some of the visual layout could have been better. But I think that’s a pretty minor quibble in the grand scheme of the game, and the complaints about it.

      • Commander Gun says:

        You had 50% chance, but too bad. The inventory was on the right side ;)
        Edit: the Original in my imagination was NES. Seems apple was before that, so i officially fail now :)

    • John Walker says:

      A few things. Firstly, this absolutely wasn’t a review, as is made clear by stating that I only spent an hour or so with it. This was a reaction to that first hour.

      Secondly, I agree and repeatedly said that a faithful reproduction of the original will be what many people will want, but I explained why it was not something I found I wanted any more. I also extremely clearly said that I entirely understood why a LOG approach wouldn’t be taken.

      I don’t think a Kickstarter has any need to have bearing on a finished game. As with all development projects, there’s plenty of room for scope for new ideas, new features, or different approaches to be introduced during development, and the idea that a team should be beholden to KS ideas seems counter to good design. I also made the point that improvements could be features that could be switched off for the “mad”, which was my light-hearted way of saying the die-hard fans of brutal gaming.

      • Nenjin says:

        Fair enough, you were pretty clear about how much time you actually spent with it.

        I just feel like you’re criticizing some stuff and acting boggled by their decisions despite the facts that a) it’s faithful to the original game and b) it’s been their stated and demonstrated plan since day 1. And that seems a bit strange to me. I even agree to some extent about the visual design, but you seem to be asking “Why would anyone make a game like this in 2014?” Which seems in direct contrast to your personal anecdote above.

        It’s ok to couch a viewpoint in “I don’t think you’ll really like this if you weren’t already a fan.” But that seems to be only the thing you’ve really said. Which leaves the piece somewhat lopsided to me. That said it’s only your first impression, and I’ve got an admitted bias.

      • Mordaedil says:

        I think a lot of your feedback could be very valuable to bring to the attention of the developers, particularly the interface problems. I had the… Unfortunate experience of playing this on an NES with a disinterested father, so I never got to experience that particular thrill. Some of your points are probably very valuable to the team, albeit I don’t think they will change the core. It will likely keep the keyword game design as terrible as it is, but you can offer feedback in the vein of maybe considering a radial menu by right-clicking the element and being able to pick your verb from that menu and moving the menu to, as you said, the right side maybe even presented with their keyboard shortcuts highlighted on them, letting the player play as fast as they feel comfortable with, in an old experience.

      • Le_Ray19 says:

        “I don’t think a Kickstarter has any need to have bearing on a finished game.”

        Wait, really?

        If a KS promises to deliver a game with a certain set of features, and ropes a lot of people into funding its development based on those features, you don’t think the developers have any obligation to use the money they received to create the game they promised as it was outlined to investors?

        LOL.

        Talk about unethical. Remind me to never contribute to any KS you ever run, or company, or anything else; assuming you ever do more with your life than write articles complaining that point-and-click games don’t adhere to the features of other genres (as though that’s expected or even desirable, lmao).

    • bill says:

      I think John pretty clearly explains his views, and how they relate to the idea of updating a classic.

      It is very tricky to update a retro game. Sometimes people just want the original experience with polished graphics, but sometimes some changes can be beneficial. It must be a tricky line for the developers to walk.

      But when it comes to UI, there have been a lot of improvements over the years that could be implemented WITHOUT affecting the core gameplay. The verbs could still be there, but could be accessed in numerous ways such as pop up / right click menus. Inventories could also be implemented in numerous ways, such as slide in sidebars or right click menus. It’s amazing how small things like that can improve the experience.. while not actually changing the gameplay in any way.

      Giving some shortcuts might change the gameplay, so it might be more controversial. But the problem with verb based games is that there are some actions that are very unlikely in some situations. Clicking on a door or a switch – you probably want to USE it. (or maybe open or close it, but that could be accomplished with a USE too). Clicking on an item and then something – you probably want to use it too.
      So, if it can be implemented without significantly changing the gameplay, why not change it so that “inventory -> key -> use -> close inventory -> door” becomes “key -> door”.
      The verbs would still be there for more complex actions and puzzles.

  3. Emeraude says:

    While it was a Kickstarter for which I didn’t understand the point of the Kickstarter itself, I don’t understand the need/want to “modernize” the UI either I must say. It just wouldn’t be the same game with that change.

    It’s one of those few cases of Kickstarter for which I will accept nostalgia being declared the main reason for being funded (for example that’s one of these things I can’t agree with Mr Sawyer, I don’t think PE was funded on nostalgia; it was funded because of the gaping hole in the market that wasn’t being filled to satisfaction by game makers… I really need to stop with the daring images). As such I’m not certain changing the game would have been acceptable/desirable by the backers.

    But maybe I’m wrong on that one.
    Not to mention, personally

    • Le_Ray19 says:

      I’m not sure what the problem with the UI is anyways, it’s like the “reviewer” is grasping at straws for things to complain about. As an example, you can turn off the whole UI and still play the game with hotkeys. You know, if clicking on clearly-defined words is too complicated for you, as seems to be the case with this article haha.

  4. Uglycat says:

    Got excited until I realised I was thinking of Shadowkeep :(

  5. Metalhead9806 says:

    “I so wish more effort had been put into updating the game”

    I expect better from you RPS… this is a game that is directly appealing to the hardcore fan of Shadowgate, the people that played this back in the day.

    You are looking at this with new gamer eyes… its not for new gamers and not once did the developers say they were evolving the original game just adding suitable content and keeping the original vibe the same.

    You let me down RPS… i guess theres a first for everything.

    Here it is my first RPG targeted

    /face palm

    • dE says:

      Blimey. Today is the day for first experiences. For example, I never thought the day would come when I’d defend an article from John Walker against random comment snark.
      I personally share no nostalgia for the old game, it just never got around to my circles but I was mildly intrigued by an early Dev Commentary about the remake. For me, this is the perfect review because it tells me how I, someone that hasn’t had the Nostalgia Experience, would fare with this game.
      Think about it like this, the Nostalgianos already know whether they’ll enjoy this game or not. Heck, seeing the glowing reviews on Steam, they already did. So that leaves a need for reviews for everyone else. Like me.

      • Le_Ray19 says:

        “For me, this is the perfect review because it tells me how I, someone that hasn’t had the Nostalgia Experience, would fare with this game.”

        Except, everyone has different experiences, and not everyone is this casual. Nor does everyone want every single game to be an exact copy of everything else currently being released.

        I never played the original Shadowgate (I wasn’t even alive when it came out); I never even heard of it until Steam said it was currently on sale when I logged in. But I’m still finding this puzzle/horror/exploration experience to be extremely engaging and enjoyable.

        So no, this doesn’t tell you what someone who “hasn’t had the Nostalgia Experience” thinks when they play. It tells you what someone with a poor affinity for puzzles and an apparent inability to use hotkeys (or god forbid, click things with their mouse) thinks when they play it.

    • John Walker says:

      That’s quite the odd accusation! I dedicate a number of paragraphs to explaining that I was playing these games the first time around! It was written from the perspective of someone who is currently existing in the present – something I find hard to not do – that’s all.

      • Metalhead9806 says:

        John… They were trying to recreate a classic experience. Did they succeed? I expect a site like IGN to blast a classic game re-release. Something like Another World getting a 4 on IGN… yeah thats fine those guys are clueless. However with you guys i expect you to fully understand where a dev is coming from and what they planned on offering gamers.

        Complaining that the devs didn’t evolve the game at all is like complaining about any other game that doesn’t have X Y or Z mechanic or feature that was never intended in the the original devs vision.

        When i backed this game i knew this would be mostly the same great game i played back in my NES days but with new hand drawn graphics. Sure if the devs claimed to make a new version completely revamped for the modern era i would be asking for full 3d movement and the whole nine… but they did not.

        • BooleanBob says:

          Another World was always shit, though. Pretty, but shit.

    • RARARA says:

      Here’s the thing. When you make a game that slavishly recreates outdated mechanisms without any improvement, it will be criticized in context of newer games because this is the year 2014. People who already backed the Kickstarter need this review less than the newer gamers who need a purchasing guide. You aren’t seeking a review – you are seeking validation.

      Making a niche game has both pros (appealing to a niche audience) and cons (not accessible to modern gamers).

    • kwyjibo says:

      The article is a warning to those who didn’t back the campaign and those that don’t wear rose tinted nostalgia goggles.

      That’s why it’s a valuable article.

      For those that did back the campaign, why do you care? Go back to playing the same outdated game with its outdated interface.

      • Metalhead9806 says:

        Before this game released yesterday please tell me where I could have gotten Shadowgate on PC legally.

        • Premium User Badge

          webs1 says:

          You’re point being?
          It seems you are conveniently ignoring the arguments made by the people defending this article.

          • Nenjin says:

            Oh no we get ya. Clearly RPS speaks from the mountain and we’re all just fools blinded by nostalgia because we actually enjoy it and think it deserves a fair review based on its intent, and not “It’s 2014, this game is dumb.”

            Meanwhile, enjoy your 168282450th retro pixel platformer review and all the glowing praise it will receive.

          • kwyjibo says:

            Nenjin, this is a fair review.

            Shadowgate has shot itself in the foot, but shooting itself in the foot was exactly what the developers intended. So 10/10 for fans of self mutilation.

            There was a similar response with the Leisure Suit Larry remake. Fans of rewarmed shit seemingly incensed that others aren’t fans of rewarmed shit despite the developers delivering the shit at just the perfect temperature.

  6. XhomeB says:

    What really bothers me is: why, just WHY a game like this isn’t getting a GOG release. Like, seriously, they’re offering a DRM free version to all backers anyway…

    I don’t mind the number of “clicks” when it comes to the interface, but the art style complaint seems to be valid – like I said a while ago, it’s gorgeous, but the scenes lack depth, there’s not enough animations and tricks to make you feel you aren’t looking at – as John noticed – pieces of concept art.
    They probably couldn’t afford anything more sophisticated, but for the next game, zojoi should really look at technology KINGArt are taking advantage of in Book of Unwritten Tales (projection mapping). There are some videos explaining it in detail on their youtube channel, it’s really impressive, brings the much-needed “depth” to the screens without sacrificing graphical quality or taxing the hardware.

  7. ansionnach says:

    D/Generation was an excellent game. Played it again when backing some stuff up last Christmas and it’s still great. The physical disk copy protection on the PC version (a rare thing, I think) is a right pain and has been a lot of hassle over the years!

  8. Jinxology says:

    How dare you not like what I like, John. The audacity.

    I think this is a case of readers being just a tad defensive about something they love. And also, it’s the Internet.

    And lastly, Shadowkeep was awesome.

  9. frightlever says:

    So, I’m the only one body-ticking because it’s an Atari 520ST, right?

    I had one of those back in the day which I upgraded myself with more memory and larger disk drive, double-sided? I had to modify the case with a hacksaw to get it to fit, I remember that. I got nostalgic about it last year, and Captain Blood in particular, so I downloaded an emulator. I realise it’s obvious but nostalgia was better in the old days when you weren’t able to revisit your past.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      Have they got Captain Blood working properly in emulation now? Last I remember the copy-protection went crazy and you ended up with your hand spasming uncontrollably in the terminal phase of the clone-based neurodegeneration.

      And in the game.

    • Gothnak says:

      Did you ever get over the fact you didn’t have an Amiga like us cool kids? ;)

  10. smacky says:

    Well, this is one of the few articles here that I feel particularly comfortable commenting on because I’ve been a fan of Shadowgate, its numerous remakes, ports and rather obscure sequels over the years. I agree with John.

    Looking at these screenshots are particularly disappointing to me. What I hadn’t gathered until it was mentioned was that the rooms are all still static. I’d be fine with the game looking the way it does if there was at least some animation to bring the whole thing to life.

    The verb system is tedious and dated. There are flash browser pixel-hunting games that have solved all the problems with Shadowgate’s UI. Even the Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest reboots had those damnable NES verbs removed in favor of context-based button pushes to improve the pace of the games. Hovering icons and ugly fonts (admittedly ugly ui fonts are a staple in my 90s PC gaming experience) only seem to break the immersion for me. Mind you, I LOVED the NES version.

    This just seems to reek of nostalgia-dependent sloth from the developer side and it isn’t the first instance. A good number of Shadowgate’s ports are particularly lax in the UI department. I can only stress that a bad UI doesn’t lend authenticity to the experience. A streamlined version could only improve the experience and rope in gamers who missed the earlier iterations.

    In the meantime, I have very fond memories of the Sierra-like “Beyond Shadowgate” which was unfortunately a PC Engine/Turbografx CD exclusive. It holds up much better although the atmosphere is quite different. I’m not about to suggest using nefarious means in order to experience it, but I will suggest that one might make such a suggestion if one were Shadowgate or Sierra fan. Ahurm.

    • Rastaanparta says:

      Is your comment about the lack of depth based on screenshots, because there’s a lot of going on in the actual scenes to create the immersion of space. Particles of snow blowing inside a room from a doorway in the background, clouds of dust hanging in the air in different sizes, drops of lava spewing out from a pit, light effects… there’s actually a lot going on in almost every scene to make these “concept arts” look more alive. How Walker complained about dreadful, hand-scribbled scenes which looks bland and barren, you’ll have to remember this was his 1 hour impression. There’s a lot of captivating scenes later on in the game. Personally, I love the art style.

      Besides, what really caught me with the NES version (which is the one I played first) was the amazing music direction which built the atmosphere for me. I’m really disappointed that Walker here didn’t mention that at all in his review. How they’ve managed not only bring the original tunes into all orchestrated glory, but also use them delicately and creatively. For instance, there’s a lot of variations of the “Entryway” theme, some with choirs, some without. And they fade and add the instruments and vocals smoothly between the scenes. Also, you can play the game with the NES soundtrack, which is a really nice touch. Especially the “Death” theme which was probably my favorite back then, makes a magnificent return (probably more often than I would want to).

      What comes to the UI, it’s a bit stiff, I agree. It doesn’t bother me though. You can also use shortcut keys for every action and bind items and spells into numeric keys to speed things up a lot.

      Oh, and about the skull. I’m sure many people don’t remember this, but there was actually a quirky hint feature in the NES version as well. When you pressed Select, you could get an advice concerning the room you were in. I think the Yorick’s skull was a nice touch. I ended up talking to him more often than I needed to just to hear what he had to say, loading the game afterwards of course, so I wouldn’t waste those precious turns.

      If you ask me, Zojoi has done a terrific job with taking us back to the Shadowgate. One of the most overlooked adventure feels fresh and with entirely new puzzles and scenes, with some changes to some of the old ones. A Shadowgate veteran like me can feel uneasy again while venturing in the castle’s hallways.

      Hopefully both young and seasoned adventurers won’t let this slip through their fingers, but give it a chance. For Shadowgate is a perfect example of passionately made point-and-click game which definitely doesn’t hold your hand, but casts you in the deepest of darkness with only a torch in your hand.