June 23, 2007 4:01 PM |
[“Might Have Been” is a kinda bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Beam Software's Nightshade, released for the NES in 1992.]
Nightshade is a strange one. At first impression, it’s very much like The Secret of Monkey Island, Leisure Suit Larry, King’s Quest and other adventure games of the ’80s, as it features a wry, semi-competent hero pointing and clicking his way through a joke-strewn world. Yet Nightshade is a little more than that. It’s also a popularity contest, a primitive fighting game, and a stunted attempt at creating a franchise.
It began as a simple idea: the higher-ups at Australia’s Beam Software wanted a “graphic adventure game that would be a whodunit,” according to Paul Kidd, Nightshade’s director, writer and lead designer. With vague orders to “fill in the details,” Kidd and the rest of the Nightshade team devised an offbeat superhero tale bearing a certain resemblance to later satires like The Tick or Mystery Men.
Not that it’s entirely cute. Nightshade’s prologue tells us that Metro City’s leading costumed hero, Vortex, was brutally murdered by a dog-headed crime lord named Sutekh, who’s since used all the local mobsters to conquer the entire region. Nightshade, an up-and-coming defender of justice, steps into this heroic vacuum with little more than a trench coat, a fedora, and a few caustic observations.
Metro City minus Mayor Haggar
Like many an adventure game lead, Nightshade’s unassuming and accident-prone. In fact, he starts his quest tied up next to a sparking bomb. Yet he’s not without defenses. Shortly after he gets free, he runs into what appears to be a bloated, hat-wearing British policeman, and the game reveals its biggest surprise: actual combat. The fast-paced fights, which crop up whenever Nightshade walks into a foe, are basic and strictly two-dimensional, but they’re also fair, never hitting Nightshade with anything that the game’s punch-and-jump setup can’t handle.
Punching is, of course, only one part of Nightshade’s quest. Explore the city, and you’ll find not only slinking female ninja and huge-headed thugs to battle, but also talking seagulls, hot-nut vendors, and legions of helpless citizens. This leads to Nightshade’s second innovation: a popularity meter. Good deeds, violent or not, boost the meter and earn our hero the respect of many. They also advance the game; an old man won’t tell Nightshade any secrets until he’s proved himself a hero, and a stuck-up clerk kicks him out of the newspaper archives if he isn’t sufficiently beloved by the populace.
Right game, wrong platform
Its fistfights and public relations aside, Nightshade progresses just as traditional adventure games usually did. Getting through it is a matter of finding the right items and talking to the right people, with occasional forays into jumping, bribing, or examining.
Nightshade’s options are many, though they’re a little hard to navigate with a stock NES controller. The genre was birthed through PC keyboards and mice, and Nightshade went against the grain in Beam’s choice of system.
“Nightshade was only done for the NES,” Kidd explains. “At that stage, Beam was basically only for the home game platforms. PC games had been abandoned by management as clearly being a dying art form.”
Every game needs Blood Snakes
Adventure games frequently lived by personality alone, and if Nightshade isn’t quite as winning as Grim Fandango or Sam and Max Hit the Road, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. The conversations are frequently amusing, and even the mundane sections benefit from the game’s cartoonish appeal. Despite the dark backgrounds and somewhat grim ancient Egyptian décor, Nightshade is very much a comedy. Yet it wasn’t easy to keep it that way during development.
“Typically, I would come into work to find that the über-boss had been pressuring my workers in the dark of night, and wild idiotic ideas had sprung into life,” Kidd recalls. “Ideas such as enemies whose heads could be severed, allowing giant blood snakes to form out of the blood hosing from their carotid arteries. So these sorts of things were eased onto the 'back burner' pile, and then the burners were turned on, incinerating these concepts for the good of all humanity.”
Co-designer: Snidely Whiplash
While Kidd and his team were able to ditch most of the bad ideas tossed their way, one setback couldn’t be avoided.
“We weren't allowed to have any battery-backed ROM,” Kidd says. “So if you died in the game, there were no save points!”
Lacking any save feature or password system, the development team devised an inventive continue system. Upon dying, Nightshade’s stuck in some convoluted death trap, and the game is truly over unless he figures out how to stop a conveyor, untie himself, or elude some other silent-movie fate. Die five times, however, and there’s no last-minute escape. Though novel, it all makes Nightshade a bit too demanding, recalling the rigid and deadly King’s Quest series instead of the smoother, friendlier LucasArts games.
In the market, Nightshade’s luck was no better than its downtrodden hero’s. It arrived in January of 1992 as one of the last NES titles released on Konami’s Ultra Games label.
“The timing was exactly wrong,” Kidd says. “The SNES and Genesis came out as we were finishing up the game, and the NES died literally overnight!”
It put an end to a very ambitious plan. Nightshade was dubbed “Part 1: The Claws of Sutekh,” and, during its early stages, Beam intended to make it a major property. Later in development, however, inter-office tensions led to “deep reluctance amongst Beam to make too much of the game,” Kidd describes. Such drama also squashed any hope for similar NES adventure games that might’ve been in the works.
Yet Nightshade did get a sequel, if only in the spiritual sense. After wrapping up the game, the team was put to work on a Super NES adaptation of Beam’s newest license: the tabletop role-playing game Shadowrun.
From Metro City to Cyberpunk Seattle
According to Kidd, the deadline for Shadowrun was extremely tight, and he and the other staffers had about six months to assemble the game.
“That meant using the guts of Nightshade as the basis for Shadowrun,” he explains. “We made improvements and changes, but the basic concepts were pretty much the same.”
It’s not hard to see Nightshade’s influence in Shadowrun’s dark cityscapes, dialogue-heavy exchanges, and touches of humor. And it was the last of these that would fuel yet more discord between Beam’s management and its programmers. By Kidd's account, he and artist Jeff Kamenek took Shadowrun’s initially “serious” build and made some comedic alterations to the script and the artwork. When presented with both versions, the game’s distributor chose the humorous one, sparking ire among the Beam overlords who’d preferred the straight-laced Shadowrun.
Time enough for Nightshade
Kidd left the company to pursue a writing career shortly thereafter, and remembers that Beam quickly lost “most of the people who would have been their core adventure game designers.” The company’s work with the genre faded, and though its strategy series Krush, Kill ‘n’ Destroy was a hit in the late ‘90s, Beam never touched point-and-click adventures again.
If their efforts ran afoul of Beam’s business side, Kidd, Kamenek and the rest of Shadowrun’s staff have since been vindicated. Critically lauded in its day, the game’s now a cult classic among 16-bit RPGs.
Nightshade isn’t quite so popular, though it’s almost as fun. Despite some flaws, it carries itself with undeniable style, and comes off better than a lot of NES-based adventure games. It may have been doomed by corporate infighting and bad timing, yet there’s no denying that, in better circumstances, Nightshade could’ve gone on to greater things.
[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City.]
Categories: Column: Might Have Been