8-Bit Adventure Anthology, Volume 1 – A Nostalgic Brain Scrambler

Gamers of a certain age will no doubt have occasional flashbacks to their 8-bit experiences. Usually, those memories are candy-coated, recollected through the eyes of kids — or at least through the eyes of someone who had never seen HD graphics and modern game design. That’s why it’s often jarring to play old games today. Game preservation is important, and we need to do more to ensure old games are still around and available, but expectations can sometimes ruin an otherwise good time.

8-Bit Adventure Anthology, Volume 1 collects three classic Nintendo adventure games: The Uninvited, Shadowgate, and Deja Vu. I can’t even begin to estimate how many hours I put in as a kid playing through (and utterly failing to complete) both Shadowgate and Deja Vu, and I have nothing but the fondest of memories for them. (I never did play The Uninvited, which is odd, considering my love for the other two. The pre-Internet era no doubt allowed for a lot of such missed opportunities.)

My rose-colored memories of these games naturally get a bit smeared when I load them up onto my Playstation 4 and sit down to experience them in my 30s. These games are true ports — not remakes, not upgrades, just the games as they were when they were first released. The interface is as clunky as ever, forcing you to select verbs from one window, force your cursor into another, and attempt to choose the correct object. Text scrolls slowly — though the writing isn’t terrible, surprisingly. Not Pulitzer-worthy, but certainly not full of the sort of nonsense and mistakes seen in many other NES games. The puzzles are often mind-bending in the worst ways; while some do make a sort of logical sense and require you to make liberal use of the Look command to fully understand your surroundings and the objects you have on hand, some stretch the bounds of sanity.

And sometimes, the games will kill you just for fun.

Yes, in classic adventure game style, you will die in each of these three games. A lot. Over and over, and you won’t see it coming. Fortunately, the game restarts you one screen back from wherever you died, so you’ll never lose too much progress. In a way, dying becomes a fun part of the experience, discovering all the twisted ways the developers came up with to end your sorry existence. Some of them I was genuinely shocked made it past Nintendo’s censors back in the day. Even though you never see anything gory, the descriptions are sometimes quite gruesome.

A bit on each game:

Shadowgate is a fantasy tale about a lone warrior who enters the titular castle to defeat an evil warlock. You’ll solve puzzle, dodge traps, and spend an inordinate amount of time with the Grim Reaper in your face while you listen to the surprisingly catchy You Died music. The game is somewhat unique among its brethren in that it gives you a sort of time limit — your torches will burn down, eventually leaving you in total darkness, which means instant death. You’ll find plenty of torches along the way, so it’s unlikely the time limit will impact the average player (especially if you’re playing with a walkthrough — and you probably should be).

Deja Vu is a film-noir detective mystery. You awake in a bathroom stall with no memory of who you are. Upstairs is a dead body. If you can’t recover your identity and piece together what happened, you’re going to jail, or worse. Movement in the game world is more important here than in the other two games, as you’re not confined to one location. As you discover addresses, you gain the ability to visit those places via the cabs you can find parked outside. There’s an element of randomness to the game that I can’t say I love — you’ll occasionally be accosted by a mugger, and while you can punch him in a few encounters to get away, eventually he becomes unbeatable. Save often, in other words.

The Uninvited was the game I had the least experience with going in. I don’t know how I missed it the first time around. I loved Deja Vu and Shadowgate, and this is essentially more of that. You and your sister get in a car accident outside of a spooky mansion. When you awake in the wreckage, your sister is gone. You assume she must have gone into the house. Following her, you quickly realize this place is haunted, and most everything there wants to kill you. The Uninvited suffers from many of the same lack-of-logic problems the other games exhibit, which can lead to some frustration almost straight away. Upon entering the house, you step into a hallway with four doors and a staircase at the far end. Trying to open a door will cause a ghostly woman to appear before you. Trying to do anything to the woman gets you instantly killed. Trying to go into one of the doors gets you instantly killed. I was stumped. Turns out, just because you can’t enter a doorway located behind her, doesn’t mean you can’t simply walk past her and ascend the stairs. There is no way I would have thought to do that without a walkthrough. Why would I? If she’s feeling murderous when I attempt the other exits, why should I assume strolling past her would be acceptable?

I’m ranting. I’ll stop. The point is, even if you’ve played these games way back when, keeping a walkthrough handy will stave off a lot of frustration.

I played on the PS4, and I quickly discovered that using the analog stick to control the pointer, versus the directional buttons, is a huge improvement. The cursor moves smoothly instead of getting stuck for a moment on each inventory item or verb. If you want to play the classic way, frustration and all, you can. Just use the D-pad. You can also use the PS4’s touchpad as a sort of trackpad, but I don’t advise it. It’s too small, and the cursor too sensitive, for it to be much use.

As far as presentation goes, you have a few options: you can scale to fill the screen in a variety of ways. No matter what you choose, you’ll of course have boxes on either side of the screen. 4:3 to 1080p/4K widescreen is always going to suffer a bit from that, sans a ground-up recreation of the game, and that’s not what’s being sold here. You can apply a series of filters designed to make the games look like you’re playing them on a CRT, an old TV with rounded corners, an old black and white TV, and even a green-hued computer terminal. I didn’t bother with any of them. Filters like that don’t personally make me feel nostalgic, as they kind of get in the way of the rose-colored memories that are already being strained by the old game’s modern presentation.

This is Volume 1, so the hope and assumption is that more 8-bit adventures will be on the way soon. Even though these games are incredibly rough around the edges — in the ways they always were — it’s still a blast taking the trip down memory lane. If you do happen to be a gamer of a certain age, give it a try. Just bring a walkthrough.