Shadow Warrior (1997) Review

Who wants some Wang?
Over the summer I played through Shadow Warrior and all of its’ expansions using the Shadow Warrior Redux port available on Steam. It’s finally time to write about that experience.

Shadow Warrior was 3D Realms’ successor to Duke Nukem 3D. While Duke was a Hollywood badass, Shadow Warrior’s hero is an over-the-top Asian badass with callbacks to Hong Kong action films and Japanese ninja shows.

Shadow Warrior was less successful than Duke 3D, probably due to releasing so close to Quake which made it appear dated by comparison.

The Introduction
I first purchased Shadow Warrior Redux last year, but I struggled to get into it. Duke Nukem is eminently accessible. Hardcore, but accessible. I’m going to spoil things now and say that I ended up loving Shadow Warrior. It’s Duke Nukem dialed up. Less accessible, more hardcore, and in the end satisfying as hell.

My first attempt at Shadow Warrior left a mixed impression. The standard shuriken weapon felt under-powered, it was hard to melee the enemies. I stuck with it; learning to use the basic weapons, find new weapons, and how beat the elite ninja with the instant death attack. The game made me git gud and after that things started to get pretty damn enjoyable.

But after that I got stuck looking for a switch. So the first impression was a mixed bag. I stopped playing and took a long break from it.

As I wrote earlier, I finished Shadow Warrior and every expansion over the summer. After a few months hiatus I started a new game, stuck with it and had a blast. It takes longer to get into then Duke or Doom but it is great.

The Levels
Shadow Warrior has a lot of content to get through. Levels are themed around Asian city streets, rural valleys, mountain tops, temples, and isolated bases. Most levels are highly complex and key hunting is a major feature. Duke Nukem’s abstract realism is kicked up a notch, giving the sprawling levels a strange and almost dream-like quality to progression. The juxtaposition between urban realism, abstract countryside, ancient temples, high tech bases, and mystical weirdness works to create the feeling of a pleasantly bizarre adventure. It’s like stumbling through a shifting dreamworld. Sometimes levels appear to be linked with a strong connecting storyline, and other times you’ll find yourself catapulted into a bizarre new environment with no idea how you got there. Again, a strange but pleasant experience.

The levels are complex and lots of fun, but you need to keep your eyes open. There were perhaps three or four moments in the game where I felt completely lost and play ground to halt for five to ten minutes.

I mentioned the shuriken felt under-powered earlier. That’s because the shuriken is not Shadow Warrior’s iconic weapon. High level play depends on the rocket launcher and grenade launcher. Both are satisfying and dangerous. The grenade launcher has a massive blast radius that you’ll need to get used to, and is used for clearing out rooms. The rocket launcher is for dealing large amounts of damage to single enemies.

Perhaps appropriately, Shadow Warrior will put you into a kind of zen state where you end up leaping across the level blazing away with machine guns and bombs, clearing out unexplored chambers with high powered grenade launchers, blowing up tankier monsters with rockets, and finishing off the stragglers with shotguns and railgun blasts.

Generally the weapons are a lot of fun to use and when you’re in that zen state you’re in one of the best shooting experiences in FPS gaming.

Story and World
Shadow Warrior (1997) rides the early 80s to mid-90s wave of badly dubbed kung fu parodies and ninja shows, which were the only thing most westerners knew about China and Japan at the time. It was accused of racism when it came out and it can be hard to argue against that; but despite the puerile parodies Shadow Warriors’ approach to Asian culture at least seems to come from a place of love, even if not one of respect. The developers were clearly fans of anime and Asian action cinema, they just weren’t interested in making a serious or sensitive story line. Nor does Shadow Warrior need a serious storyline or a deep look into a new culture – it’s pure gameplay with a paper thin plot and a massive amount of penis jokes. Everyone’s mileage may vary, but I’d advise any shooter fan not to miss out on Shadow Warrior because they don’t like the faux Asian styling.

The plot is simple: you are Lo Wang, kung fu badass and former bodyguard to of the head of Zilla Corporation. Lo Wang is betrayed by Zilla. Lo Wang embarks on a quest for vengeance. Body parts fly and anime babes who don’t fit the art style respond to Lo Wang’s clumsy pick-up lines with automatic gunfire.

Sometimes Shadow Warrior slips from silliness into cringey childishness, but it’s mostly silly fun. Lo Wang is a dumb character but he’s also a really distinct character. It’s like the game as a whole.

There’s something oddly mischievous about him. He giggles with glee when the explosions start. He’s a complete wise-ass who’s having so much fun that in the end I found it hard not to get attached to him. As downright stupid as Shadow Warrior is sometimes, I couldn’t help crack a smile when using a phone caused Lo Wang to make a silly prank call.

Hello, is Big Bottom there? First name Iva. Iva Big Bottom? Heeeheeeheee!

Shadow Warrior is an ultra-violent, grossly offensive and ridiculous load of nonsense – and I loved it.

Shadow Warrior doesn’t give a damn what you think about it. It is what it is; a hardcore experience designed by a team of weirdos with a lot of experience making FPS games. It was made in 1997 for experienced first-person shooter fans, mixing late 90s architecture with early 90s design sensibilities.

I felt genuinely sad when I finished it and all the expansions. Someday I’ll return to Shadow Warrior and re-join Lo Wang the giggling idiot ninja.

I recommend Shadow Warrior.

EDIT: I did encounter a rare but recurring bug in Shadow Warrior Redux where the mouse stopped responding. The first expansion pack also has some glitchy sky textures near the end (although this might not be the port’s fault). Neither were deal breakers.

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