Man, remember when 3D Realms were considered one of the coolest PC publishers? Then Duke Nukem Forever happened and now they’re just a shell of their former glory only to be laughed at. Where did it start going all wrong? Probably when they thought they could make a Duke Nukem 3D ripoff of their own.
This is Shadow Warrior. Released in 1997 on the PC, it was a first-person shooter much in the vein of Duke Nukem 3D. Sadly, it didn’t sell as well as Duke 3D did. Shadow Warrior is considered to be part of the “Holy Trinity” of shooters that used Ken Silverman’s Build engine: The others being Duke Nukem 3D and either Redneck Rampage or Blood, depending on who you talk to.
I had already bought Duke, Redneck Rampage and Blood through GOG.com, but as of the time I wrote this, Shadow Warrior was nowhere to be found on that service. The only ways to buy it were through 3D Realms’ online store at a ridiculous-for-an-old-game price of $10, or hunt down a copy on eBay or local shops.
Well, luck was on my side when I finally found a copy at a Goodwill recently. After a little cajoling with DOSBox to get it to work properly, I was ready to play Shadow Warrior, told by the man himself that “You no mess with the Lo Wang.” I had heard from friends that this game wasn’t very good. Was this gonna be a repeat of the Blood II debacle, where I found enjoyment in a game everybody else hated? Well, not really.
The game starts out in Lo Wang’s dojo, where some goons come in from Master Zilla, who apparently wants you dead after you find out he wants to rule the world or something to that effect, and even kills Lo Wang’s master in the process later in the game, forcing Wang to avenge his death and kill Master Zilla. Granted, this was pre-Half-Life and pre-Deus Ex. Shadow Warrior was made when stories in first-person shooters were there just to make the unrelated levels connect to each other somehow. I can’t fault 3D Realms for the paper-thin storyline.
Unlike Duke Nukem’s claim to fame from stealing from Roddy Piper and Bruce Campbell, Lo Wang doesn’t crib from any kung fu movies, so we get wonderful lines like “Howsa that for Kung Fu Fighting you Chickenashit?!” to “Cocks and balls, squashy penis,” even saying “Ancient Chinese secret!” any time you find a secret area. The jokes come off flat, crude and mostly unfunny. The voice of Lo Wang, John Galt, gave it a shot, but Lo Wang just doesn’t hold a candle to Duke in terms of cheesy one liners.
Since this game is a pastiche of Asian cinema, there are references all over the place that don’t quite fit. It has dojos, references to eating animals, fortune cookies as health boosts, plus weird anime references before anime was even a thing in the US. I can give them effort for trying, but in a sense this comes off as a bit culturally insensitive. Granted I’m the whitest person around, so I cannot really give my piece about some of the game’s questionable elements.
The game is also punishingly difficult, with many enemies being able to do rapid amounts of damage and small enemies that are a real nuisance to hit. Granted, Build engine games can be tough for many different reasons, but Shadow Warrior is considerably harder due to enemies that can easily whittle down your health pretty fast. Not only that, armor is considerably scarcer in this game. I usually don’t have problems with Blood or even Duke Nukem 3D, but the quicksave button got a lot of use while playing.
Despite my frustration of this, there are a few good things going for it. The art style’s good in spite of the Asian stereotypes, Lee Jackson’s soundtrack is filled with goddamn bangers, and some pretty unique interactivity where you can drive RC cars by using your mouse and keyboard among other drivable vehicles. This was pretty cool stuff for 1997, all things considered.
There were going to be three expansions, which only two — Twin Dragons and Wanton Destruction — got released; the other one would be cancelled after the poor sales of the original game. Both of these are freeware now, so if you wanted more Wang, there you go.
I feel a little bit bad for 3D Realms. They clearly wanted this to be the next Duke Nukem, going a big marketing blitz, complete with novels based on the game, which I heard are worse than even the Doom novels. But it wasn’t enough as people were already enamored by id Software’s Quake and its innovative 3D engine, and nobody wanted these old looking “2D” shooters.
When I look at this, I see a shooter that despite some cringe-worthy moments like mostly naked anime girls and terrible stereotypes, is actually alright. It does justify its place in the “holy trinity” of Build engine games. It’s tough as balls, but still fun in the end. That’s really all that matters.
If you wanna play it now, it’s freely available on either GOG or Steam, but this is the original game in a DOSBox wrapper. If you want something a bit easier to handle on more modern machines, there’s Shadow Warrior Classic Redux, which was ported by General Arcade. Either way, Shadow Warrior is worth a look at least, in spite of its issues.
Oh well, at least 3D Realms got better after this, right?
Nope, they did not.
Updated 1/16/2020 for grammar and tone changes. Added screenshots from the more recent Redux release.