I entered Castle Shadowgate a pitiful buffoon and exited a seasoned adventurer.
"There are many strange things in this world," Shadowgate's silent narrator often explained as I invoked peculiar spells to perform arcane tasks like playing a flute to magically carve open a hole in a tree whose bark was hiding a ring. That line always stuck with me and applied perfectly to my early experiences with the format that gave birth to Shadowgate; that is, the strange, peculiar "ring in a tree" of my reality was computer gaming, which, as I've discussed numerous times in my Commodore 64-related pieces, had an aura about it that felt otherworldly, its values not at all compatible with those of the consoles and arcades I knew so well.
By the time the 90s rolled around, I believed I had a firm grasp on computer gaming and its culture due to my long history with the Commodore 64 and those IBM machines they'd let us use at school (to play Oregon Trail, mainly), but I didn't realize how oblivious I was to its expanded scope until being introduced to Shadowgate, which represented a genre completely foreign to me. Until then, my knowledge of text-based computer games was limited to those scenes in the movie Big where Tom Hanks' character was playing a made-for-film text adventure that resembled Will Crowther's Colossal Cave Adventure; and while I was fascinated with the idea of a computer somehow understanding randomly generated commands, the games built around such systems weren't among those I could ever imagine myself being interested in.
So when my brother showed up in our den that day in early 1990 and presented me the NES version of Shadowgate, the crown jewel of his latest game-grabbing binge, I looked over its box's back cover and quickly soured over the telltale signs of static imagery flanked by words and exposition; those scenes from Big immediately came to mind and stoked a familiar sentiment: "Reading?!" I likely thought. "That's something you do in school! No one wants to read while playing video games!" I mean, I thought the name "Shadowgate" was cool-sounding, and its box cover's storyline description and accompanying depictions were kinda tantalizing (there were monsters, after all!), but I had no real desire to explore the subject further--not when recent releases like Super Mario Bros. 3, Double Dragon II: The Revenge and Batman were dominating my time!
It's not that I was curious or anything, but the next day, I wandered down to the basement (where my brother always took my NES whenever he borrowed it) and arrived just as he and his friends were playing Shadowgate and starting to make early progress. I was usually averse to games that played radically different from the norm, but Shadowgate managed to grab my attention--it wasn't exactly what I expected, and I'd never seen anything quite like it. Maybe it was the motionless monsters' silent-yet-menacing presence; or the way its chilling music reverberated throughout the basement; or how its haunting aesthetics generated an underlying sense of trepidation that permeated the surrounding atmosphere and the minds of everyone present; but something about Shadowgate piqued my interest.
Judging by what I'd seen, I'd decided that this oddly attractive "text" game had to be worth at least a few minutes of my tie. You know--just for curiosity's sake. Nothing more, of course.
More than ten minutes had passed, and there I was still playing Shadowgate, well in breach of my originally intended time-allotment; without realizing it, I had become slowly engrossed, now invested in the idea of solving the puzzles that were obstructing my continued appraising of Shadowgate, whether it was procuring the means for retrieving a key from a partially submerged skeleton or trying to sneak my way past a greedy troll. I was completely stumped no matter which route I took, more so than I'd ever been with a puzzle-centric game. The session wound up lasting a half an hour, and I would have continued wracking my brain had there not been the lingering fear that the side door would soon suddenly open, signaling the return of my brother and friends who would just as soon kick me out. As I switched the console off, only one thing about Shadowgate was clear to me: I was definitely going to jump right back into it the minute my brother was done hogging the NES.
He returned it to me about a week later. Despite the long layoff, I was still itching to hook the NES back up to the TV in my bedroom, pop in Shadowgate, and try again from the start. I was still uncertain about certain aspects of the command-menu (like the purpose of "Speak," which seemed to have no application, "Move," which I thought could be used to actually move objects in place of the nothing it did otherwise, and "Leave," which seemed equally functionless), but it was surprisingly intuitive where I expected a deeper level of complexity. "Maybe it's possible I could excel at this type of game?" I wondered during those seconds of calm before the oncoming storm. With my wits about me and all the time in the world, I was ready to go. Indeed, this buffoon was going to show the Warlock Lord who's boss!
Now, I'm going to try something a little different this time. Since Shadowgate is such a special game to me, and I have so many scattered memories of it that would otherwise go unmentioned, I'm going to walk you through each relevant screen and list my thoughts as they originally developed:
The title-screen music that glumly welcomed me into the open gates of Castle Shadowgate was a lot like all of those other "new-sounding" tunes I'd heard in games like Metroid and Ninja Gaiden--mainly in that I didn't know how to feel about it. It wasn't "disconsolate" or "melancholy" or any other descriptor that implied a quality of sadness, but it was instantly haunting and roused my emotions in an indescribably way. The mood, I'd say, was mournfully contemplative, my thoughts lingering on the nostalgic memories of days gone by and conjured images of those wondrously spellbinding worlds I'd always daydreamed about but knew I would never be able to visit.
It might have been that Shadowgate's deathly serious tone stood strongly in contrast to all of those other NES games I'd played--even the most joyless of which had a rockin' tune lurking somewhere about its opening sequences--but I wasn't used to a game coaxing me into a pensive frame of mind.
Shadowgate's instantly classic main theme took a swift turn, the powerfully foreboding tune evoking a persistent sense of danger without needing to grow abrasive to punctuate the point; my feeling was "What am I getting into?", as if the ground I was standing on could collapse at any moment. I let the music soak in as I read through the narrator's explanation of my mission; it was the first time I remember reading coherent, intelligent-sounding writing in a video game, where before it was all about saving presidents for hamburgers and "feeling asleep" (I didn't know that Shadowgate was a Western creation, born from the Apple Macintosh, and still assumed it was an NES exclusive made in Japan). It all sounded so very sophisticated, and I could only hope that I wasn't out of my league.
As I stared upon the castle's doorway (which would become an iconic scene), I wondered about its position and tried to envision the castle's scope in relation; castles usually had drawbridges or elaborate entranceways, but Shadowgate had a readily accessible front door with nary an obstacle outside of a murky-looking green puddle. "Who built this castle?" I wondered. "Why would they have a simple wooden door as its entrance? And who would be the most likely to frequent such a desolate place, anyway?" In its first screen, Shadowgate already had my imagination stirring.
Since the door was freely accessible, I headed inside to the hallway corridor, where a pair of evil-looking eyes shifted back and forth before insulting me and belittling my adventuring credentials. From what I'd gathered, some guy named Lakmir sent me here to destroy this inflammatory Warlock Lord, who was intent on raising from the depths an all-powerful titan called "the Behemoth." Apparently, I had no chance of stopping him, so I instead focused on burning away the "beautifully woven" orange rug, which would become tradition in the start-up to any of my Shadowgate adventures.
Even though I'd only unlocked two-screen's-worth of terrain, I was actually stuck here for a quite a while (for hours, it felt). I searched every inch of both screens hoping to locate a key, but conventional means of searching yielded nothing. This went on until I figured out that Key 1 could be attained by "opening" (more like "sliding upward") the creepy-looking skull that adorned the entrance's frame. As simple as the action was, I didn't feel stupid for not considering the possibility; I was instead invigorated, as if I'd just solved an ancient mystery.
This is where Shadowgate started showcasing its unforgiving nature. The tome resting on the stone slab was rigged so that doing anything more than observing it would trigger a collapsing floor. I suffered maybe a dozen falling deaths trying to manipulate it. It was an ominous sign--a warning that just about any kind of non-specific action could kill me; it was here, three screens in, where I first questioned the game's sense of fairness and wondered if I had the patience to put up with its obscure logic--not to mention the time-drain that would be required to resolve it.
It seemed like as good a time as any to test out the "Save" function (since I wasn't fully certain that continues were unlimited), which felt very much like a misplaced computer value. I suspected it wouldn't be very reliable when considering my experiences with Wrecking Crew and other old NES games that had those useless save features. I was always nervous when returning Shadowgate, fearful that the save didn't stick.
It would be a long, long time before I'd discovered that you could "open" the book (since I assumed all forms of contact would render the same tragic result) and find Key 2, which could be used to unlock the closet door in the previous room. When I finally did unlock that door, I was overcome by a sense of euphoria, which Shadowgate had a knack for supplying for even the smallest victories.
They made it too obvious that something was off with that white-shaded stone in the bottom-left corner of the far wall, but it still took me a while to realize that I could "open" it (grrrrrr) rather than something more logical like "moving" it or "hitting" it (as I was able to do to another rocky impediment).
The door to the right led to a rather bizarre scene: A subterranean cavern featuring a patrolling shark and a partially submerged skeleton with key in hand. Its newly introduced theme had a cautiously investigative quality to it and an uneasy vibe, the feeling no doubt influenced by the creepy "lime-covered skeleton" whose predicament and description I found disturbing. I was more moved by its room description: "This subterranean cavern has been carved by centuries of supernatural erosion." It was a continuance of my notion that every environment, no matter how seemingly trivial, had a rich, thought-provoking story behind it. Whenever I was away from the game, I'd spend a lot of time thinking about the processes of its rooms' construction, since I found the descriptions so fascinating.
This room also had the only Select-triggered clue ("Some things have more than one use!!") I ever found helpful. Most were akin to "useful" information like "Hey--this looks tough!"
It was right about here I read the first super-interesting item description. It said of my lit torch (the visual representation, which until then I didn't know could be interacted with), "This torch throws dancing shadows about the room." It immediately reminded me on an old cartoon in which the shadows of marching candle-wick creatures could be seen flickering wildly on a large stone wall. The author's phraseology wasn't like anything I'd read before, and I didn't know that words could be used to conjure such vivid images.
Beyond the cavern was a waterfall whose constant flow obscured a hidden passage. Unfortunately, the existence and location of the cave beyond was spoiled for me by Nintendo Power, which also revealed that you had to "Hit" the loose rock (with depiction of the famous accompanying "POW!" visual) to clear it away and collect the gem bag wedged in the hole behind it; really, I shouldn't have read it. The only real mystery was the nature of a partly visible stairway obstructed by a rocky landslide; it was one of Shadowgate's many red herrings--a forever inaccessible path--but I couldn't have known this and spent waaaaaay too much time trying to clear away the rubble.
No--the only purpose of the these caverns was to house collectible stones and three magical gems. The red one in particular had an interesting description: "Its color reminds you of your adventure across the sea of blood." This was an intriguing way to create character development through the hero's recollections. In fact, many of the game's items had similarly compelling histories behind them. The ordinary broom, for instance, "looks like the one owned by the sirens of the Isle of Yeklum Iret," whatever that is (it's suggested to be an anagram for "Teri Mulkey"). Each story served as another puzzle piece in my mental construction of the hero's world.
Moving left in the aforementioned three-doored hallway led me to a refrigerated cavern where stood an out-of-place iron-trimmed pedestal. It was easy to deduce that one of my new gems could fit into the adjacent hole, whose filling triggered the appearance of an icy sphere. Though, as had become a trend with me, I spent more time in this room stressing over ultimately pointless activity like trying to pry open the pedestal and attempting to successfully climb down the ladder behind the metal trap door using every spell and item permutation.
It's somewhere between these rooms where I got my first taste of the panic-inducing torch-fizzling music, which incited the intended high level of anxiety. The first note of that music was enough to send me scrambling back to the second page of my inventory ("Wrong way, wrong way!") in search of that torch listing, which itself was just further warning of an ever-diminishing total. I wondered if I'd have enough time to actually get through the game.
The toasty corridor beyond was guarded by a concealed terror whose only visible feature was its eyes, which were said to be "watching every move I make." Creepy. The perilous, dire-sounding music did its job to make me feel a bit freaked out, as if just standing around was unsafe. I didn't have much trouble figuring out the room's correct formula: First grab the shield to protect against the unknown creature's reactionary flame-blast, and then pick up the other seven items, splitting up their procurement between two trips to avoid overheating.
Again--the majority of my time here was spent fussing over futile pursuits like trying to draw out the creature and reach the room beyond (since the map suggested it was navigable) and endeavoring to open that treasure chest, which I thought had to contain untold treasures.
I still wonder about what that creature could be. Resting there. Watching me. *shiver*
North of the three-doored hallway was this oddly situated mausoleum--an assemblage of six stone coffins, each with its own surprises. Well, really, only two of them are had contents with considering. This room was more about trial and error and learning which coffin not to open--mainly the the middle-left one, which contained a noxious green slime that blocked off entry to the top-left coffin (the room's exit) and forced the player to find an alternate path.
The green slime was memorable not for its disgusting "warm-to-the-touch" description but for the disturbing death that would occur if we (my friend Dominick watched me play through parts of the game) tried to pass over it: "You try to pass the slime but it engulfs your body, dissolving it in seconds. You die instantly. No pain, no nothing."
Maybe it's because having a friend over lightened the mood, but these gruesome deaths suddenly had a certainly hilarity to them (especially this one, with its closing line "You were slimed."). We actively sought them out, whether they entailed plunging into bottomless pits, getting bled out by a shark, or stabbing/impaling ourselves with whatever weapons we could find. "Suicide obviously does not solve problems," it told us, but it was still a whole lot of fun!
For now, we secured a scepter from the mummy's ashes and exited left.
For now, we secured a scepter from the mummy's ashes and exited left.
I don't know who "King Otto" was or what his "Fair" was like, but the mirror room's description made me wonder about such. It was more of that character development through the use of these seemingly throwaway comments; our hero (or our avatar, in this case) had a real life and a wealth of experiences prior to our meeting him, and the thought of such made him more interesting to me than any of those other video-game heroes with their super jumps and spread shots.
The destruction of the mirrors via our war hammer provided more in the way of hilarity. Choosing to shatter the wrong mirrors--the ones positioned left and right--produced two brutal deaths: Shards of glass flying through the air and piercing the hero's body, completely bleeding him out; and him being sucked through a portal into deep space, where he soon died of the expected oxygen deprivation. Well, maybe the first one wasn't so hysterical.
But the one that stayed with us and made us laugh for years was the narrator's description of events for the shattering of the relevant middle mirror: "Bellowing like some Norse god, you smash the hammer into the mirror." We found it funny because it reminded us about our schoolmates who would take dodgeball far too seriously, like, for instance, when one of the heavier boys would sprint toward the center line and bellow mightily before unleashing a rocket toward the head of the frail, timid 4'10'' girl with glasses. It was ridiculous, like something out of a Ben Stiller movie.
The problem is that we couldn't move beyond the previously concealed door. We were able to open it with Key 3, which we took from the submerged skeleton, and take a peek into the next room, but it was described to be so insanely hot that if forced us to turn back. This was the first real sticking point.
Once I figured out that I could "open" the stone protrusion back in the tome room, I arrived at a chamber containing an easily snagged arrow and an inaccessible balcony door (its concrete-slab protrusion collapsing when I tried to climber up to it). On display was more of the game's opaque use of the basic commands, as I had to "Use" one of the unobtainable torches as a lever to switch open a secret passage. I assumed that they ran out of space on the bottom menu and couldn't fit in a more suitable command; I still saw no reason why they couldn't have repurposed "Move" to cover that function, since they didn't even make it mandatory for "moving" between rooms!
Pointless activity, this time, included my desperate attempts to activate a secret passage on the room's right side and my tireless effort to locate a "boosting" item that might help me reach that balcony door (the levitation-granting Bottle 2 seemed like the obvious means, but it never worked!).
The room's only exit, the secret passage to the left, spilled into what I considered one of the game's scarier caverns. It wasn't so much that I was worried about the split route or the tattered nature of the bridge on the right--it was the images that formed in my head as I read the room's description: "You stand at the edge of a deep chasm. From the darkness below arise the screams of the undead." Further inspection of the bridge's easily missed underside portion revealed this: "You hear moans coming from the bottom of the chasm." I wondered about what could be lurking down there. "Who put them there? How far down are they? Are they stuck there forever?" There was something haunting about the scenes I'd envisage.
The only other point of interest was the room-description's second, less-troubling line: "This cave is hewn roughly in the chasm's wall." "'Hewn'?" I thought, quizzically. "What's that?" I didn't know it yet, but I'd learned another new word, which Shadowgate also had in great number.
After suffering a single plummeting death, I concluded that the shaky right bridge was just another red herring and instead took the sturdier left path.
I'd seen this guy before. Though, I didn't remember much about the accompanying musical theme--a worrisome, chilling ditty that worked to create the atmosphere of a tense standoff even though the robed combatant seemed eerily indifferent. The scene wasn't so scary on the surface, but I often thought about how terrifying it would be to move about this room and go about your business with the "hideous specter" watching your every move. I had no idea how to defeat it, really; I only did so because my brother flat-out told me how to do it (without invitation to do so). Until then, I never even noticed that my inventory held a second type of torch.
Talk about obsessing over the wrong things: Afterwards, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to reach the room's unseen upper-right exit (which I came to assume led to the pedestal room with its trap door) instead of inspecting that hanging green cloth, which I completely disregarded.
The "small room" beyond had two of the most stupidly obvious mechanisms in the game. Spelling names backwards is a plot device used in stories written by ten-year-olds, the dumbest of which could still figure out that you had to use a spell called "Epor" to magically manipulate a rope. Also, the wall in the background had a clearly outlined secret door, which made its opening a total non-discovery. I wondered if this room was developed last, when the creators were running out of inspiration. Diputs.
The secret room housed a "concave polygon" with a carefully carved hole whose shape undoubtedly matched one of my gems; using my power of deduction ("So it's, like, dis one or dat one."), I inserted the blue gem into the hole, which caused the room's retractable wall to open; beyond it stood a wizard who revealed vital information on how to defeat the Warlock Lord and save the world. I forgot it within seconds.
But hey--I got a new spell out of it! If only I had a place to use it.
It's a shame that my adventures almost had to end there.