31 Days of Gaming Terror – Day 15: The Early Years of the Genre

Alexander Lucard:Everything starts somewhere. With Survival Horror games, the genre’s name may have been coined with Resident Evil, but horror games have been around since the dawn of gaming. Atari’s Haunted House could arguably called the first game in the genre. Released in 1982, you had to journey through nine different versions of the haunted Graves Mansion. Your goal is to join together three pieces of an urn while avoiding a giant spider, the same dick bat you would encounter in Adventure and the ghost of Graves himself. It had an amazing feel to it, where you had either a flashlight, or a box of matches (depending on which of the nine levels you were in) to light your way.

Sure the game was clunky and a bit pants to those who try playing it today, but back in 1981, this thing was a lot of fun. Honestly if you break the game down, it’s basically the same exact format Capcom would use for Resident Evil but with Alone in the Dark‘s controls.

Another great 2600 game featuring ghouls and fiendish beasties was Xonox’s 1983 title, Ghost Manor. Man I loved this game. I used to play this all the time. The game involved you, playing as either a boy or a girl, needing to save your love from a haunted castle. There were various levels to the game that ranged from playing tag with a ghost in a graveyard to doing battle with Dracula. I found a great clip of someone beating the game in under two minutes on you tube, something my 8 year old self could never have imagined possible.

There are a few other games out there which come to mind readily from those early days of gaming. Of course we had Halloween which was a boring lackluster title that involved you saving kids from Michael Myers in a similar fashion to the NES’ Friday the 13th. The only real thing of interest is that Myers would cut your head off if and when he killed you. There were NES games like Nightmare on Elm Street and Beetlejuice, but of course Beetlejuice was not a scary movie, and Nintendo had some pretty big issues with showing anything scary on their venerable 8 bit system. Several us of thought about talking about Sweet Home, the Japanese RPG where your characters are stuck in a haunted home and where dead means dead, but as none of us actually played it until we were adults, and it’s more an RPG then a true horror game, we decided to nix it. Still, that’s what Wikipedia and Google are for, kids. There’s really only one game for the NES worth talking about…

#23. Shadowgate
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.

Guy Desmarais: I had many horror game for my NES back in the days, but sadly, none of them seemed to be any good. You see, I was not big on Castlevania, so I missed out on what was arguably the best the genre had to offer on the console. The notable exception was Ghosts n Goblins, which was more than hard, but still enjoyable. I have seen the first level of this game so often that it almost feels like home. A very frustrating home, but you get the picture.

Anyway, as far as the rest of the games go, I had Werewolf: The Last Warrior, a game with an interesting premise plagued with horrible gameplay. You played as the titular lycanthrope, fighting an army of bio-engineered monsters. The problem is that the werewolf was as stiff as a tetanos victim and that the game was terribly boring. The platforming elements were completely atrocious.

Another of my possessions was Friday The 13th. I sucked at it pretty bad and didn’t really enjoy it, but one summer, my uncle got pretty interested by the game, and vowed that he would finish it by the end of August. He eventually got pretty good at it, but over the course of his journey, he painfully discovered that no matter how many times he killed Jason or how many times he ventured into the cave, the bad guy would always come back. After killing the serial killer about 5 times or so in the course of a single game, he was once again alerted to Jason’s presence on the map. He threw down the controller, yelled “That’s it!” and never touched the game again. I never found out if this game does have an ending.

Finally, I also had Ghostbusters II which might not be that scary of a game, but held incredible powers over my brother. My brother was abig fan of the movie, so with the money he got for Christmas, he decided to buy the game. Everything was going OK until he actually started playing it. The issue here is that the game is nearly impossible to finish for a 5 years old, which means that he died within the first minute or so. What happens then is that Vigo The Carpathian comes alive, escapes from his painting and covers the sky in purple before looking over his work with an evil, evil smile. That smile, accompanied by the creepy “game over” music, sent my brother running away crying and haunted him for years. My father had to lock the cartridge away in a file cabinet so that my brother would stop thinking Vigo would come out to get him. I could only play when he was not around, which doesn’t leave you much time when your brother is two years younger and keeps looking up to you for entertainment.

Years later, I played Ghostbusters II again and once again didn’t get very far. If it looks that hard now, I can only imagine how often I would have seen Vigo’s evil, evil smile if I played more as a kid.

Mark B.: Older horror games were, at best, only horrific for their content; fighting monsters in spooky locations really wasn’t very scary when all of the combat amounted to one inch-high sprite punching another inch-high sprite, no matter how awesome your monster sprites are. A few games managed to get past this in some form or fashion, like Uninvited and Shadowgate, and the incredibly awesome horror RPG Sweet Home actually almost got the whole concept down perfectly (you had five characters who could pair up into teams of three to traipse around a haunted mansion fighting battles in a Final Fantasy sort of RPG), even if Capcom never saw fit to bring it to the US (though maybe we might see it on the VC one day, HINT HINT).

However, I owned a Sega Master System as a kid, so I didn’t get to play all of these games until I was much older. As a result, I only really got to play two horror-themed games (as opposed to horrible games, of which I played plenty): Ghostbusters and Ghost House.

Ghostbusters was a SMS port of the NES/PC game that I imagine most of us have played in some form or fashion, although the SMS version was easily the best of the lot; aside from not having to fill up your gas tank all the time, the game was generally a lot easier to play and understand, and was surprisingly fun when I was eight, even if dodging the Staypuft Marshmallow Man was a giant pain in the ass. Ghost House, on the other hand, was a bizarre platformer where you played as a big-headed kid named Mick who, for whatever reason, was trying to gather up treasure in a haunted house (I think it was his inheritance or something), and had to kill Dracula about a hundred times to do so. To put it mildly, the game was bizarre; you would walk past wall-mounted candles and knives would fly at you (and if you jumped on those knives, you could then use them in combat, which was often the only way to beat Dracula); you could bash your head into ceiling lights to stop time briefly; the monsters in the house, aside from the mummies and bats, were some of the most bizarre monsters I’ve ever seen in a video game; and, oh yes, Mick looked like Eddie Munster.

This is what horror games used to be like, kids.

Chris Bowen: Let me talk a bit about Shadowgate, or as I like to call it, “101 Ways I Can Die”.

I wasn’t a big PC gamer growing up; yes, I grew up on what my school had, and like most got my share of Carmen Sandiego, The Oregon Trail and other assorted games that I got to play a lot because I was good at getting my work done quickly (proof that if you motivate me right, I can realign the bloody planets if you asked me to), but when it came to playing at home, I was a console boy, through and through, with the NES being my system of choice throughout my youth, and throughout my teenage years as well.

Due to this, Shadowgate was my first exposure to the PC style of game, which was a bit more immersive, and required a lot more deep thinking and puzzle solving than even the most cerebral NES games of the time required. The point-and-click interface was mostly transferred well to the NES, though I didn’t know any better at the time, obviously, due to the fact that I didn’t have a PC and didn’t even really know what a “mouse” was.

What I did know, through sheer repetition, was how to die. Often. And colourfully.

Shadowgate was unique to most NES games in the sense that if you so much as blinked wrong, you died. In any way possible, you could die. Looked at the wrong candle? Trap door! Dead! Drank the wrong fluid? Poison! Dead! Torch ran dry? Dead! Hell, you could even commit suicide (which I’m shocked got past Nintendo’s tremendously anal-retentive censors)! Furthermore, the game took the liberty of explaining to you, in rote detail, just how you die. The game takes a novelistic approach to the entire game, describing everything to you as you enter, such as the cool or hot air of the room, the ivy on the stone walls, etc. Though the NES version isn’t quite as verbose as the PC or Mac versions, the game does a great job of describing everything to the player. I think the closest comparison I can draw to today’s games is to Hotel Dusk, in that it’s more of an interactive novel, just that Shadowgate is more sadistic. Thankfully, when you die – and you will die – the game brings you back to the room prior.

There were a few similar sequels, Uninvited and Deja Vu, but I don’t think either one of them really measures up to the original Shadowgate. Though an FAQ is a virtual requirement for the game for most of today’s players – hell, I didn’t even beat it until GameFAQs came along – it’s a fantastic, story-driven game for the NES that rewards the truly inquisitive, and though it’s not a “horror” game in the classical, Splatterhouse sense, the sheer precision required to get through the game, and the paranoia that can set in as every move you make can become fatal, makes this an easy choice for me in what a horror game can and should be.

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