From Sherlock Holmes to Shadowgate
How the consulting detective led to the discovery of a remake for the first-person adventure classic.
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At last, I found him.
Over the past couple of months, an almost completely irrational hunt has taken place, its sole purpose to uncover the current owner of the Shadowgate property. If you're not entirely sure what that is, here's a brief overview that demands greater inspection if you have the time: In the mid to late 1980s, a development team at ICOM developed a unique series of first-person adventure games referred to as the MacVenture series. It included Shadowgate, Deja Vu and its sequel, and Uninvited. Most of these games were eventually ported to the NES by Kemco, and for many, these versions hold the fondest memories.
The reason for the search started out as a mix of those same memories and an innocuous call to action on Twitter for a developer to carry the burden of resurrecting a gaming classic on iOS or Android--an innocent request that ultimately went unanswered. It then occurred to me that it wasn't entirely clear who actually had the rights to do anything with the franchise, much less port it to a new platform, and there were no obvious leads.
The real search started by contacting one of the last known artists involved with Shadowgate 64, who then pointed me in the direction of the founder of Infinite Ventures, the company that bought the rights to Shadowgate from Viacom, which originally purchased ICOM and eventually shut it down a few years later.
In plain terms, ICOM's history wasn't so messy that it would be impossible to track down the information I needed.
But as it turned out, the founder of Infinite Ventures is also the head of Electronic Arts' Mythic Studio, the very same studio responsible for the Warhammer Online massively multiplayer online game. Unfortunately, this was a slight mental setback--it's not exactly kosher to approach a studio head with such a fanboy-ish question as, "Hey, do you know who owns the rights to [insert beloved video game franchise here], and are they doing a remake?" Eventually, I came to the conclusion that he probably has seen much worse, and the worst thing he could possibly say is "No" or "I've called the police."
A few days later, a Kickstarter link caught my eye--a small development studio named Zojoi owns the rights to the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective games (also developed by ICOM) and wanted to bring them to iOS and Android with much-improved visual fidelity because the company was in possession of the original Beta SP tapes. After a quick viewing of the pitch video, I was completely shocked. This same company owned the rights to Shadowgate, and the man in the video was none other than its founder and a former member of the original MacVenture team, Dave Marsh.
I immediately contacted him and asked the questions I had set out to ask at the beginning of this journey of fandom. His answer? "We just kicked off development of the game last month for iOS, Android, Mac, and PC, but compared to the other versions Karl Roelofs--the co-designer--and I did, this is not simply a port. We can talk more about that as well if you wish."
And we did.
'The man' thought we should start making side-scrollers, and so all of these games got trashed."I asked Marsh was about his career and what he was working on in the final days of ICOM and the years following its closure. "We were probably 80 percent done with Beyond Shadowgate, which was three times bigger than Shadowgate and just so much fun, and we still have the designs for it," he explained. "But right at that time, the SNES came out, and our upper management, "the man," thought we should start making side-scrollers, and so all of these games [The Awakening and Beyond Shadowgate in its original form] got trashed. In fact, Beyond Shadowgate ended up coming out on the TurboGrafx as a side-scroller adventure game. Then we went off to do side-scrollers, which was fine. I got a chance to work with Warner Bros. on Looney Tunes, but I always ended up coming back to those [MacVenture] games."
Marsh's list of games-worked-on continued to grow over the years, ranging from complex online experiences to new interpretations of some of Western civilization's oldest games.
"I went from these adventure games, to these side-scrollers, to these massively multiplayer games like Aliens Online and Starship Troopers Online, and Godzilla," he continued. "The last seven years, I've been in the casino industry where I've made about 150 slot machine products, but what it all really came down to is this: someone would always find me and contact me through email asking, 'Hey, did you work on Shadowgate?'"
I wasn't the only one asking the question, and hopefully like me, those other fans have come away with some relief knowing that members of the original team not only are working on a remake of Shadowgate, but are doing it with the same passion and thoughtfulness they had making previous versions all those years ago. "Shadowgate started on the Mac in black and white, and then every time a new machine came out--whether it was the Commodore Amiga, the Commodore 64, the Atari ST, or the Sega CD--we were always changing the artwork for our games to take advantage of the device," Marsh said.
But I had to ask specifically about the NES version, which holds some special significance in deciding how Zojoi is approaching the remake of Shadowgate on top of the fact that it garners much of the attention from fans of those games. "I remember when Kemco called us. They were the company that published Shadowgate for the NES, which was probably the most popular version of the game. They came to us and said, 'We would like to do this game,'" Marsh recalled. "We said we just couldn't do it: it was going to be too difficult; it was going to have to be done with sprites; it's never going to fit on a cartridge; we're not going to be able to figure out the inventory. And I just remember them saying, 'We'll send you a couple of rooms and you tell us what you think.' We were just blown away by how they took advantage of that machine, and that was really the first game of its kind that wasn't a side-scroller or some kind of top-down game on the NES."
"We were really happy with how that came out," he continued. "Years later, we worked on the Game Boy Color version, and then I worked on the Palm and Pocket PC versions of Shadowgate. We kept looking at the device and kept thinking about what Kemco did--look at the strengths of the machine and realize that you don't have a mouse like on those other machines. What is it that you're going to do that's going to make it better and not make someone say, 'Oh, they changed everything!' At the same time, we don't want to make the exact same port."
I'm hoping that those who played Shadowgate in the past are going to be able to look at it and say, 'This is not exactly how I remembered it, but I'm glad.'With that philosophy in mind, Marsh and his team of artists are going through each of the 50 or so rooms from a version of the game few people experienced and reimagining them with a new painted style and environmental effects that take advantage of the super high resolutions of today's mobile devices, but some key rooms will still look instantly familiar. "We started thinking what Shadowgate could be and how it could be competitive in today's market if you take games like Lost City or some of the other Myst-like games that are out there. [But we also] wanted it to have a unique look. I'm hoping that those who played Shadowgate in the past are going to be able to look at it and say, 'This is not exactly how I remembered it, but I'm glad.' We're not dissing those old games because we love them more than they do, but we're definitely taking advantage of the platform."
The team is even using a lesser-known version of the game to entice those already familiar with many of the puzzles found in the older versions of Shadowgate. "For the Palm version of the game, back about nine years ago, we kept about 50 percent of the puzzles the same, and the ones that we thought were just too goofy were changed," Marsh explained. "When we looked at the design documents, we decided to go back to that version [for the remake] because a lot of people didn't see it--the Palm and Pocket PC didn't really take off as gaming devices. For new players now, it'll be a new experience. The primary goal was going to be the same, but how you're going to get there is new and different."
"We're getting some good feedback from a couple of other folks that have looked at it," he said. "Everything is being done in 6000x4000, which is pretty high resolution because eventually we want to put these games out on iTV and stuff. For pinching and zooming, it's just going to be great."
That touch-screen functionality will work beyond just pinching and zooming. Players can swipe one way to access the map, which will be used to move around the castle, and then can swipe in a different direction to access the inventory that contains various items found during their journey. While this puts the spotlight squarely on the revamped art, Marsh recognizes that there might be some desire to play in a more classic style where the inventory is onscreen, so the team is considering a mode that serves such a purpose.
There's still plenty of other work to be done on Shadowgate, including the possibility of a remixed NES soundtrack, but Marsh wants to finish up the team's work on Sherlock, undeterred by its Kickstarter funding falling short of its goal and hopeful that the size of the mobile market will translate into some success. "The Kickstarter campaign was interesting," Marsh said. "I was talking to my mom, and she was so disappointed. She said, 'Oh, you didn't make it. I should've just sent you $30,000.' [Laughs] So many good things came out of it. I didn't really know what to expect. I really wanted to do something there that was different. And a number of people that are out there have been willing to say, 'I would love to be involved. I'd love to help and get some buzz out there.'"
"But the funny thing is now the market is so huge--around 500 million smartphones and tablets," he said. "You think about that number and think about how accessible it is. It gives people like myself--who have access to programmers, artists, and designers, as well as the intellectual property--some hope for the little guy to get out there and sell some products. The key, just like anything else, is to just get some eyeballs on your product."'