(NOTE: If you want to be technical, this wasn’t actually my first time “beating” Nightshade–about 11ish years ago, I played through it on an emulator with the help of save states. I don’t count that for the purposes of this series, mainly because the game itself has no save system built-in…in other words, I cheated all those years ago. This was my first time playing it start-to-finish on a console, so it’s “New” as far as I’m concerned)
Nightshade, developed by Beam Software and published by Ultra Games (A subsidiary of Konami), might be the best game you never heard of. Indeed, its full name is “Nightshade Part 1: The Claws of Sutekh”. You don’t need me to tell you that there was never a Part 2 (Although I did anyway.). This is a bit strange, as it did end up in Nintendo Power many moons ago, albeit only receiving a few pages of coverage.
Nightshade takes place in Metro City, home of Mayor MIKE HAGGAR, Penny Gadget (And her uncle, Inspector), and Megamind. Here, it’s been re-imagined as a kind of Depression-era film noir setting. The game starts with Metro City’s hero, Vortex, being slain by warring criminal factions. Soon, it’s revealed that Sutekh, an Egyptian-themed villain, is in the process of uniting these squabbling factions to try and take over Metro City, then the world. It’s up to Nightshade, the new hero in town, to stop him.
The start of the game plays out very much like my high school experience. For one, you start the game tied to a chair, in a sewer, next to a lit bomb (What can I say, my high school career was a particularly exciting one). Additionally, you have zero popularity at this point (Boxfat actually first made this connection between high school and Nightshade, it should be noted). Yes, Popularity is a stat in Nightshade, and to raise it (And get access to a few areas as a result), you have to do heroic things, like fighting crime, saving women from burning buildings, or breaking and then reassembling a dinosaur skeleton.
The mechanics of how you go about this are reminiscent of old LucasArts games–the game is closest to a point-and-click adventure in its controls. B and A have your two most-used commands (Examine and Operate, which, contrary to its name, is basically “Use An Item In Isolation”), the control pad moves your character, and Select brings up the complete command list. The exception is the fight scenes, where A jumps and B attacks. The fight scenes get a little clunky, but the scheme works for the most part.
I mentioned point-and-click adventures, and the game’s sense of humor reminds me a lot of LucasArts adventure games in particular. Indeed, the brief Nintendo Power write-up of the game presented it as a straight-laced noir caper. That’s not what it is at all–I like to describe the aesthetic as “What if the Adam West Batman series instead took place in a 1930s LA-style city?” Wacky jokes abound throughout Nightshade, from writing on a wall that says “This space intentionally left blank” to a store named “Curios Killed the Cat” to people constantly calling Nightshade “Lampshade” or “Nightcart”, pretty much everything in the game has a description designed to make you laugh. Just to drive my comparison home further, there’s a spinning “N” logo and a leitmotif that plays whenever you go in a fight scene or into and out of a continue scene.
And oh, man, the continue scenes. You see, continuing in Nightshade is not a simple matter of pressing Start. Instead, when you run out of health, you get thrown into a deathtrap a la Batman’s cliffhangers, that you have to figure a way out of or it’s Game Over. The most 60s-Batman-like is the third one in the sequence. You’re locked in a room, tied to a chair on a floor that’s slowly receding. On your level is some torn metal and a lever. Below you is the locked door, and a vicious dog running back and forth, waiting to tear you apart when the floor recedes and you fall down to the dog’s level. Get out without saying hi to Mr. Woofums. Really, this whole continue model is something I wish more games would adopt.
If Nightshade can be said to have flaws, one is, as mentioned, the fighting system, which makes actually winning some of the fights difficult through no fault of your own. Its bigger problem, though, is the complete lack of a save system. That’s right, a point-and-click adventure is all-the-way-in-one-long-play. And while the game isn’t incredibly big–ignoring “speedrunning” it, if you know what to do (But not necessarily where to go), you can probably beat it in an hour to an hour and a half–it’s still annoying to have to restart the game from the beginning every time. Part of this may be due to the limited number of continues you get (The fifth deathtrap you get put in is inescapable), but even then, allowing saves that kept track of your number of lives would’ve helped the game a lot.
Despite those flaws, though, Nightshade is a lot of fun, and worth tracking down in some form. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell very well, and was never re-released on any kind of virtual console, so EBay is probably your best bet for picking it up today, at least legally.