"Shadowgate" is what got me hooked on adventure games. I could leave it at that, but I want to convince everyone else of how great it is, so I shall go on.
Published in 1989, "Shadowgate" (like its noir sibling, "Déjà Vu") is an archetype of the first-person graphical adventure game. The player goes behind the eyes of a warrior infiltrating the ancient keep of Shadowgate in an attempt to stop the evil Lord Warlock before he summons a powerful demon. The screen is divided between a view of the current area, a command window doubling to show messages from the game, and an inventory/spell list. (There is also a torch symbol, important, since letting the torch burn out means automatic death.) A cursor shaped like a skeletal hand allows the player to use commands such as TAKE, EXAMINE etc. on the scenery and objects.
Progress through the game is essentially simple: open doors, head further into the game, pick up everything that might possibly be used against Lord Warlock. Now and then locked doors, monsters etc. get in the way, and one has to, well, use the right object to bypass them.
All of this won't tell you why I love this game. Only playing it will. It's somewhat primitive; basically a text adventure with graphics, when it comes down to it. It still captivated me as a young gamer, because it was so immersive.
The graphics are nothing incredibly complex, but transmit the mood nicely. I particularly liked the textures of the ubiquitous stone: masoned walls, smooth flagged floors, knotty natural rock. Some sights stayed in my mind for a while: the Dragon Room, for example, or the top of the tower.
The music is, almost without exception, excellent. It's always dark in some fashion or other (Shadowgate isn't a nice place to be), but it shifts from the drama of the entrance to the melancholy notes of the enchanted garden to the open threat of the Dragon Room. It's been over a decade, and I can still hum some of the tunes.
While the puzzles are a mixed bag, some were quite inspired. I particularly liked the various uses of the sphere (a bit of a departure from the tendency of "one object, one puzzle" in early adventure games), the flying potion, and the riddles of the sphinx. Plenty of clues were embedded everywhere, in more or less subtle form, which made the game feel coherent. (I also rather enjoyed the "Motari Riseth" poem.)
And made up by music and graphics and other things, there is the mood. How can I describe it? It's mainly nightmarish, but so fascinating I was disappointed when I finished it. Well, I was a young girl who had never played an adventure game before, and it astounded me. I'm not saying that "Shadowgate" is the best game in existence, but for a year it populated my dreams.
As I explained above, the game mechanics are rather simplistic. Puzzles have to be solved to get by, but due to the constraints of the form, they are mostly a case of simple manipulation of scenery (pulling a switch) or Use Object On Other Object. In fact, when I got stuck, I could get unstuck simply by trying every object on everything else. I guess it couldn't really be made more complex at the time, but within modern frames of reference it feels minimal.
As a fantasy freak, I wouldn't have minded more plot, or indeed any world-building. The very basic plot (warrior tries to defeat evil warlock) is basically suspended between the introduction and the final room, which is simply exploration and puzzle-solving. Some things (such as the books in the library) give some tantalising hints about the history of the castle and the world outside, but they never really tie together. I can't help but feeling that just a bit more plot would have made it even better.
There is a lot of writing, since the graphics themselves don't convey much. The writing quality is quite sufficient (with some glitches), but not literary. (Interestingly, I played the game in a Swedish translation, which was decent.)
The main problem with "Shadowgate" is the frequent and unfair occurrences of death. Modern adventure games, even if they don't conform to LucasArts "no death" rule, simply are not this cruel. Dying because you try to swim in a shark-infested lake, or cross a dilapidated bridge... I can understand that. But in "Shadowgate", you can also die because you pick up an object that is invisibly booby-trapped, enter a cave that collapses over your head, or try to save a prisoner who turns out to be a werewolf. The booby-trapped objects in particular were aggravating: objects *have* to be taken, and there is no way to tell which ones will kill you. Still, after the rather nifty "you have died" scene, the player is returned to the room previous to the one where death occurred, so it isn't that bad. (I also didn't find any way of making the game unfinishable.)
(Incidentally, when I played it, the game had a bit of a bug, allowing the player to stay in the Fire Room without wearing the cloak. You simply had to enter the room, leave automatically because of the heat, then get killed. You would be returned to the Fire Room without having to leave.)
The SPEAK command is virtually useless: there are no characters capable of holding a conversation with you, and while SPEAK activates the spells, so does USE.
There could have been more of it. But then, I always say that.
The Bottom Line
A groundbreaking game, "Shadowgate" is enjoyable in its own right, and should be considered a classic. Short on plot and complexity, big on object-puzzles and sudden death, it is still a large, mood-filled adventure that should remain playable after 16 years.