Basic Idea: Die.
Review: It may have helped than I am an enormous fan of adventure games, but I hopelessly adore Shadowgate. Of the games in my top ten, it is the most likely to treated with disdain by others, though it also has its ardent fans.
Adventure games are a tough sell to console gamers, especially when you have to move the cursor around with a control pad instead of a mouse. No doubt it gets frustrating at times. But for me Shadowgate hits on so many other levels that I am able to forgive it. The story is your standard dungeon fare, but the atmosphere is nailed. The music will be forever etched in my memory, especially the eerie tune that plays when your torch is about to go out. When it appears there should be tension (e.g. facing a fire-breathing dragon) the music changes accordingly. The sound effects add a lot as well, from lightning striking to glass breaking.
The graphics are also well done. At no point do you have to go pixel hunting. Some of the gory parts could have been a little more creepy. One criticism of the game is that it can’t decide if it’s going for horror or humor. I certainly get that. You will die, and die frequently. When it happens, the game will mercilessly mock you. I am one of those that enjoy when games do it correctly, and I believe Shadowgate does. Better yet, you always return to the spot where you died, so you can feel free to make mistakes. “Learn by Dying” is certainly inexcusable by today’s standards, but even I miss it sometimes if the game isn’t cruel about it. Thankfully, there are no silly mazes or hunger daemons, so there are no puzzles by themselves that will make you want to quit. The only way to put yourself in an unwinnable situation is if you wander around for so long that you run out of torches, but the game offers you plenty.
As for the puzzles, they are hit and miss. Some are obvious, some are clever, and some are downright obtuse. There are also many, many red herrings. There are hints for many puzzles spread throughout the dungeon, though those are sometimes vague as well. My favorite puzzles involve using spells that you learn throughout the way. As an aside, the only time I ever called a Nintendo Game Counselor was when I was stuck at the troll bridge. As it turns out, the puzzle was incredibly easy; all you have to do is attack the troll with your spear. But I thought I heard the counselor say “sphere,” which led to much frustration as I kept trying to throw my sphere at the bastard. My brother had to call another counselor ($2.25 a minute!) to get the correct answer.
Shadowgate is certainly not for everybody, and it would be hard to get into these days even for adventure fans, but it will always hold a special place for me.