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by Sotenga - May 19, 2012

Nightshade (Part 1: The Claws of Sutekh) - NES (1992)

American NES Cover


The Nintendo Entertainment System is more revered for its fast-paced action games than investigative adventure yarns, the latter of which tended to be designated for personal computers. Nintendo's home console did indeed accommodate an adventure market, but most such titles were exclusive to Japan on the Famicom, particularly the popular "detective murder mystery" subgenre pioneered by Chunsoft's Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken. Several were also ported over from Japanese computers, the PC-88 in particular contributing console-friendlier renditions of games like the awesomely-named Jesus: Kyoufu no Bio Monster. The only such game (or at least the only one worth mentioning) to somehow get an overseas release was the quirky Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom. Many Japanese adventures (and most console ones henceforth) take place in the first person, with your view often confined to a screen that takes up one-third of the overall screen as the rest is filled with menus, data, speech, and so on. In contrast, most Western-developed adventures were set in third-person with text parsers borrowed from text adventure games, which were later replaced by considerably simpler command menus. Very few Western adventures were ported to consoles, and due to in-game cursors naturally complimenting the PC mouse, the lucky ones that got console ports were a bit of a pain to navigate using directional pads.

This is no exception for the NES, which only received a handful of six non-Japanese adventure titles, most of which were ports. Despite being a bit tricky to control, four of these games are some of the most fondly remembered Nintendo titles of all time. Somewhat ironically, three of these (Shadowgate, Déjà Vu, Uninvited) were Kemco-Seika's ports of ICOM's MacVentures, games which had more in common with Japanese interfaces (first-person view, several sub-menus), but were originally Western-made and felt as such (more puzzles, less direct character interaction, ridiculously frequent and amusing ways to die). The fourth, Maniac Mansion, is thought of by some as the definitive version of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick's timeless LucasArts adventure (the first to run on the famous SCUMM engine, no less) due to the improved command interface and awesome musical score. The fifth, an unlikely NES port of the infamous King's Quest V published by Ultra, Konami's American division, is an absolute shipwreck of an already infuriating game and deserves no further accolades.

However, Ultra did release one other similar title that sucked considerably less, and that brings us to the sixth known Western-developed graphic adventure title modeled for the NES. It is an anomaly, as it was specifically designed for the NES and not originally a computer game! This is Nightshade, an unknown little gem released at a time when the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was on the rise and less attention was paid to the little gray box. It was developed by Australia-based Beam Software, later Krome Studios Melbourne. While Beam's history was a bit spotty, they would at least be responsible for the fantastic Shadowrun RPG on the SNES. They were never really defined by any one particular genre, but their foray into the graphic adventure field turned up one of the most unique and decidedly bizarre NES sleeper hits. Nightshade was modeled as a comic book story with an unlikely protagonist fighting against a supervillain and the many criminals at his disposal. It has all the elements of a comic setting: Quirky characters, a dark city, ridiculous text, and so on. As it was specifically console-made, it attempts to strike a compromise between computer and console commonalities. While not quite succeeding on every level, the effort in making Nightshade as original as possible is to be commended.

The story begins on a surprisingly brutal note: Metro City's costumed protector, Vortex, is captured and unceremoniously killed by criminals. This causes crime to spiral out of control until the city's gangs are united by Sutekh, a ruthless crime lord with a penchant for Egyptian mythology, himself dressed like the jackal-headed god Anubis (or possibly Set). Mark Gray, a bookish encyclopedia researcher, is fed up with Sutekh's reign and becomes a vigilante for justice under the eponymous moniker of Nightshade, a rather unorthodox hero without any superpowers, gadgets, or even a cape. All he has are a trenchcoat, hat and shades, his fists, and a keen intuition that may or may not qualify as intelligence. Unfortunately, the instant Nightshade finishes narrating the opening monologue, he is somehow found tied to a chair by Sutekh in a dingy sewer with a nearby bomb threatening his life. He can barely move his chair to a conveniently placed candle, but it can't burn through the ropes in time. However, moving behind a nearby wall and waiting for the bomb to explode causes the blast to miss our hero, allowing him to burn the ropes at his leisure. When free, Nightshade has to escape the sewer before he heads out into the city, and that's when the adventure truly begins.

Nightshade's control scheme can certainly take a bit of time to get accustomed with it. The directional pad controls Nightshade directly like how the keyboard moved characters from earlier Sierra adventures, although Nightshade can walk in eight directions instead of merely the four cardinal ones. There are several commands at his disposal, and activating one causes his sprite to disappear and be replaced by a cursor, whereby putting the cursor above the desired object enacts the command selected for it. Pressing "A" brings up "Examine" to look at objects and "B" enables the "Operate" function to use and open things on the screen and in your inventory. The other commands are brought up with the select menu alongside Examine and Operate; there's also Pick Up (self-explanatory), Talk (also obvious), Use (for items), Item (to examine your inventory), System (to turn music and sound effects, check your progress by percent, or quit the game), Fight (to challenge evildoers), Jump (to leap over pits and obstacles) and Cancel (to bail from the submenu). A few commands feel a bit unnecessary: Operate and Use essentially perform the same function, and even if Use is specifically for using items on the environment, there could have been a way to meld it into Operate somehow. Fight is usually redundant as walking right up to a baddie initiates battle automatically (more on this later), and the presence of Jump is quite bizarre. It's only ever useful in about four specific places, and why it isn't appended to a more general command (like Operate) is a mystery. It may not be on the level of most LucasArts SCUMM titles in terms of ease of use, but clunky as the interface may seem at first, it works well enough for only having four buttons on the controller.

If Nightshade were an incredibly boring game, its strange controls may be inexcusable. Thankfully, the setting is what makes it such a delight. It presents an interesting graphical style that, while not technically dazzling, nails the comic book atmosphere. Metro City at nighttime casts an ominous mood with most areas being bordered by black and teeming with unseemly hoodlums. There's a fair deal of night-black on most screens interlaced with fitting colors; dark greens around the grassy park areas, copper brown for some buildings and hushed blue for bricks in low-lit areas, iron gray for the sewer systems and so forth. Rarely do any of the locales look gaudy, perhaps except for the strange lavender tenements around the middle of the map. Most character sprites are defined by a particularly striking color: Evil Brits are blue, blonde ninjas are clad entirely in gray, cats are red for some weird reason, and Nightshade himself is draped in various shades of brown. The graphics can be considered to be around par for the time, and while not technically too advanced, they fit quite well for the game's world as does its soundtrack. The music's quality comes off as grating at times, but each composition often fits with the tone of the immediate area. The overworld track feels as if there's a hint of danger and mystery ever present, a jazzy track plays outside of the exclusive nightclub, and the subdued sewer music is almost calming. It's a decent score that might not be appreciated by everybody, but those who don't favor it can switch the music off via the System command.

What really sells the adventure is the audacious humor of its script and design. Nightshade himself is an affable chap who shows a lot of enthusiasm for crime-busting and attempts to get the superhero lingo down pat, though he always seems to be just a bit off-kilter. Early on, after uncovering a secret passage, Nightshade blurts out: "Great quivering enigmas with a side salad and a light tartare sauce!" He actually does not speak an awful lot compared to other adventure protagonists, which is a bit unfortunate considering his comedy potential, but it also prevents him from becoming too obnoxious or grating. Big bad Sutekh often chews the scenery whenever he appears, proclaiming how unstoppable he is even though there's a hint of absurdity beneath him; just wait until you find out his real name and hear his insane plans near the end of the game! There are several city citizens with which to talk, like an old man who snubs you condescendingly until you clobber a crime boss, a museum curator whom you can cheese off by destroying one of his dinosaur bone exhibits (and delight by reforming it), and even the dead superhero Vortex who has oddly-specific pre-recorded messages for your benefit, referring to you as "boy" alongside spirited encouragements. Aside from humans, you can actually talk to cats after you read certain graffiti, but inexplicably, you can speak to squirrels inherently.

There's not really a lot to be said about each character, as they're all rather one-note and mostly exist to give you clues or items. This is not so much a fault as a conscious design choice wrought by Nightshade's place in history; it proudly stands as one of the last old-school adventures that emphasized exploration and discovery over storyline and dialogue, like the earlier King's Quest games or Maniac Mansion. It also stays enjoyable with its jokes and situations, like a running gag wherein everyone refers to our hero as "Lampshade" or another erroneous name, a portrait of a man which impossibly changes exaggerated facial expressions every time you see it, accidentally stumbling into a woman's changing booth, reading news stories like "Man eats fence - and lives!" and being turned away by barely-literate lunkheads who look like they've been ripped off from Dick Tracy. Obligatory pop culture references include an automated defense system who refers to you as "Dave" like 2001's HAL 9000, Nightshade asking "Did I err?" in a nod to Groo the Wanderer, and a lost pizza boy asking for a Mr. "Caravaggio," a clever nod to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles being named after Renaissance artists. There's even a particularly ludicrous gag where you can talk to a squirrel and listen to his anarchist ramblings, or you can fight this "vorpal" squirrel and somehow lose a bit of health and popularity automatically. The game's presentation is about fun, first and foremost. If you're looking for a deep plot with character development and shocking twists, this game is not recommended. If you're instead up for a madcap adventure laden with Monty Python-esque humor and deliberately cheesy writing that sends up the superhero genre as a whole, Nightshade is where it's at.

Nightshade also offers an incredibly freeform approach to its gameplay that allows you to tackle its challenges in any order you desire. By talking to bystanders and reading scattered papers and signs, you get an idea of what needs to be done to beat the snot out of Sutekh. Until you find out, it's fun to roam around the city, much of which is immediately available to you after you escape the sewer. Metro City itself is structured in an 8x5 grid, tallying 40 screens not counting the various buildings and sub-areas you can enter. While fairly expansive, each screen is easy to travel through and it never feels like much of a pain to get around. There's a lot to do around the map with most tasks relating to raising your popularity meter, which starts as a flat-out black bar. When your popularity is low, you're unable to even browse the newspaper archives. Get it higher to enter Vortex's hideout, a secret area which contains four helpful items and a full energy recharge booth (though beware, its uses are limited); even higher and you can speak to the esteemed Professor Sandleford, who tells you all about Sutekh and even gives you something that might tip the odds against him. While popularity is not mandatory for completion, it certainly helps in your quest. Below the popularity gauge is the much more straightforward health meter, a rarity in adventure games. You can lose health in a variety of ways, such as being pecked at by bats or rats, taking dripping acid to the head, getting shot at by automatic turrets and so forth. It's at least merciful to not die immediately when hit by any of these things (the bomb at the very beginning doesn't outright kill you but blows away half of your health), and there are a few methods to restore damage, though you'll be needing all your health for the non-adventure part of the game, so to speak.

There's a lot to do for your benefit and the good of the city, like helping a cat down from a pillar or perusing the local library which has a couple secrets to be found. You can even rescue a girl from a burning building, where the perspective zooms out and you initiate a sort of minigame where you have to try and avoid flames appearing at the windows. Nightshade's open approach can be daunting to novices and it's not really made clear precisely what you need to do until you've spent some time getting acquainted with all the locales. Your eventual goal is to enter Sutekh's hideout by collecting five scarabs and figuring out where to use them. One scarab is hidden away in the depths of the city, while the remaining four are held by a tetralogy of crime lords who report directly to Sutekh: King Rat, Goliath, Lord Muck, and the Ninja Mistress. There is also a prominent sub-goal in the game that involves finding Vortex's old hideout and taking his four "anti-theft domes," then seeking out four mysterious artifacts that Sutekh intends to steal and placing a dome on each of them. It's implied that you should do this based on a list you might find, but it's not often made clear what purpose protecting these artifacts accomplishes until very late in the game; even then, it's not spelled out for you what purpose this task accomplishes. There are a few other moments of obscure logic and unlikely solutions, such as figuring out how to enter the gentleman's lodge and getting into Goliath's tower, but there's nothing so malicious as all the unwinnable situations in nearly every adventure title from the eighties. If there's something really stumping you, you can roam around the city and seek out a new task before coming back to your previous problem.

For all of its investigation and exploration, Nightshade is not a pureblood adventure title, as there is a heavy action element to it in the form of hand-to-hand combat. Whenever you come across a rogue on the streets (or challenge the enemy using the generally redundant Fight command), you engage in a one-on-one (and an occasional one-against-two) fight that plays out somewhat like Street Fighter II, albeit considerably less sophisticated. Pressing the A button has Nightshade jump high, and he punches with B. He doesn't really have too many attacks, just a standing punch combo, a crouching punch combo, and a spin kick performed by holding up and pressing B. Crouching punches are often the preferred way to take on enemies, as they have more range than standing punches and several attacks miss Nightshade while he's ducking. There are quite a few different enemy varieties to battle, ranging from goofy British gents who toss their bowlers at you to "Abnormal Irradiated Samurai Rats" who fire dubious projectiles from their nose. Tougher opponents are the female ninjas who often teleport close to you for a kick in the face, as well as a unique large-headed goon who spams headbutts to knock you out. Less conventional enemies include jackal-headed robots and mummies who can only be attacked from behind. The hit detection can be a bit sketchy at times and there's no way to block attacks, only being able to duck under or jump over them. You share the same lifebar for fights as you do for travel, so be sure to avoid traps to conserve your energy for battles.

The fight sequences are arguably the most controversial aspect of Nightshade. On the one hand, they provide a considerable diversion from the adventuring and pass by pretty quickly, offering enough enemy variety so as not to become monotonous. On the other, they're damn frustrating until you get used to them, and even then, you're guaranteed to lose some health on most fights no matter how good you are. That being said, they aren't anywhere near as bad as most action sequences wedged into adventure games, and they mesh well with the comic book vigilante setting. Some of the fights are avoidable and don't accomplish much besides boosting your popularity (though it is arguably the fastest way to do so), but you must battle against the bosses: Four crime lords and Sutekh himself. The bosses are not pushovers either, and while some of them fight similar to normal enemies, they usually have at least one new trick up their sleeve that makes them just that much tougher. You'll have to be good enough at fighting in addition to figuring out how to reach all four bosses (and finding the hidden fifth scarab) to beat the game, so it's not like most other adventures where beating it once drains it of most replay value.

Until you learn how to brawl and figure out where to go, Nightshade can be a rather tough game offset by an unfortunate omission found in most other adventures: The lack of a save feature. If you know exactly what you're doing, the game can actually be beaten well under an hour provided you don't die on the way to victory. Still, even when you know where to go, you might get shredded in several fights and be in jeopardy of losing your hard-earned progress. The bosses can be pretty tough if you don't know how to tackle them, and the game pulls a rather mean dupe on you by ostensibly throwing all four crime bosses at you in the final hallway before Sutekh. Yet if you had the foresight to cover the four artifacts with domes, you forego re-fighting these bosses depending on how many you found and saved. However, if you beat any boss before you realize this, one of the objects will be stolen and there's no way you'll get out of fighting that boss later! This is the worst the game gets with Sierra-esque omissions of information, but even so, at least you get a chance to fight your way out instead of being inextricably doomed. There are no points where you can be completely stuck and have to restart the game, and repeatedly playing it will help you get around quicker. Not having any form of progress backup may have been a conscious choice, but while not technically necessary, some form of logging would have been appreciated for less patient gamers due to how easy it can be to bite the dust.

While you become accustomed to the game's ins-and-outs, you will likely die often, albeit with a caveat of mercy in your favor. Nightshade handles "Game Overs" in a very unique fashion that has yet to be replicated anywhere else. You essentially have five "lives" to complete the game, but you have to earn each life by solving a self-contained puzzle. You're not quite dead if your lifebar runs out, but when you come to, Sutekh places you in one of his death traps to finish you off. When this first happens, Nightshade will be on a slow conveyor belt moving towards a crushing press machine. You can actually escape this fatal contraption by waiting until Nightshade's foot is in front of the left lever (NOT the right one!) and using Operate to bail out, returning you to where you started in the sewer with full health and a minor popularity penalty. Failure to escape means a premature Game Over, naturally. The next three deathtraps each have their own solutions to escape and stave off certain doom, but there is absolutely no way to evade the fifth deathtrap, making that the definitive Game Over if it occurs. It's somewhat cruel to make you work for your continue, but at the same time, it's also a rather clever implementation of a standard lives system that you'd find in any other old game that integrates well into the overall atmosphere. That's what Nightshade is all about: Subverting several adventure and action game tropes to create a truly particular game that has not and will likely never be recreated, duplicated, or otherwise reinstated.

Nightshade deserved more recognition than what little it received. While technically a fairly short game with imbalanced difficulty, it had enough charm and quirk to warrant more adventures of the anti-caped hero of the night. There may have been a sequel in the works, as noted by the subtitle: "Episode I: The Claws of Sutekh." If they did plan another game (perhaps for the Super NES), it could have improved the fighting and made for a much larger adventure that would have justified the implementation of progress backup. However, it's also likely that this episodic subtitle was inserted for farcical purposes, considering the generally silly nature of the setting. Nightshade leans on the fourth wall and always takes itself lightly (save for the morbid intro), and it's feasible that the promise of a second may have been a joke to begin with as a riff on the episodic nature of comic book serials and big-budget superhero films which often get bigger-budget sequels. Still, it is a tantalizing carrot to dangle when the setting is interesting enough to provide another potential adventure. Even as it stands, Nightshade is one of the most dynamic and original NES titles out there that, despite its rough edges, should definitely be checked out by adventure enthusiasts and anyone just looking for something a tad different. Now go forth, young Nightcart!

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  • Paul Kidd



Nightshade (NES)

Nightshade (NES)

Nightshade (NES)

Nightshade (NES)

Nightshade (NES)

Nightshade (NES)

Nightshade (NES)

Nightshade (NES)

Nightshade (NES)

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