Developer: ICOM Simulations
Based on: That D&D campaign you played in tenth grade where the guy who ran it threw together every fantasy trope he could think of and then killed the players. A lot.
Shadowgate was the first MacVenture game ported to the NES, presumably because its story and setting were closest to what console gamers of the time were accustomed to. It's basically your standard swords-and-sorcery fantasy, right down to playing the role of the prophesied one who must defeat the Warlock Lord and bring peace to the land, etc. etc. etc.
In retrospect, the game's creators seemed to make use of cliché because it was all they knew. While mixing elements like the river Styx and a Sphinx with standard western high fantasy could have made for interesting results if handled well, in Shadowgate they seem to have been thrown in simply because they seemed cool at the time. Indeed, the castle Shadowgate seems like it was designed by a sixteen-year-old first-time dungeon master. Dragons and sharks and wraiths and trolls are thrown in willy-nilly without any regard to the sort of ecology that would have to exist for them to survive. The castle itself seems full of rooms that don't quite properly connect to each other, with weather that's stormy at one end of the castle and clear a few rooms over.
This isn't to say Shadowgate is a dud, though. Two unique features help the game stand apart from other early point-and-click graphic adventures: torches and spells. Torches serve as a sort of time limit for the game. You begin the adventure with a lit torch that grows dimmer with each command you issue. If your torch goes out, the game goes dark and you are eaten by a grue1. Throughout the game, you can find additional torches that you can light as the current one burns out, but they're ultimately limited in number. If you spend forever wandering around because you can't figure out a puzzle or determine how to get past a certain area, you may find yourself completely out of light -- and out of luck. Torches are frequent enough in this version that this never really becomes a problem, though leaving a player stuck with no means to continue is generally considered bad game design. The developers porting the MacVenture games to the NES must have realized this, as time limits were removed in future titles.
Besides serving as an absolute time limit, torches also function as a regular item and can definitely placate one's inner pyromaniac. Just about anything combustible in the game can be burned with your torch -- and a few puzzles require it.
The spells are an idea whose potential is never fully realized. You can learn magical spells over the course of your adventure, generally through reading scrolls. These spells have various effects that can be used to solve different puzzles. In a way, they're sort of like permanent inventory items -- but you can also rely on them to do magical things. The problem is that each spell is only useful in one specific place apiece, ever. You'd guess that the spells being grouped separately from the inventory was meant to make them easier to access, but as they're only needed once it doesn't make the slightest difference.
Besides its torches and spells, Shadowgate really could be any other point-and-click graphic adventure. Well, actually it couldn't be a LucasArts game, because it suffers greatly from SIDS2. Death lurks around every corner, and often isn't at all obvious. Sometimes you can determine danger at a glance, as when you look at the acidic fountain. More often, though, you're given no clue that there is any danger and simply die. Use the wrong weapon? You die. Quaff the wrong potion? You die. Leave the room by a clearly marked and not at all dangerous-seeming exit? You die.
At least the game teaches you to avoid dark corridors.
Also, when you die, you always have the opportunity to continue in the room prior to where you died, making death less a hindrance and more an annoyance. Sometimes, it's even an amusement due to the ridiculous nature of your suicide or the text description of your fate.
There is no possible way to know that climbing down this ladder will kill you without actually attempting it.
This screen will become very familiar to you as you play Shadowgate.
Shadowgate was the third game in the MacVenture series, but it was the first to be released on the NES -- and, strangely, feels the least developed. As mentioned before, the environment seems less cohesive than those of the other games in the series. The various rooms and creatures in castle Shadowgate feel thrown together. Additionally, the puzzles are hit-or-miss. Some make perfect sense, like the trick to defeating the cyclops and the major puzzle of the five items needed to defeat the Warlock Lord. Some, on the other hand, boil down to random guessing or, worse, fatal trial-and-error. Having to look at the "EPOR" sign twice in order to learn the EPOR spell isn't obvious, but is at least something that could be stumbled upon. Learning that the beautiful woman is actually a werewolf is impossible unless you perform the wrong action and it kills you.
Despite these flaws, the game's overall charm goes a long way to compensate for them. The crazy setting -- despite making no consistent sense -- does indeed feature plenty of cool things to experience. The writing, though obviously truncated for the NES port, occasionally shows a flair for drama or a fine attention to detail. The library contains some well-thought-out backstory for the world of Shadowgate. The constant deaths may be annoying, but discovering all the ways you can die is its own odd reward.
The music, too, is very appropriate for the setting. It changes depending on whether you are in the cramped corridors of cold stone walls, calm open areas, or tense, dangerous environs. It really helps set the mood and enhance the experience. The music that plays when your torch is near extinction is particularly memorable for broadcasting a sense of impending doom.
Despite its flaws, Shadowgate possesses a certain enduring charm. It was ported to ten different platforms, and these days can even be played on your mobile phone. It also inspired two sequels, one on the TurboGrafx-16? and one on the Nintendo 64. Granted, it doesn't really stand the test of time, but it's still fairly enjoyable. Nowadays you can go through the game (with walkthrough at the ready) and still be amused by just how that green slime managed to kill you.