Like so many of the games I review, Nightshade stands out to me as a definite product of its era. On the one hand, Beam Software’s 1992 title is clearly riding the wave of adventure games that felt like cheap pulp fiction when they were taking themselves seriously and lighthearted children’s comics when they weren’t. (In fact, it’s somehow able to embody both of them at the same time.) And on the other hand, it’s referencing both the influx of grim & gritty superheroes and the comic books made to parody said superheroes. In addition to being a smart combination, this is also a very well realized one on the game’s part. With it, Nightshade is able to undermine the most prevalent trends in the comic book world while simultaneously holding onto its affection for them.
Given the simplicity of the game’s narrative premise, I’m not going to spend a lot of time summarizing it. All you need to know is that Metro City’s been taken over by the super-villain Sutekh, and it’s up to our hero Nightshade to defeat him. I’ll admit that sounds like the game filling in the blanks for a generic comic book story formula, but in Nightshade’s defense, the game is far more concerned with establishing character and mood than it is with intricate plot details. The latter is especially apparent from the moment you start the game. Indeed, it expresses an intense fascination with the corruption of this urban environment. The opening narration takes a sick delight in recounting Metro City’s slow descent into lawlessness, lavishly illustrating every act of violence, every further slip into chaos, every last crime that plagues this metropolis.
Granted, this may be part of Nightshade’s genre performance, but it’s hardly limited to first few minutes. The logo’s sharp angles, slick surfaces, and cool blues, for example, do a good job of foreshadowing the oppressive city you’ll be wandering through during play. So good, in fact, that the only differences between that preview and what Metro City looks like in action end up heightening the alien feeling that Nightshade wants to project through its world. All of this is even reflected on a ludic level. I should mention that Nightshade is a traditional adventure game which, like its contemporaries, emphasizes open environments and a player-dependent time model. Yet it also breaks away from those contemporaries and chooses not to depict these in neutral terms, but to use them to imbue Metro City with a sense of aimlessness and vulnerability. Getting lost in the sprawling metropolis is easy; finding your path again (and forging a path ahead to take down Sutekh) is a more difficult prospect. Part of the reason why is because of problems typical to the adventure game genre. Another part is just how many fights lurk around every one of the city’s corners. I’ll go into more detail about them in a bit, but for now, all you need to understand is that Nightshade doesn’t want you to feel safe (much less welcome) in the world it envisions.
Which is why it’s all the more forceful when the titular hero breaks that image. So far, everything the game’s done has uncritically (if skillfully) accepted the more ubiquitous comic book conventions of the 80s/90s. But stepping into Nightshade’s shoes strips those conventions of their intended meaning. He lives in a world that demands dirty morals and maybe a little brute strength, and his detective-like appearance suggests quick wits. Nightshade possesses none of these. What we instead get is a character lacking in power, barely capable of overcoming the many challenges he encounters.
True, you see him solving a variety of conundrums (that is how you progress through the game), but given the cartoony logic that drives many of these puzzles, it can’ be inferred that he solves these more through sheer luck than through any sort of quick-wittedness. Even Nightshade himself, on the game’s very first puzzle, comments on how lucky he was to be tied up right next to a candle he could use to burn the ropes holding him down. However, his lack of skill shines through more clear during the game’s many fights. Each of them is a clumsy affair in which the combatants hop about the arena and whack each other until one of them keels over dead. Hardly the empowering experience we expect from our superheroes.
What’s more, even if Nightshade had the abilities he needed to save Metro City, his motivations for doing so are far from admirable, even by grim comic book standards. I could point out his dishonorable actions (which the game isn’t interested in reifying) or his childlike impulsiveness. However, I want to turn my attention to the popularity meter in the lower right corner of the screen. From a gameplay perspective, it’s little more than a gating mechanism to keep Nightshade from getting too far in the story: go fight X number of people before trying to access this area. On one level, we see the game once again robbing violence of its intended power, even if it’s through transparency instead of comedic exaggeration.
Yet the popularity meter also tells us a lot about why Nightshade presents himself as a hero and how silly that motivation is. He’s not fighting to save the city or to exercise his power over it, but merely to gain the attention of those around him. That he considers this goal more important than maintaining his own health suggests a vain figure whose ego can be bruised by the slightest of insults. And as if to rub more salt into the wound, Nightshade does nothing to suggest that his unprovoked acts of violence actually make him a more popular person. Even with his popularity meter at full, many of the characters won’t recognize him.
Of course, I should point out that Nightshade is less interested in serious critiques of comic book than it is in lighthearted satire. It’s at this point where I start to feel more ambiguous about the game. Not because that goal isn’t worth striving or because the game is incapable of achieving it. Indeed, Nightshade’s satirical sense of humor prefigures Sam & Max (which I’d previously reviewed) by at least a year. But until now, all I’ve talked about is how the game represents that humor through systems and its presentation. Problems start to crop up when the game puts words to any of it. Despite how I’ve described the game thus far, Nightshade has a poor understanding of what “pulp fiction” entails, meaning it tries to replicate that ethos with the best idea it has in mind. Unfortunately, its sense of humor isn’t up to the task. It lacks any bite; the jokes are all corny and simplistic, like you’d find on the back of a popsicle stick. They’re obviously not the kind of jokes you’d laugh at, and rarely do they add to our understanding of the world. All they really accomplish is signalling where the writers lost their creative energy.
I’m not going to say what Nightshade does is unique, and I’m reluctant to say it’s free of flaws, either. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the game for what it does. It manages to make several incisive critiques of popular superhero tropes, depicting not only how futile some of their more violent actions can be, but also just how frivolous many of those tropes are. At the same time, its cartoony pulp fiction tone helps Nightshade steer clear of the self-seriousness that I’ve seen drag genre deconstructions down before (see: Spec Ops: The Line). No matter how limited the game’s vision may be, it’s still able to render a compelling and cogent take on the gloomy anti-hero archetype.