Games | NES | Death is Verbose Prose

Article by Jake Alley? | December 28, 2010

Remember Myst? The famous click-and-wait adventure game which took the industry by storm, drawing a huge crowd of newcomers to the adventure niche, spawning a horrifying number of lackluster clones, pushing quality games off the shelves, and sending the whole genre into a coma for the next decade? While a lot of people are down on Myst for what it represents to them, any aspiring game designer with a Mac in the ’80s or early ’90s is likely to have another grievance against it.

See, there used to be this little program called HyperCard. It was an insanely user-friendly object oriented coding environment, where one could mix text graphics and programable buttons on a series of full-screen “cards.” Animation and changing graphics were tough to pull off, but as the easiest commands to learn were for switching cards and rewriting short text fields, it was practically made for designing homebrew graphic adventures. It’s rare to find anyone who owned the program and didn’t make at least the attempt. All Myst had going on thsat everyone else’s homebrew games didn’t were those astoundingly lavish (for the time) pre-rendered graphics. Literally: Myst was originally designed in HyperCard. Anyone who found the puzzles less than inspired was free to try and do better, using the same exact tool set.

It wasn’t just the fact that HyperCard kids could actually put their money where their mouth was when it came to boasting they could make a better game than Myst. They already had a series of high-profile Mac-native adventures, predating Myst by six years, all of which were far more sophisticated in design: The MacVenture games. Of course, much as Bungie didn’t become a household name until bringing the Halo series to Xbox, the four MacVenture games remained rather obscure until they were ported to the NES.

Firstly and most famously came Shadowgate. For all the praises being sung here, Shadowgate was a masochistic bastard of a game, even for the time. In a game comprising 44 rooms, there were 28 unique death messages. That’s not one way to kill yourself in every other room, it’s just the unique message count. Stumbling through the dark and fatally tripping for instance is something that can happen anywhere, but it only gets a single message. Because, you see, that is Shadowgate’s special gimmick. While it fully embraced the sort of cheap amusing deaths one can only avoid via constant saves and trial and error (even being kind enough to use an auto-save system), there are multiple finite resources in the game which are potentially consumed, yielding a number of scenarios where one could save their game in an unwinnable state. The most obvious of these are the torches constantly collected and hoarded through the game. Periodically, the player’s torch will begin to sputter and die out. Failing to use it to light a fresh one in time means certain death.

More insidious that that, however, are the monsters. One room features a dragon guarding a fair number of items. One item repels its breath, allowing the necessary items to be gathered, but after so many blasts of flame, the shield melts away. Another room features a bridge troll collecting tolls each time you pass through. It’s situated roughly in the center of the game’s map, and requires a fresh key on each passing. Better hope you didn’t forget anything important, since you’re very limited to a finite number of trips.

After Shadowgate came the kinder, gentler, and generally more polished Déjà Vu, before a backslide into sadism with The Uninvited and a Déjà Vu sequel which was ported to the Game Boy Color rather than the NES. This would seem to represent a logical progression of games as the developers refined their craft... right up until you do some fact-checking and learn that Shadowgate was actually the third game in the series. It was only the first to be ported to the NES.

In reality, the cool calm mystery solving of Déjà Vu lead into The Uninvited’s cursed red stone (which led to madness and death as it sat in the player’s inventory), finally culminating in the torch-juggling carnival of death that was Shadowgate before revisiting Déjà Vu. The room in Castle Shadowgate with the three mirrors, one of which blocked the correct path while the others killed you by covering a black void or ripping you to shreds with broken glass? That’s something we had to build up to.

Of course, on the other hand, getting yourself killed is the main appeal to these games. Other NES games would at best give you a short death animation when you failed, but Shadowgate is full of gems like, “As you swim toward the skeleton, you feel the jaws of a shark grab you and pull you under. You curse yourself for using your body as bait!! Even before the life has escaped your body, the lake will be filled with your blood.” These would also be accompanied by a full-screen rendition of the grim reaper, making for a rather satisfying treat. Some death scripts did fall on the short and cheesy side of the line in the NES version due to space limitations. The original Mac versions of these games (that so few people realize exist) had more room for text, allowing for more consistent writing. They also featured higher resolution for the graphics and had enough memory to allow inventory items to be dragged and dropped into any room for those inclined to making junk piles in hallways. That last point makes the MacVenture series some of the most significantly altered ports to the system this side of Dragon’s Lair.

On the other hand, unlike the original versions, the NES games featured color graphics, music, and some puzzle revisions making things mildly less esoteric and malicious in places. Of course, this also means the red gem from the second room of The Uninvited can only be put down in a particular room, making it that much more dangerous, but adventure game players have an aversion to dropping obvious puzzle items in the first place. More to the point though, getting one’s hands on an NES along with this series at this point in time is several orders of magnitude easier than locating a classic beige box and several old floppies.

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