With Shadowgate, a Genre-Defining Adventure Receives a Definitive Remake
By Jeremy Parish
When Shadowgate ships on cartridge for Nintendo Switch later this year, it will simply be the latest step for one of the most popular adventure games of all time, a part of its long journey of ports, conversions, remakes, and adaptations. A classic of the genre, the original Shadowgate saw its greatest success with its Nintendo Entertainment System release, but its heritage stretches back even further: All the way to 1987, when the game debuted not on consoles but rather on the Macintosh computer. In those days, the Mac offered developers a wholly unique creative environment. As a high-resolution, graphics-focused platform built around the concept of a windowed interface and mouse-driven cursor input, the vintage Mac was a crucial step toward modern desktop computing, and its games were every bit as revolutionary.
Unlike modern computers, of course, the Mac was only capable of black-and-white graphics (a visual style that will be familiar to modern gamers thanks to tribute works like Return of the Obra Dinn), and Shadowgate evolved as it moved to other systems. The studio that first created Shadowgate, ICOM Simulations, colorized and adapted the game’s graphics as it made its way to other platforms like the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. A few years later, Japanese developer Kotobuki Systems (Kemco) gave Shadowgate a radical facelift in bringing it over to the NES, a port that was later scaled down for Game Boy Color. But the underlying game—its environments, its puzzles, its almost farcical enthusiasm for killing players when they least expect it—has remained fundamentally unchanged through the years.
That remains the case for the Switch conversion, which draws both its look and content from 2014’s PC remake of Shadowgate (which was also released digitally on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One). While the gloomy, atmospheric visuals of the new Shadowgate are a far cry from the look old-timers will remember in the monochromatic Mac original and the chunky day-glo NES port, it’s still more or less the same Shadowgate as ever underneath it all.
Producer Dave Marsh, one of the “MacVenturers” behind the original Shadowgate, says the opportunity to revisit the game on modern platforms was a chance to present the game as it was always meant to be seen. He views it as the culmination of a landmark game that has continued to evolve alongside technology.
“Shadowgate was the first commercial first-person fantasy game,” says Marsh. “The ability to drag and drop objects was super novel when we created it, and I think the first-person view is what has always set Shadowgate apart. You’re solving puzzles from your perspective [unlike in] most of the adventure games on the market, which were third-person. This was best illustrated when it came out on the NES. There was nothing like it.”
By 2020 standards, Shadowgate may not seem particularly revolutionary; it plays a lot like dozens of other adventure games. Players control a nameless wanderer who finds himself trapped in a castle loaded with deadly traps and hostile creatures, and your only means of escape is to solve the riddles found in each room. All you have at your disposal are the tools you find along the way, logical thinking, and a bit of luck. Shadowgate has a habit of springing surprise deaths on adventurers; every fan of the game is intimately familiar with the Game Over screen, which depicts the Grim Reaper sneering, “It’s a sad thing your adventures have ended here!”—a “gotcha” approach to game design that has fallen out of fashion in modern adventure games.
But saying Shadowgate doesn’t feel revolutionary in 2020 is like saying the Beatles seem a bit old hat. Shadowgate seems so familiar because so many other games have borrowed its best ideas. From its windowed, point-and-click interface to its first-person viewpoint, it helped set the standard for the genre for years to come. And while it can be a little liberal in dishing out Game Overs, it’s actually quite forgiving by the standards of mid-’80s adventure games; at the very least, you can easily save your progress at any point before attempting to solve a puzzle and likely triggering a death trap. And, unlike in contemporary ’80s adventure games by publishers like Sierra On-Line, which loved to place players into no-win situations that forced a complete restart of the quest, the only way you could lock yourself out of the ending in Shadowgate was to run out of torches and die in the dark—a feat that required players to dawdle aimlessly for many, many turns.
In short, Shadowgate holds up well today because it represented such a step forward for game design in 1987, and its quality shines through in the modern-day remake. “We’ve ported the game nearly a dozen times,” says Marsh, “but there were always the same constraints—graphic quality and cartridge or disk space. Without these restrictions, we really had a much larger palette to paint with! Not only did we make the game much larger, we went through each iconic room in the original and, in most cases, revamped the puzzle to be more exciting.”
In revisiting Shadowgate, Marsh and his team didn’t stop at simply sprucing up the game’s looks. They added new material to the adventure, fleshing out the world and boosting the complexity of puzzles. For long-time fans, this amounts to fresh, interesting challenges to overcome, even if they have the Mac or NES release committed to memory. “We’ve added many new rooms and puzzles, [written] much-needed cut-scenes to flesh out the narrative, created a dynamically-changing soundtrack, and offered three different difficulty modes,” he says. Marsh thinks even long-time Shadowgate devotees will be pleasantly surprised by “how familiar the game is, but how different and interesting the puzzles have become.
“We wanted veteran players to be able to recognize many of the rooms; but [we wanted to] update them, not just graphically, but with puzzles that work more into the narrative of the story. I think they’ll also love the new soundtrack from Rich Douglas, which draws on Hiroyuki Masuno’s original epic score for the NES.” Although the NES port of Shadowgate was developed externally in Japan rather than by ICOM Simulations themselves, the remake acknowledges the console version’s impact and legacy by incorporating some of its most memorable elements. There’s even an option to listen to the original chip tunes and see 8-bit-style transitions between scenes. This, Marsh says, is part of a larger effort to create an all-encompassing remake that embraces the whole of Shadowgate’s history.
“We definitely wanted to pay homage to the original versions of the game but re-imagine how it plays out,” says Marsh. “We decided to start with the story and expand from there. The original story was very, very simple, and once we started adding a layer of complexity onto it, the puzzles followed relatively quickly. I would say the only thing we didn’t want to mess with was the foundational format of the layout. We wanted the first section to be the dungeons, the second the castle, and the third [the area] beneath the castle. That said, we were always cognizant that whatever changes respected past versions of the game while bringing it into the 21st century!”
According to Marsh, revisiting the game allowed the team to reach even further into the past than 1987. The modern Shadowgate is heavily informed by one of the original points of influence on the classic versions of the game: Tabletop gaming. “We worked hard, especially on the new version, to make the game feel very much like a session of Dungeons & Dragons. Most rooms are unique, with their own set of puzzles to solve in order to move on.” In other words, every time you attempt to solve a puzzle in Shadowgate and suddenly find the Reaper sneering at you, it’s not unlike being trolled by a particularly wicked Game Master.
Though Marsh speaks in glowing terms about the opportunity to rework and improve on one of the medium’s landmark works, he also notes that the project came with its share of difficulties, too. “When it came to the porting of Shadowgate, the biggest challenge we had was making a point-and-click game fun to play on a console,” he says. “Simply having a cursor and moving through the existing menus was not going to be good enough, so we put a lot of time and effort into building a navigation wheel. This allows the player to more quickly apply item B on item A in the inventory, or use item A on object C in the room, et cetera, without all the hassle. That’s easy to do with a mouse and keyboard, but difficult with a controller. I think in the end we managed to find a good way of letting the player control this game so playing it was about the game, not about how to navigate the menus.”
Still, he admits those difficulties felt trivial compared to the hurdles he and his teammates at ICOM had to overcome when creating the original Shadowgate on the vintage Macintosh—back before the platform featured system-level multitasking or even internal storage. “My first memories were sitting with co-creator Karl Roelofs and designing the first rooms on the just-released Macintosh,” Marsh says. “We had only the single disk drive, and we were constantly swapping out disks between MacPaint and the System Disk. It was some time before we actually got an external floppy drive, so those days were tough,” he laughs. But, as he notes, the challenges his team faced 35 years ago helped lay the groundwork for the many improvements and additions included in this definitive reimagining of Shadowgate.
“So many rooms that never made it into the game—the constant battle between what we wanted to do and what would fit on a disk. Again, I think that’s why making this new version was so much fun! Sure, we still had other constraints, including time and resources, but they didn’t quite compare to the old days.”