Top Game Discoveries of 2015: #3 – Shadowgate (2014)

shadowgate_iconRe-imagining a classic game for a new generation is a tricky endeavor. It becomes a balancing act between how much you change and how much you stay faithful to the source material. In many cases, old franchises get “rebooted” into something that’s sometimes completely unrecognizable from its original incarnation. But Zojoi’s remake of the classic first-person adventure Shadowgate takes the risky approach of sticking very closely to its source material, while updating it just enough to make it a new experience.

Shadowgate was originally released in 1987 for Macintosh computers as part of Icom Simulations’ “MacVentures” series (which also included the genre classic Déjà Vu), but most people remember it from Kemco’s NES port. The point-and-click adventure saw players in the shoes of a warrior king infiltrating the treacherous halls of the castle Shadowgate in order to defeat a warlock lord. The game was infamous for its difficulty, not just in its obtuse puzzles, instant deaths, and un-winnable states that were common in classic adventures of the era, but also for its turn-limits, in which if you didn’t finish the game within a certain number of turns, it would come to a screeching halt, requiring a fresh restart.

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Surprisingly, despite these elements being considered player-unfriendly and poor design by today’s adventure game standards, Zojoi’s remake retains them all. Not only that, it boldly embraces them. In fact, there’s an in-game achievement for discovering all of the “hidden deaths.” Yes, there are deaths you have to go out of your way to find, essentially turning them into a game mechanic. (Heck, there’s even a Death Count on the official website.)

While the harsh penalties it deals out certainly won’t appeal to everyone, I think the remake demonstrates that they’re an important part of the game’s personality. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a version of Shadowgate where death isn’t just around the corner, or without the pressure of a flickering torch forcing you to consider your next move very carefully. In modern terms, Shadowgate is a survival-horror adventure.

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That’s not to say the game doesn’t offer some accessibility. It includes multiple difficulty levels, the easiest of which removes all turn-limits, greatly simplifies the puzzles, and makes it very difficult (though not quite impossible) to die. It also offers in-game hints in the form of a silly talking skull named Yorick.

The other thing Shadowgate was known for was its atmosphere, creating a dark, foreboding castle full of mystery and danger, accompanied by text narration with a snarky sense of humor. While a more commercialized remake would’ve automatically tried to shove everything into 3D, Zojoi makes a strong case for how detailed and atmospheric 2D art can be. Artist Chris Cold created dozens of absolutely gorgeous paintings for the game’s backgrounds and objects, while Wang Ling painted equally beautiful artwork for the cutscenes. It’s accompanied by a completely re-orchestrated soundtrack by Rich Douglas, based on Hiroyuki Masuno’s original score from the NES version (which is also included if you’re in the mood for some chiptunes), and some pretty good (although sparse) voice acting.

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Perhaps most impressive of all is that despite the dark, brooding atmosphere it all creates, it never felt oppressive. The presentation is so beautifully detailed and well crafted that I found it stimulating. That, combined with the occasionally humorous writing and in-jokes, keeps it from ever getting too grim. It’s dark, but in an “up” kind of way.

Being that it sticks so close to its source material, you might wonder if this Shadowgate is really a remake rather than just a glorified port with pretty graphics and sound. Well, personally, it reminded me a lot of the 2002 remake of Resident Evil. It didn’t just upgrade the presentation, but it also redesigned the puzzles, added new areas, and fleshed out the story so as to create an experience that stood on its own. That’s exactly what Shadowgate 2014 does, and it’s every bit as good of a remake. It’s no surprise to learn that Zojoi was founded by original Shadowgate creators Karl Roelofs and Dave Marsh. This game was clearly a labor of love for them, and they knew exactly what they wanted it to be.

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I first heard of Shadowgate from the NES version, and while it looked interesting, I never had the chance to play it. My first experience with the game was actually the Game Boy Color port from 1999, which was based on the NES version, but I was never able to finish it. Playing the remake this year, however, has truly made me a fan. It’s not only one of the best remakes I’ve ever played, but one of my favorite adventure games.

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2 thoughts on “Top Game Discoveries of 2015: #3 – Shadowgate (2014)

  1. Happy belated birthday, Nester! 😀 I’ve been enjoying your looks back on 2015; I’ll be doing a similar series myself.

    PS Stay strong my friend. Saw your Twitter and would totes give you a hug if I could.

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