Back when I was a child, my cousins and I would gather in my grandma’s living room where two televisions had progressive generations of videogame systems hooked up to them. And while the “kids” played easier games on the bigger screen (naturally) the adults would gravitate towards the smaller, where more challenging puzzle games were, more often than not, defeated. It was on this smaller screen, surrounded by aunts and uncles saying, “Well, have you tried this?” that I first encountered Shadowgate on the NES. Back then, the difficulty I had in solving the game seemed easily attributed to my young age. But now, with today’s re-imagining of a classic, I’ve been freed of that delusion. Apparently, I just suck at this game.
Perhaps it was the assistance of my relatives, or the nature of the 8-bit era which made objects on the screen more clearly interact-able, but I distinctly remember Shadowgate being far easier than what now rests before me. As I play through the modern version I get the distinct impression that the only reason I’m able to actually “solve” anything here is because the puzzles are vaguely reminiscent of the ones from yester-year.
Granted, exploring this “new” castle is a wonderful experience replete with gorgeous visuals, but regardless of which of three difficulties are initially selected, all that seems to change in each experience is the location of certain items integral to progression. Skipping a couple steps here and there may make things move along a little faster, but ultimately there still exists a core conundrum that no amount of prior experience can solve. “Fresh” is good for those looking for a real challenge — in this regard, Shadowgate strikes the perfect balance between nostalgic and new. But there are some problems here that I distinctly don’t remember.
For starters, there’s an element of time pushing you forward, as the longer it takes you to find solutions the lower your limited number of torches burn. I do remember that from the original, but here it seems far more pressing, and the work-around in both instances (of making a save, then loading once you “figured it out”) really draws you out of the game. Perhaps if the torch only diminished at every new room, or weren’t absolutely necessary to see then it would be less of a bother, but in either event there’s still the difficulty with the banshee; early on in the game you are cursed, and the longer you take to make your way through the castle, the closer you come to death.
Was there a banshee in the original? I don’t know; my instincts tell me yes. But as I walk through the shadows of the current castle, I feel chased by time, pressed onward towards making poor decisions, visiting rooms and picking up things I don’t need, or giving up on puzzles that I may not yet have the correct item for. All the while, I feel like I’m failing at every turn, and that isn’t a pleasant experience. A puzzle game, by its nature, should allow the user to step back a moment and contemplate, to sort through a rucksack, read cryptic messages, and come logically to solutions. Shadowgate does everything in its power to instill you with a sense of urgent, unproductive panic. And it’s not entirely pleasant (despite the fact that it’s compelling) because the easiest “solution” to all the game’s problems is to simply stop playing (and that’s the last thing the game should spur me to do).
Perhaps there are many out there able to persevere, who are far more dogged in overcoming these little challenges. Those people, I think, will find the most reward here. In the mean time though, I wish there were a feature to share my screen, to digitally invite aunts and uncles back into my virtual home and provide a little more support as I wander the castle halls. This talking skull in the corner of the screen offering “clues” is practically useless, as all its hints merely point to what it is I already know I want to do, leaving out the critical detail of how. For now I’ll settle for recommending the game to others who liked the original and its trials — there’s enough here to keep them happy. And maybe if I’m lucky they’ll be just as bad at this game as me, and we can all reminisce about grandma’s house while Skyping, stuck in the same room of the castle Shadowgate, staring at our own screens and asking each other, “Well, have you tried this?”
SCORE: 7.5 out of 10
A code for Shadowgate was provided to Pixel Related for review.