Something about parody games has always intrigued me. Perhaps it’s that much present fourth wall breaking quality to them or, maybe, the jokes, usually reserved for a restricted circle of people. Going back a few decades (let’s say, to a time before PYST), parody video games seemed to be few and far between. Nightshade is both a parody of superheroes and their games, along with the idea of someone wanting to become one. At times it is almost, well, a parody of itself. Rest assured, If there is something that can be parodied in this 1992 NES game, the script will find it and make fun of it. Still, what ended up attracting me the most about Nightshade, was actually its hybrid gameplay between point and click and the action/adventure genre.
A bookworm with a secret
Developed by Beam Software, already quite dear to me for having gifted to the world Samurai Warrior: The Battles of Usagi Yojimbo, Nightshade was also designed by Paul Kidd and does seem to be exploring the very same design ideas showcased in that fantastic Commodore 64 title. Namely, exploring and doing good deeds by interacting with random characters on the street. Nightshade is none other than a wannabe superhero, who honestly looks more like a random Dick Tracy informer/villain: brown overcoat, classic fedora hat and shades, keeping his face hidden. Insert here your favorite flasher/sex offender joke. Still, his true name is Mark Gray; he’s your average everyday nerd that spends most of his time with his nose in books. It was only after the death of his beloved superhero Vortex, while fighting the evil Egyptian god Sutekh, that he swore to take revenge by stepping in the shoes of his fallen hero.
Unfortunately, the nerdish quality of our main hero does not really come into play in the game. The manual seems to quietly skip around the fact that Mark suddently gets “stronger” as he decided to become a superhero, which – considering how difficult the combat is – does not really seem to be the case. Also, considering there is no RPG progression or “levels”, he does not really get that much stronger. It would have been interesting to see a sort of “dual personality” gameplay mechanic, but no. Going into Nightshade ignoring the whole backstory, really doesn’t change much. The character design for the hero is rather unfortunate and plain. Sure, it does make sense that he does NOT look like a superhero, but he also doesn’t really stand out in any way. As much as that might be a relief to some, he’s no Lester the Unlikely.
Nightshade’s objective in his first (and last, as we’ll discover) game is quite obviously to save Metro City, and the world, from the menace of Sutekh and his evil allies. While trying to find out what exactly is the sly dog’ up to, he’ll have to solve various quests, which mostly involves fighting criminals and ninjas on the streets along with completing minigames and solving puzzles like figuring out how to stop a dog from running after a cat (seriously). Overall, the game makes it quite clear that the player does not need to hurry to finish the main plot, since they are allowed to waste a good bit of time doing subquests and other non-required stuff. Still, the many things to do contribute a lot to the feel of “RPG-like” that Beam Software had initially touched upon with Samurai Warrior.
No rest for the nerds
The gameplay loop in Nightshade is still that of a 2D side scrolling action adventure, so expect to get into fights a lot. Encounters with enemies will result in our hero entering a fighting scene: indeed, battles do take place on a separate screen. As opposed to the seamless fighting mode of Samurai Warrior, this feels more like a classic Squaresoft jRPG. In a secluded room, Nightshade squares off against one (or more) opponent, duking it out with fists and kicks, trying to stay alive, which is easier said than done. The combat is probably the weakest gameplay mechanic of Beam Software’s title, unfortunately, because of a limited moveset and Nightshade going down easily, even when against weak enemies. When facing stronger enemies, like the Ninjas or the League of Unreasonable Gentlemen (yep again), you’ll have to resort to using the one strategy that works or just die over and over.
The other elephant in the room, for whoever played more than ten minutes of Nightshade, is the pacing. The game opens on the worst section, as other NES games were wont to do: indeed, the sewer level. Nightshade begins the game strapped to a chair while a bomb is slowly ticking away. After that, he will be trapped in the land of muck and goo for quite a while, exploring around and finding items, solving puzzles to get out. The problem is that combat is still very much a thing even in this starting section and wandering around with no objective will easily bring us to our death. Quite clearly, Nightshade has no lives (like any other superheroes, he can only be resurrected via sequel), once he’s down, he’s done for good. It is not possible to save nor there is a password system in place which, for 1992, is definitely a baffling choice. Still, there is the possibility to save Nightshade four times from the death traps he will be put in by Sutekh, like other puzzles in the game. From the fifth one, though, there will be no escaping from.
As mentioned from the very first scene, traps are very much a theme here. Still, the bomb in the very first scene, while being indeed a timed puzzle, will go off and only take away a bit of health. After getting out of the sewers, Nightshade is free to walk around in the city where, with a bit of exploration, it will also be possible to find a base with infinite health replenishing facilities. Things quickly pick up from there, as the base is also where it will be possible to find four domes to protect the things that Sutekh wants to steal to gain infinite power. Quite clearly, it would have been better to just start out the game in the city, which at least would have given the player plenty of different things to do, not to mention ways to not die, instead of being trapped in the drab and quite awful looking sewers.
Get a personality, Nightshade
Drawing another comparison with Samurai Warrior, Nightshade (or Lampshade as he’s called by almost everyone) has a “Popularity” (or Karma) bar and a classic Health one. Probably only three or four of the quests to gain popularity would be enough to get the bar all the way up, as that is indeed required by some of the other tasks in the game. While these quests cannot, clearly, be called useless, there are still several things to do in the city that I am still not clear if they serve any purpose at all. Some of these seem to be simple alternate routes to come to the same places or ways to get our wannabe superhero to be a tiny bit stronger, but there’s a couple of subquests that seem to serve no big purpose, except providing some minimal lore, along with items that don’t seem to have a specific use anywhere in the game.
While I mentioned that it would be perfectly fair to define Nightshade as a “point and click adventure game”, unfortunately it is of the “walk around and try to find clues as to what to do” variety. Rather than having puzzles to solve, it is up to the player to find out something to do around the city, in order to advance the story. This is made even more difficult by the game at times being rather obtuse, like having characters in front of Nightshade that won’t talk, unless one does exactly what the game requires. Also, there are several instances where random people will give Nightshade important hints, like the classic “old guy in the city” telling what critical things one should do to solve the game. Apparently, Nightshade trusts so much the inhabitants of Metro City that he just follows blindly.
The game uses a hybrid of direct control and point and click, as Nightshade can be moved with the D-pad while the A and B buttons are, respectively, used for the examine and operate commands. A further press of the SELECT button brings us to control a pointer, in order to select our desired option from the full menu of commands, like Jump, Pick Up, Talk and so on. Coming from having played my share of adventures, I’d much prefer to have the examine and pick up commands readily available (Lucasarts style), but then again, for the average gameplay of Nightshade one would need only pick up and operate.The other commands are used quite rarely, like Jump which I think is used two or three times in the whole game.
Graphically and soundwise, there is not much that I would define of interest to Nightshade too. To be fair, the character design of the various inhabitants of the game are pretty interesting, especially their portraits (not to mention their weird sense of style). Still, overall, the game looks pretty plain for a late NES game, with limited animations, unexciting backgrounds and a rather dull greyish/brown palette. As much as it might be weird to imagine, Beam Software’s 1989 Commodore 64 game looked much better. The soundtrack is mostly okay, it is of note how it changes as the player explores various parts of the city, but there is not much else going on.
A hidden gem or a game that deserves to stay hidden?
So far, there would seem to be little worth saving in Nightshade. Rightly so, from frustrating adventure mechanics and badly designed combat sections, there’s only a couple of decent minigames spliced in (like saving the girl from the burning building). So, why is everyone on the internet going out of their way to call it a “hidden gem”? Because of the writing and atmosphere mostly. The way that Nightshade has to work his arse off to be recognized as a serious superhero is nothing short of entertaining, especially because before doing heroic deeds, he’s treated like dirt by mostly everyone and can’t even access some of the places in the city. Most of the item descriptions are also pretty much tongue-in-cheek, like the game commenting on an art piece “wow what a fun game this is!”. Or examining a mutated rat to have Nightshade make a joke on mutated samurai rats. It is very much of its time, but I would say its humour and 90s cultural references make it still quite entertaining to play today.
Nightshade came out to pretty lukewarm/mediocre reviews, but then again, it was a weird time for the 8 bit Nintendo. In 1992, the NES was basically on its last leg and the fact that the game was only released in North America, does seem to confirm that in Europe the console was basically dead and gone by that point. True enough, the game did seem cater to more North American tastes, with a kind of Saturday Morning Cartoons vibe, even though Nightshade clearly riffed on that as well. Sometimes, it feels like a game written by a bunch of snarky 20 something guys, bored with that hero cartoons stuff. And it probably was, especially for its long list of snarky bad jokes.
So, is Nightshade a bad game? Well, I would say yes, but not so much as to be unsalvageable. It sure seems to be a product of hurried design and lack of planning. With a few slight gameplay adjustments, better combat system and more fleshed out puzzles, it could have easily been one of the strongest NES adventures. Especially considering how the 8 bit Nintendo was never really famous for its point and clicks (for obvious control limitations). Still, Nightshade feels unique, for lack of a better word, and it is no wonder it seems to be slowly becoming a cult classic in its own right. There are definitely very few other NES games like it.
It has that very kind of “riff” quality, coming out right at the crest of the wave of games imitating superheroes or riffing on the idea, not just Lester the Unlikely, but also The Tick and Boogerman would very much qualify. It definitely has that 90s edge about it, but not too much to be dated nor too extreme to be offensive. Personally, I would say that out all of the several superhero parodies that have come out in the whole decade, Nightshade is, arguably, the best out of them all. The gameplay hybrid does not really work, but keeps things interesting enough to stick around until the end. Perhaps the best comparison, would be that Nightshade is the superior version of Codemasters’ Cosmic Spacehead. Even though that’s not saying much. Despite the promise that this was only the first chapter, Nightshade was done after his debut. After 1992, Beam Software would start working right away on Shadowrun, which ended up being one of the more interesting RPGs for the Super Nintendo so, at least, that’s a kind of happy ending to this unlucky superhero’s untimely demise.