Nightshade
Box Shot
Nightshade
Platform: NES
Publisher: Ultra
Designer: Beam Software
Genre: Graphic Adventure
Players: 1
Published Date 1991
Reviewed by: Chris Asbestos

When it comes to obscure, seldom-seen NES games, I doubt one could find many equalling Nightshade in terms of the "what's this now?" factor. It's existance is rarely acknowledged by any (despite a cover story in Nintendo Power that caught my eye as a young lad), and was, though I may very well be mistaken, Ultra's last game for our beloved Nintendo Entertainment System. Yet, as those familiar with this page's philosophy can tell you, sometimes the most-overlooked carts can be winners (heck, this game is at least twice as good as Ultra's first TMNT cart).

The game's bizarre storyline (told with fabulously hyperbolic narration) involves a fledgling super-hero, who, decked out in a trenchcoat and fedora, sets out to free the noirish Metro City from the clutches of the evil Sutekh, Egyptian super-villian extraordinaire. You see, Sutekh has recently slain the vaguely 'Noid-ish (as in the Domino's pizza mascot, star of his own fairly wretched NES game) formerly reigning superhero of the city, Vortex. You, as Nightshade, must wander the city's streets, searching for clues, defeating villains, and attempting to gain favor with the denizens of Metro City. As the game opens (after a brief expository sequence) you have just been tied to a chair by Sutekh, who has left a bomb waiting to blow you to smithereens.

Utilizing a (surprisingly well-executed) graphic-adventure format, the game allows to to perform the standard "use/move/talk/fight/etc." actions, yet the interface is far, far less clumsy than in Deja Vu. Though a main problem with computer-to-NES game ports such as the latter involves lacking control, Nightshade is much simpler to get the hang of. You control Nightshade with the control pad (as opposed to pointing and clicking with a cursor like Maniac Mansion), and press the Select button will bring up a command menu. Here you can examine, pick up, use, or do of the things any traditional adventure game hero can do. Unfortunately, though, it seriously needs a "save game" feature. Though it's not terribly difficult (especially to a seasoned Sierra game veteran like me), I just can't get used to performing various tasks every time I start the game over.

There are some interesting features to the cart's structure, however: Upon exhaustion of your life units, you are placed in an "escape-proof" trap by Sutekh and his minions. If you succeed in extricating yourself from the trap and its amusingly campy predicament, you are allowed to continue. Also, when enemies are encountered, a (again, surprisingly well-executed) fight sequence occurs. It's quite fast-moving, and somewhat difficult if you're not expecting a jolt of action into the usually deliberate pace of such a game. When enemies are defeated, the barometrical gauge of Nightshade's popularity increases; by the same token, failing to save a helpless senior citizen from victimization at the hands of a mutant rat-man, hulking Tor Johnson-esque behemoth, or slinky female ninja will result in a decrease in public esteem. In addition, a Donkey Kong homage/parody involves rescuing a woman from a burning building. It's fun, but out of place in this game.

However, my favorite aspects of Nightshade involve the hard-boiled, sarcastic, and ridiculously verbose narration, often reminiscent of Sierra computer games such as the Space Quest series. I was pleasantly surprised to see such witty and well-written dialogue in a field that usually offers wretchedly translated Japanese, outmoded late-80's slang, etc. Also, it could well be said that this game offers the strangest cast of supporting characters since Twin Peaks (in fact, I wonder if I'm alone in seeing what I thought to be the zigzag floor pattern seen in Peaks and Eraserhead on a convenience store wall in the game). My favorite character would definitely be the Bob's Big Boy-esque cook, exclaiming "Hot nuts! Tasty hot nuts!" from a ludicrously grinning, varnished 50's magazine-cover visage (similar to that on the cover of Frank Zappa's Weasels Ripped My Flesh! album). Other characters are amusingly conscious of the fact that they are indeed silly stereotypes, from the cantankerous old man to the "sullen-faced, curly haired moppet" (as described by Nightshade himself).

The game's graphics are well done, and some of the backgrounds are nicely drawn in appropriate comic-book style. The animation isn't the greatest, but it hardly detracts from the game's enjoyability plus, you have to love the silly, spinning Nightshade logo). The sounds and music aren't even half bad, with some silly melodramatic soap-opera organ and pseudo-jazz-noir stylings, though you'll probably get tired of the music, especially in such a deliberately-paced game.

Nightshade is an enjoyable curiosity, yet it ultimately rises above its "the hell?" status to provide frequently rewarding gameplay. Though I guess I'm a bit biased as a fan of Sierra's and LucasArts' graphic adventure series (the narration and structure of which this game strongly resembles), I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this cart to any casual gamer, NES collector or Adam West acolyte.