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Shadowgate’s Simple Melodies Conjure Danger And Unease

Image: Kemco / Kotaku
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Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s new, daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-ass sounds they make. The deadly adventure game Shadowgate was an unlikely hit on the NES, and I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest its tremendous soundtrack played a role in that.

Shadowgate was originally a 1987 Macintosh adventure game (longplay) by American developer ICOM Simulations, part of its MacVenture series. In an unlikely turn of events, Japanese publisher / developer Kemco-Seika ported this black-and-white, mouse-based adventure game to the NES in 1989 (longplay), greatly enhancing it in the process.

Right where she said it would be!!
Right where she said it would be!!
Screenshot: Kemco / LPArchive / Look Polish

(In another unlikely turn of events, I have a clear recollection of asking a flesh-and-blood Nintendo gameplay counselor how to defeat Shadowgate’s hellhound at the local leg of the 1990 Nintendo World Championships. You need the holy water, she said off the top of her head. To find it simply “use” the weird floor-rock in the Laboratory. Ah.)

Among the NES changes were completely redesigned graphics (in color of course, but also lower-res), a new UI with simplified gamepad controls, and, most unexpectedly, a very elegant, atmospheric soundtrack by Kemco’s Hiroyuki Masuno.

Let’s listen:

Kemco / GBelair (YouTube)

Shadowgate’s music oozes menace and mystery right from the title theme. In this song and some others I tend to notice Masuno’s methodical use of the NES’ triangle-channel bass to support and accompany the lighter, square-wave melodies layered on top. That’s NES music 101, but his compositions are so simple and straightforward that their constituent parts are often very easily discernible. (In a track from another game, he just holds one triangle-channel note the entire song, never letting up.) Simple though they are, Shadowgate’s songs remain atmospheric as heck, doing a lot with very little. I love that.

This incredible fucker.
Screenshot: Kemco / MobyGames

My favorite tracks—all the following titles are from a fan rip—tend to be the less menacing, more exploratory-feeling pieces, like the expectation-setting “Entryway,” the similarly classic “Hall of Mirrors,” the somewhat contemplative “Courtyard,” and the downright energetic (by Shadowgate standards) “Twilight.” If you can survive, “The End” is pretty, too.

The memorable “Subterranean Cavern,” meanwhile, seems filled with fear and uncertainty… but not as much as in “Danger!”, the extremely worrisome melody you hate to hear because it means your torch is running low. Hope you’ve got another! If you don’t, you’ll soon hear “Game Over” as you stare into that distinctive reaper’s face once more.

As Kemco’s in-house audio lead Masuno was extremely prolific on the NES, and his unostentatious style remains evident throughout his NES work. I don’t find all of it compelling (a tall order, to be fair) but in certain games—Shadowgate and related ICOM NES port Deja Vu are two—he finds some magic. I plan to check out more.

Bonus round? Bonus round.

In 2014 the Warlock Lord returned in an HD Shadowgate remake with an extensively orchestrated soundtrack by Rich Douglas (Bandcamp / VGMdb), which builds around the bones of Masuno’s score. It works fine in-game, but all the extra connective tissue dilutes what I enjoy. Even so, it’s a cool, respectful approach in the context of the NES game being remade 25 years later, and if you’re gonna epic-ify the main theme, this is a pretty good shot at it:

Zojoi / Darkozric (YouTube)

Douglas also has quite a back catalog of other remixed and reimagined classic game music, which retro fans might want to check out.

It’s a sad thing that your Morning Music has ended here!! Use this skeleton key in the southern door to proceed to the comments, but be damn sure to keep your torch lit. See y’all tomorrow!