#24 Echo Night
Publisher: From Software
Developer: From Software (Japan)/ Agetec (North America)
Systems Released On: Sony Playstation
Release Date: 08/13/1998 (Japan)/07/31/1999 (North America)
You know, it always amazes me what concepts took forever to make it into video game form. A Super Hero fighting game for example It amazes me it took that long to get Marvel Super Heroes or even that awful Justice League game. Or maybe the fact we didn’t get a Transformers video game in North America until the 32 bit era. Sure Japan got the horrible “Mystery of Convoy,” but they still got it. It took the Evil Dead franchise until the Dreamcast to become interactive entertainment. So on and so forth. Once of those concepts is simply that of a phantom or ghost ship. Sure we’ve had spooky games since the days of Atari’s “Haunted House,” but the concept of a ghost SHIP has occurred less times in a video game console than I have fingers on either hand. The best of this amazingly lacking genre is still the first. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…Echo Night
The plot of Echo Night is simple yet elegant. You, as the main character Richard Osmond, are awakened by a phone call from the local constable. Your father is dead and you’ve been asked to come to his house. When you arrive, you see that the building has been razed by a fire and you must pick through the charred rubble. Earlier in the day your father had sent you a package in the mail, containing merely a single key? Suicide? Arson? You’re not sure. The key however leads you eventually to a hidden room within the remains where you come across a painting of a spooky ocean liner. Before you know it, you are sucked into the painting, which is revealed to be a gateway to a ship filled with lost souls.
From this point out you have four goals in the game
1) To escape the ship of lost souls somehow
2) To help the good spirits find their way to the afterlife
3) To stay out of the dark where the evil specters who wish you harm dwell
4) To discover what this vessel has to do with your father’s death/disappearance
Echo Night is not a game about cheap scares and gore. It is more akin to the classical ghost stories of the 17th and 18th century, which were the heyday of the Phantom Ship era. Although there are creepy moments and a sinister little girl ghost, the game is more about atmosphere, mood, and originality than any attempt to make you soil yourself in fright.
What I truly love about the game is that while you may be the main character, your attempts to understand what happened to your father are secondary to the 45 stories of the damned souls on board the Orpheus. Each spirit has their own mini story that will be unveiled to you should you attempt to help them. I say attempt, because you don’t HAVE to aid each individual soul in the game to beat the game. You only need to do this if you wish to get the perfect ending. I suggest saving as many as you can, for each story ranges wildly from the last. Some are tragic, some are melancholic, some are even amusing. In the end, the level of story/plot content is as deep as you want it to be. Echo Night ends up being like an anthology of Canterville Ghost like stories in addition to a large overall plot.
Graphically, Echo Night is not a pretty game. Remember that this game came out in the Summer of 1998 in Japan. At first you might think, “Oh, that was eight years ago.” But remember, in 1997, we had Final Fantasy VII, which was visually amazing (and also the only nice thing you’ll ever hear me say about the game). Echo Night is not going to win any video game beauty contests. It look like it should have come out during the first year of the Playstation/Saturn wars, but it came out at the end of the 32 bit wars. This is definitely not a game for the graphics whores, but if you can get buy the fact that it was ugly when it came out, the story really helps to save the game.
There are some quality aspects to the visuals though. The night/day aspects are quite nice and there’s an excellent level of shadow texturing which you really hadn’t seen in many games up until this point. The game may be (really) ugly, but the graphical strengths are where they should matter most in a game that teaches you to be afraid of the dark.
The game plays very much like an adventure game, in that the majority of the gameplay revolves around puzzles to be solved and using items that you find with the environment to trigger effects that allow you to proceed further in the game. But that’s not all there is. Unlike a lot of adventure games, you can die in Echo Night. You can be electrocuted or slain by the angry evil spirits that dwell in the shadows of the ship. The only real defense you have against the villainous undead is to well, run. Run or find light, as the evil ghosts eschew the light. This is where the actual moments of terror come into play, even though the game is not pretty. hearing the giggling of the demon ghost girl as you are trapped in a room with her and the only light switch is directly behind her is a moment of frantic worry. To me, this is how terror games should be. No rocket launchers or M-16 being fired at T-Rex’s or a horde of genetic mutates. It should be one man’s struggle against things the human mind can not hope to comprehend or defeat under conventional methods. But that’s just my preference.
The audio quality of Echo Night is quite nice. The music fits the game perfectly. It’s not spooky or carrying on undercurrent of “Look out! Things are going to get you!” It merely sounds appropriate for a 1913 cruise liner in terms of background sounds. Of course, you’re on a 1913 cruise liner where everyone on board with the sole exception of yourself is living impaired, but that just adds to the creepiness of the game to me. If everything sounds and looks frightening, eventually you will become numb to it as a player. But if you are sitting on a nice relaxing ship with the sun in your face and a nice ocean breeze hitting your skin and mood music is in the foreground of your mind, it makes the going down into the ship where a shadowy being leaps out at you and attempts to sever your connection to the mortal realm all the more eerie and disconcerting. Again, it’s that level of sublimity in plot and mood that allows Echo Night to surpass the visuals of this game.
Echo Night is one of those games that reminds the true connoisseur of monsters and the macabre that gore and cheap scares doth not a good horror or terror game make. Echo Night harks back to the classic style of old ghost stories. And there’s a reason why those things are considered classics instead things like Freddy Meets Jason. The puzzles of the game are easy, and there’s enough interspersion between the adventure style and the survival horror style to keep fans of both happy. The game has a highly original setting with an enjoyable plot that is only enhanced by the first person viewpoint of the game. It may not be the prettiest game out there, but Echo Night was (and still is) one of the most original ghost story video games ever released. It managed to make the greatest hits list over in Japan, but is little known here in the states. Echo night 2 would eventually be released in Japan only, and was a disappointing haunted house generic romp. The third game, Echo Night Beyond was a truly amazing game that we’ll be featuring here later on in the countdown.
Since we’ve just spent the last little while talking about ghost ships, it seems only appropriate to discuss the most famous haunted ship of them all: The Flying Dutchman.
The Flying Dutchman is one of those legends that each culture seemed to build a variant of when the oceans were the major source of importing, exporting, travel, and conquest. In all versions of the legend, the ship is punished for some great sin or act of evil perpetrated by the crew of the Dutchman. Thus the ship and its crew are forced to sail the oceans for eternity to serve as a warning to other sailors.
Let’s start with the Dutch version of this tale. Here the captain is named Van Straaten. Van Straaten was not an evil man per say; merely an arrogant and stubborn man. He decided he was going to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, or as it was originally known back in the days of this tale, “The Cape of Storms.” Little bit of a PR change there, eh? The Cape of Good Hope is the southernmost tip of Africa and is known for its bad weather. Van Straaten continued to try and sail the Dutchman through a terrible storm, putting the lives of his crew at risk. He failed and the Flying Dutchman sank, never to be seen again. At least in the physical sense. A phantom version of the ship, manned by a crew of the dead are supposedly condemned to sail in the region forever more, act as a bad omen for horrible weather or some great disaster.
In the German version of the tale, the captain’s name is changed to Von Falkenberg. Here the Dutchman sailed the north sea instead of southern Africa. The tale takes a very different turn as the Devil sailed upon the ship one voyage and he and the captain began playing games of dice. The Devil won the final game, and instead of losing money, the captain and his crew lost their souls and like in the Dutch version, became the unwilling agents of a spectral vessel sailing the oceans.
The third well known version of the Flying Dutchman is the British version of the story. Here we return to the Cape of Storms and the original Van Straaten. Again, Van Straaten wished to sail around the cape amidst a terrible storm. The crew of the Dutchment begged Van Straaten to turn back, for their lives would surely be forfeit to the raging weather, but the captain refused, taunting his crew for being cowards and women instead of sailors. As the storm grew worse, the Dutchman managed to hold its own through the inclement weather. Van Straaten laughed and claimed not even God himself could sink the Flying Dutchman. At this dare, a spectral apparition appeared on the deck of the ship. The captain demanded the ghost leave his boat, and when it did nothing, he shot at it. Of course, bullets are of no use against ghosts, and instead of the bullet leaving the gun, the pistol exploded in Van Straaten’s hand. For daring to assault the ghost, the specter cursed Van Straaten, his crew, and the ship to wander the oceans forever, bringing bad luck to whoever was unfortunate to gaze upon their ghostly vessel.
This last version of the tale I related to you was published in 1821 and captivated the author Edward Fitzball who would go on to write a play about the Dutchman in 1826.
The Dutchman would be taken on by the great Richard Wagner and his 1843 opera by the same name.
Wagner’s play resembles that of the tale of the Wandering Jew, where the crew of the Dutchman are condemned to sail for all eternity. Here however the story is more about how anyone can be redeemed through love. The captain of the Dutchman, who has no name, rams his ghost ship into the vessel of a man named Daland, destroying the earthly ship. When Daland washes up on shore, The Dutchman explains that he is cursed to sail the ocean except for an out clause provided to him by a sympathetic angel. Every seven years, the captain is allowed on dry land. If he can find a woman of pure virtue willing to marry him, he and his crew will be allowed into heaven. What luck! Daland has a daughter. What luck! The captain of the Dutchman offers Daland all the gold aboard his ship in exchange for her. With that, Daland brings the ghost home. Of course there is a happy ending and the two do fall in love and the cast and crew of the Dutchman are saved from eternal torment. Wagner’s opera was a combination of Fitzball’s play and Henrich Hein’s romanticized version of the story.
In 1855, Washington Irving, creator of Rip Van Winkle and the Headless Horseman put his own twist of the Dutchman legend. Alas, I haven’t read this version so this must remain but a footnote in this essay.
Eventually the Flying Dutchman passed from enjoyable fictional tale into the realm of folklore in the twentieth century. In 1923 a crew of South African sailors all reported to have seen a enervated and wrecked ship just off the Cape of Good Hope. The ship was spectral in nature and frightened all who witnessed it. This is one of the best known ghost sightings in Western lore and the account written by the fourth officer still remains intact and is included in a lot of a paranormal studies. I have transcribed here for your enjoyment.
About 0:15 A.M. we noticed a strange “light” on the port bow; it was very dark, overcast with no moon. We looked at this through binoculars and the ship’s telescope, and made out what appeared to be the hull of a sailing ship, luminous with two distinct masts carrying bare yards, also luminous; no sails were visible, but there was a luminous haze between the masts. There were no navigation lights and she appeared to be coming close to us and at the same speed as ourselves. When first sighted she was about two-three miles away, and when she was about half a mile away of us she suddenly disappeared.
There were four witnesses of this spectacle, the 2nd Officer, a cadet, the helmsman and myself. I shall never forget the 2nd Officer’s startled expression – “My God, Stone. It’s a ghost ship.”
If you are interested in learning more about ghost ships, I suggest the following books:
Haunted Ships of the North Atlantic by Robert Ellis Cahill. (I believe this is out of print now. I bought it back in 1998.)
Ghost Ships : Tales of Abandoned, Doomed, and Haunted Vessels by Angus Konstam (Brand new and quite good).
Ghost Ship by Dietlof Reiche. This is a good FICTION story for younger readers.
Publisher: ICOM (Amiga), Mindscape (Apple II, Atari ST, Nintendo Gameboy, PC), Kotobuki (Nintendo Gameboy in Japan), Kemco (Nintendo Entertainment System),
Developer: ICOM Simulations
Systems Released On: Amiga, Atari ST, Apple Macintosh, Apple II, Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo Game Boy, PC,
Release Date: 12/31/1987
Another oldie but goodie! Shadowgate is the forefather of Uninvited, which we visited earlier in the countdown. It’s also one of the most famous and beloved games in all of 8 bit gaming. Truly, the one reason it is this low on the countdown is because it is an adventure/fantasy game, but much like ZORK continues one of the biggest moments of fear and worry in all of video gaming. Except Shadowgate lacks grue.
In Shadowgate, you are a nameless warrior. You awaken outside the ominous castle known only as Shadowgate where your last memory is of the Warlock Lakmir casting a spell upon you. You journeyed to Shadowgate, which is the stronghold of Lakmir in order to stop him from summoning an ancient demon named Behemoth, as well as finding the Staff of Ages, which is the only thing that can stop Lakmir’s foul magic.
That’s really the crux of the plot. It was 1987. Games were pretty black and white for the most part back then. But that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of story. The game is a first person perspective adventure game, so the game has a lot of text to it. Each room contains puzzles to solve, riddles to answer, items to use in some way, or monsters like dragons or werewolves to vanquish.
Back in 1987, the graphics were amazing. Especially the NES version. It was the closest any 8 bit game came to 3-D graphics. Of course, there was very little animation to the game, so it all balances out in the end. Still, if you compare say Super Mario Brothers or Mega Man to the only scream graphics of Shadowgate, you can’t help but be impressed. The game has arguably the best graphics on the NES.
The music is still excellent. MIDI’s they may be, the eerie background noises really help to set the “trapped in an evil castle with vile beasties” mood. Again, it is amazing how much this game has stood the test of time and the level of quality that pervades through every bit of the game.
But let’s get to the part of the game that has enabled Shadowgate to make the countdown. And that’s simply the consistent level of adrenaline pumping terror the game creates in the player. Remember how I alluded to a Zork like moment earlier? Well, in Shadowgate, the darkness itself kills you. If there is ever a moment in the game where you have no light, you will die. It is that cut and dry, The only solution to this are the limited amount of torches scattered throughout the game. You need to light them in order to stay alive. And slowly but surely, you’ll be watching your torches ebb ever lower as you go through the game. Yes, it’s not heart attacking inducing terror, but it’s a level of terror most game developers today seem to lack the understanding of. You see, all while play, the torches are a distraction. The gamer pays attention to them constantly, worrying about when they will go out, trying to find more, knowing that his life is only as long as the flame flickers. You’re even given the opportunity to light two torches at once. Why would you take that option? Why use twice as many torches in half the time? But guess what? A LOT of gamers do that when they play the game. Because they don’t want to die, so they make an amazingly illogical choice that speeds them down the path to the reaper all the sooner. This is terror my friends. The fear of the unknown. That a nameless faceless dread is prepared to swoop down on you at any time and that all you can do is keep it at bay. You can never defeat it. Shadowgate gets terror right where even 19 years later, a lot of developers are utterly clueless as to how to go about it.
Of course, the darkness is not the only way to die in Shadowgate.? Oh no. Oh god no. Much like Uninivted, there are dozens of way to perish. It’s as if every room has one or more hideous death traps in order to take you out. Each one is so highly original and enjoyable, not to mention insidious. The fact the game is this booby-trapped really does feel like you’re in the castle of an evil maniac bent on world conquest or destruction…whichever sounds good to him at the time. My personal favorite of all the deathtraps comes when you save a prisoner in the game, and he turns out to be a plant by the wizard. Oh, he’s also a werewolf. This is brilliant beyond words, because this is exactly what a Machiavellian madman would do. If you were Lakmir, and your foe was inherently noble and good, of COURSE he’d save a poor pitiful wretch from the dungeons. Heck, he might even gain an ally against you. Voila! You trick him with a monster and then you don’t even have to get your hands dirty. A lot of gamers still to this day complain about the difficulty of Shadowgate, but I adore it. It’s one of the few games where the bad guys don’t have the James Bond “Reveal the plan and stick them in an easily escapable deathtrap situation.” motif going on. The bad guy wants you dead and so he doesn’t just send a horde of kobolds or giant rats after you. He gives you actual threats and forces you to use your brain, the latter of which is generally not the greatest tool of a barbarian.
The puzzles of Shadowgate remain tricky to this day. Even if you’ve beaten the game before, if you load it up today you’ll still wonder how you solved a few of these the last time. Unlike a lot of point and click/adventure games though, screwing up puzzles in this game almost certainly means death and very few afford a chance to let you redo them. Shadowgate is hard, relentless and unforgiving. When you hear crusty pessimistic gamers in their late 20’s or early 30’s going on about how easy games are today and how anyone who started gaming from the 32 bit era on doesn’t understand the level of difficulty or challenge inherent to the games of yesteryear, this is EXACTLY the type of game they are speaking of with such masochistic fondness.
Shadowgate would eventually spawn two sequels for various systems in addition to Deja Vu and Uninvited, which merely used the same engine. Sadly though, Beyond Shadowgate and Shadowgate 64 were not games I can recall anyone really enjoying or getting good reviews. They were lackluster and rather plain. It wasn’t that they used an outdated mode of gaming or were too old school. Shadowgate Classic was released for the Game Boy Colour, and that sold very well and also received excellent review scores. The two Shadowgate sequels just weren’t very good games. And that happens with a lot of sequels. The success of ICOM’s series in the late 1980s was that each game in the “Shadowgate Series” was independent of each other. Spooky castle vs 1920’s detective mystery vs haunted house. When the rehashed the Shadowgate plot, all gamers had were new puzzles that lacking the difficulty or originality of the first Shadowgate This effectively killed the series across the board.
Shadowgate is easily accessible today. Thanks to the Game Boy Color version of the game and the backwards compatibility of the Nintendo handhelds, you can generally find the game for under 5 dollars at your local gaming store or on Ebay and can play it with the SP, or GBA instead of the older GBC or even the massive battery eating black and white Game Boy. It’s a great opportunity for those of you who missed it when you were growing up, or who are just to young to have gotten the chance when the game was released. It will take you some time to beat the game without a walkthrough or cheat sheet, but that’s half the fun. Beating Shadowgate gives you a real sense that you’ve accomplished something. I remember as a kid that after it came out, every month for almost a year in Nintendo Power’s help section they’d give away one puzzle solution because so many people were writing in for help.
If you are looking for a challenging game that is an excellent representative for some of the best gaming the NES had to offer as well as something that gives you a consistent sense of “ohcrapohcrapohcrap. I need a new torch. Where is a torch? I have to find a torch!” then look no further. Shadowgate is waiting for you to solve its mysteries.
We’ll be back next week with another two games. One of which is the first game ever reviewed here on Inside Pulse. The other is the first of three games in a row featuring my dyslexic namesake.