Shadowgate preview: Inside the modern rebirth of a point-and-click adventure classic
"We enjoy killing the player," says Karl Roelofs, a fiendish grin lighting up his face.
Roelofs and his friend Dave Marsh were responsible for creating Shadowgate, one of the earliest graphical point-and-click adventure gamess, for the Macintosh way back in 1987. Now, a quarter of a century later and with the help of some 3,500 Kickstarter backers, Roelofs and Marsh are returning to the dark halls of Castle Shadowgate.
"A few years ago when Doublefine was getting the ground going with retro games on Kickstarter Dave and I looked at each other and said, 'Why not? Why not do Shadowgate right?'" says Roelofs.
"Doing Shadowgate right" meant more than just overhauling the graphics. "It was tantamount to making a new game," says Roelofs. "We did a bunch of different things to try and mix it up for old-time fans and to make it refreshing for them as well as new players."
When Roelofs says it's a new game, he's not lying. Shadowgate is more like recent reboots Wolfenstein: The New Order or Shadow Warrior than it is DuckTales: Remastered. It's inspired by the original, rather than a recreation. There are elements lifted wholesale from the original game, but there are also rooms that play out completely different.
"What we tried to do is take puzzles that worked a certain way and turned it on its ear," says Roelofs. "It may not look like you're at the same puzzle but you are, and when you solve it you'll go 'Hey, that's kind of like that thing in the original game!'"
Roelofs demonstrates by taking me to the top of one of the castle's three towers. "In the original game, when you came to the top of this tower there was a woman chained to the wall, and whenever you tried to do anything to her she turned into a werewolf," says Roelofs. "It made absolutely little sense in the game. However, there were things about it we liked."
He opens the door, revealing a woman sitting in a plush velvet chair. "So we went and repurposed it," says Roelofs, "and now we have a character." The game launches into a gorgeous 2D cutscene describing how the changeling woman came to Castle Shadowgate and what her motivations are.
Yes, a cutscene—another new addition for Shadowgate 2014. "We try to flesh things out instead of just dumping you on your adventure," says Roelofs. The original Shadowgate hinted at a story, and that was enough at the time; players filled in the gaps. Now, with the power of today's hardware at their side, Roelofs and Marsh have added hand-painted, 2D cutscenes at pivotal moments. The centerpiece is still the puzzles, but Castle Shadowgate now feels more like a living place—something you wouldn't accomplish by simply porting the original text to a modern platform.
After running through her monologue, we're given a chance to interact with the wolf-woman. We make the wrong move and she takes a bite out of our wayward adventurer's face, killing us and kicking us back to the title screen to try again.
There are also a handful of mechanics to help make the game more accessible to newcomers. While a number of companies (see: Sierra) made a name off brutally killing the player in the late '80s and early '90s, the fact is that type of game has largely gone out of vogue, with Dark Souls and a few ultra-difficult platformers as the rare exceptions. The new edition of Shadowgate has three difficulty levels, and Roelofs says the hardest of the three is most comparable to the original game. The lower difficulties give players a break on certain puzzles, hinting at the answer or allowing for more mistakes.
There's also an autosave/quicksave system to mitigate some of the game's penchant for quick deaths. And put away that graph paper! Now there's an in-game map that even marks key items after you've examined them.
Shadowgate sticks with a classic adventure game control scheme, with buttons for "Use" and "Look" and half a dozen other actions near the top of the screen. However, it also features keyboard shortcuts, contextual commands, and control remapping for those who are looking for a more 2014-esque control scheme. That sort of control scheme is a bit clunky by modern standards, but I will admit it allows for more nuanced interactions than a game that's purely contextual, a la Broken Age.
For those who want to eschew all things new, you can boot up the game's Retro Mode. Retro Mode uses a filter to pixelate the graphics and swaps the modern orchestral soundtrack for the NES 8-bit version.
I saw only a brief selection of the game's hundred or so rooms, so I don't know how it'll all feel at launch, but so far this looks like a faithful and loving adaptation of a classic game for modern audiences—"Doing it right," in other words. We'll have a review once I'm able to delve into the full release after the game launches in August.