. issue V : iv .

by barathron

. artist : hiroyuki masuno .
. album : shadowgate ost .
. year : 1989 .
. label : kemco .
. grade : b plus .

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Shadowgate has been developed for several platforms, beginning with the Amiga in 1987. This review is for the 1989 Nintendo soundtrack.

Hiroyuki Masuno’s 1989 soundtrack for NES point-and-click adventure game Shadowgate deploys less than a handful of 8-bit ‘instruments’ — apropos for a game where items in the player’s inventory list are limited to eight letters; thus the player collects a “red gem,” a “blue gem,” and … wait for it … a “whitegem” — but like triumphantly cogent retro soundtracks, Shadowgate makes lemonade because it has to. There’s an artistry to composing 8-bit accompaniment: concise enough to fit in the broom cupboard, dresser drawer dustbin programming space (closet)? tenably engaging enough to saturate hours and hours of gameplay experience? Shadowgate’s soundtrack — a dozen songs ranging in length from (wow) 8 bars to a whopping 32 bars, placed on broken-record incessantly merciless water-torture(r) repeat — uses terrifically appetitive phrases. This minimal masterpiece has to. Masuno has picked his lemons so dotingly, and Shadowgate is more like juice than -ade; it’s frightfully nervy, eerily frenetic and sourly paranoic. The especial, freakishly potent combination of shimmering conchshell melody and militaristic fold-spindle-and-mutilate ticker-tape rhythm masterfully work in two directions to both set the player on a wary, harried edge (the pads of their fingers, as it were) and subvert them into a trancelike state.

Shadowgate is 8 bits of kitschy. Witness awkward narrative (“THIS ROOM FULL OF MIRRORS REMINDS YOU OF THE ELVEN FUN HOUSE AT KING OTTO’S FAIR.” // yikes) and (“THE HOLY WATER HAS SENT THE HELLHOUND BACK TO THE PLACE WHERE IT WAS SPAWNED!!” // …great!), tomes with instructions for game-cinching dork-Latin ‘magic spells’ lying around where intruding knights can read them (naturally), and algorithms totally unprepared for pluralized items and/or English (“THE GLASSES IS IN HAND.” // is they?).

But Shadowgate’s gameplay is also brilliant, psychologically furtive and crooked, with an understated — or unstated — structure that produces a sense of alarm, restriction, mortality, urgency, even fear. These gameplay devices are quite inextricable from what the soundtrack accomplishes. The psychology of the game and its soundtrack are reciprocal and more than redoubling.

Firstly, Shadowgate is all-walled-up in arrow-slit-breathing-hole internment, and the locked-rooms game is cruel-er as the effect is compounded; with a room in each-and-every ommatidia, how much more compound space for the player to find their self hedged in by? And Shadowgate is a positional game at a terrible disorientateering true north, where as the player navigates from room^1 to room^2, the display is ‘by room,’ that is, showing only this room’s doorways and not adjusting for proprioceptive direction. A full map-and-compass would facilitate a sense of overall structure and purpose, and we can’t have that — Shadowgate’s player lives from doorway to doorway in this liminal orientative vertigo of perpetual thresholds. The view screen even presents the same two-dimensional picture each time regardless the player’s direction of approach. And moving through a silver-spoon lucky-stars of an unlocked doorway (imagine that) isn’t a single-step process, but the player must click “MOVE” before they can click on the doorway of their choosing. This deliberativeness is another psychological wedge between everyday navigation and the sort of paranoid, restive state of exploration under stress because the choice might be fatal.

Secondly, constant narrative i.e. ‘dictation’ is provided by a handless quill that scribit on the bottom of the screen letter-by-letter at an impelled, inhuman rate. Thus the player experiences — is frustrated by the experience of — not being able to read fast enough virtually (har) every 15 seconds … for hours. The chipper pace of the quill is well-matched with the crunch-underfoot drum of “Entryway” so that the player inevitably associates the quill with the wrung-out wet-rag impact of this music. Furthermore, the quill moves to dictate automatically each time the player enters a room, even if they have already been there. Not only is this epistolary excess a snide ‘welcome-back, aloha’ return-addressed postcard, but the player who does not want to wait (seconds) for the sentence to be completed can hit a button and skip the quill ahead to completed text. This adds time-sensitive button-pressing in an explorative puzzle game where there isn’t much to press buttons about and results in the player’s responding — irritably — within the first second of each new screen as surefirely as if there was an ‘enemy’ to ‘punch.’ Because the quill is just the right speed for players to need to beat the ink out of it, Shadowgate becomes a fast-paced game.

See? Smart. And, like most smarts, Shadowgate operates under the clobbering onus of blinders and self-restrictions. The player’s options for action are “LOOK,” “OPEN,” “USE,” “LEAVE,” “TAKE,” “CLOSE,” “HIT,” and “SPEAK,” …which appear to be in some syllogistic evolutionary order; unfortunately, these really are all there is, but this reductio ad absurdum is tarrying, even upsetting, rather than cathartic. Also, for the player to apply an item to ‘their self,’ they can’t just check “USE,” but have to check another box … the “SELF” box. How effectively depersonalizing!

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Music is matched to each room, so that despite the redundancy and brevity of the soundtrack, change-ups occur when the player takes action of switching to certain rooms (though they have no way to know which these will be), producing a blurry boolean of unexpected change or static (music). For the new player, the long hours of exploring to “Entryway” and the abrupt shift to “Subterranean Cavern” work terrifyingly well.

Shadowgate uses two types of sound qualities: hollow but wholesome sounds and shallow tangy sounds with bite. The combinations of resonant tones and buffering impact (hammer and mallet) are excellent; with two disparate categories, the player is always listening to two types of sounds and also noting the categoricity of riffs between-songs, (not just within). ‘Instruments’ include a smoothly bumbling ocarina electric bass, an ocarina siren, two conchshell embouchure ocarinas (‘lead’ and ‘backup’), a spiny, crunchy grind of a beat, and the dignified tang of harpsichord (“Game Over”) and bagpipe (“Banquet Hall”). The ocarina is the keystone of Shadowgate’s soundtrack, sounding contentedly warm, even stupid, at mid-range but emitting, open-mouthed, a sirenous, reverberant wail at higher pitches. “Hall of Mirrors” is the exemplar for the ocarina ceasing to be seaside and yawing out a scintillating cry. There’s just a point in its range where the vibe switches, but it’s bizarrely sentient and chilling, seamlessly raising the stakes by raising the pitch, and “Danger” consists of 4 bars of ocarina wail over bass and 4 bars up a step, with ‘extra’ wailing, … on repeat. The resonant instruments are full-bodied and cavernous where the tangy instruments are shallow, even flat, and the intricate, epileptic pacing of the heel-grind drums is dangerous in its shallowness. Shadowgate doesn’t need songs to work around to an effect — it just needs the rarified nugget of the effect, all backbone and no heart, all viscera and no flesh, Shadowgate unfolds the single slip of paper to reveal the black spot. It is articulated mechanisms mindlessly echoing.

Shadowgate’s songs are breviloquent, producing a maximally-engaging … revelation (really) and repeating it, or else tessellating through simple progression, transposing up a few steps or rearranging notes. The backup ocarina or the electric bass bumble often provide a soft, alienated counterpoint displaced beats behind, contributing further to the weird intricacy of these pithy songs. Further, the player will recognize the notes and timbre from ‘before’ — this soundtrack is a unit that plays out the same ideas, and Shadowgate stops at nothing to present the most engaging riffs, not even near-regurgitation. But the result is an extremely cohesive album — best for the programmers and …worse for the players. It is terribly difficult to bait-and-hook individual ‘songs’ in this mess — a needle in a haystack or 8 bars in a cartographically-conflated coupled-hundred — and the most distinctive songs, “Title Screen” and “Entryway” are neatly reclothed later in the game (as “Courtyard” and “Battle to the Death”) for just this reason. Within the songs, the profound amount of vacuous space let sit around the melody makes it hard to track the measures, how much time has passed, what beat the song is on. The melody and rhythm are calculated to work their maximum effect on the player by seeming totally dissociable, and yet, as with dissociable things, it’s impossible to attend to both at once — one can either rub their stomach or pat their head. Shadowgate, with mere breadcrumbs and cute garnish of original music, has the player hearing something new each instant and looking every way at once. Shadowgate is something from nothing.

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The gameplay experience starts strong for the new players, with “Title,” “Entryway,” and “Subterranean Cavern” lasting for 15 minutes even if the player knows exactly what to do. “Title” is a smoking-jacketed red-gray-wrought-velvet-steel-iron suspenseful windowpane rain and thunder, circumspect suspense, cushy and a bit camp. But this is only the title screen, and even a gamer nowadays would think nothing of the construction: 8 bars x2, 8 bars x1, 8 bars transposed … back to start. It’s the theme! Right? Right. And yet 32 bars is as long as it gets in the entire soundtrack…. The full-throated ocarina wind wails of “Entryway” seem engagingly bright, even cute — at first. The nervewracking crunch of relentless drums files the player down into a nervy hypnotism, their increasing fear subverted into stupor, a lull tamping down with brute repetition, the walls of a crucible. “Entryway” is also brilliant in its use of regular 2 bar melodic lines, for where other melodies sprawl out in deformed chaos against martial drum-rolling (“Subterranean Cavern”), “Entryway” makes bite-sized units. Like the sonnet of Shadowgate, “Entryway” is so intuitively digestible that the player, charmed by its facility, buys in. “Subterranean Cavern” is spelunking, with a rebounding stalagmite melody in 14 and 18 bar riffs, a slower, no-less-sinister percussion pace (half notes cut right left right left), and pillowy pulsed bass belaying.

Other standouts include reaper-iffic “Game Over,” with its harpsichord hammered tang and a stodgy, ruffed dignity. Complete with gothic text, “Game Over” is stoic rather than disappointed, miserable or cocky like so many ‘you lose!’ themes. The ocarina tint of the low, slurred electric bass is apparent as it wends counterpoint. And “Courtyard” and “Twilight,” both serve as reliefs in the gameplay, used when the player steps outside (into a courtyard or onto a balcony). “Courtyard” seems chipper, even scintillatingly lackadaisical, but the sirenous mid-tone ocarina underneath adds an edge of panic. “Twilight” is a reworking of “Hall of Mirrors,” but kinder, bright and sparkly like half-light in warm air.

“Dragon’s Den” and “Battle to the Death” exemplify the disorienting power of the drum compositions, 8 bars on repeat that prove impossible to keep up with or nail down, tumbling drums scattering any possibility of processing the music, vaulting the player into panic.

With the fad of retro games being ported to new technologies, iPhone and Android now commode a rehashed Shadowgate. It would be easy for a modern player to find this charming, kitschy, silly, even twee…. But this was 1989 — imagine: the 90’s not-yet-extant! — and the then-uncredited, now-totally-vindicated Masuno composed one of the smartest gameplay-enhancing soundtracks ever. Earlier versions of Shadowgate were played in scared silence, but the soundtrack is so much more, and that’s either better or worse depending which side of the console you’re on.

by Brittany Tracy

^1: “THE STONES OF THESE WALLS WERE PROBABLY CUT BY THE HANDS OF ENSLAVED MOUNTAIN DWARVES.”

^2: “THIS SUBTERRANEAN CAVERN HAS BEEN CARVED BY CENUTIRES OF SUPERNATURAL EROSION.”

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