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Sometimes I wish I was an adult in the nineties because I missed out on a lot of awesome games when they were in their prime, including the big three Build engine games – Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior, and Blood. I was just a kid with no money or means to play the latest PC games. I knew Duke Nukem 3D existed but I had never heard about Shadow Warrior or Blood until years later. It was a Lazy Game Review that turned me on to Shadow Warrior. Developed by 3D Realms and published by GT Interactive, the shareware version of Shadow Warrior was released in May, 1997 and the full version was released that September. For this review, I played the Classic Redux version which was released in 2013 and for Android in 2017. It includes the full game along with the two expansions, Twin Dragon and Wanton Destruction, and some visual enhancements. I got it on Steam and I should mention that unless you care about achievements, I don’t see many reasons to buy the Classic Redux version. The original game is free on Steam and the Classic Complete version which includes the original game and expansions is free on GoG. Furthermore, there are some source ports out there that include various enhancements and additional features. In fact, the source port known as SWP includes most if not all of the enhancements offered in Classic Redux.
The protagonist is Lo Wang, a former bodyguard for Zilla Enterprises which controls every major industry in Japan. Lo Wang discovered that the president, Master Zilla, was planning to conquer Japan, so he quit the bodyguard job and Zilla sent creatures from the dark side after him. After his mentor is killed, Lo Wang sets out to avenge his death and stop Zilla. In Twin Dragon, its revealed that Lo Wang has a twin brother, Hung Lo, and that they were separated at a young age. Of course, Hung Lo, is the evil brother who wants to destroy the world. In Wanton Destruction, Lo Wang goes to visit relatives in the U.S. but is attacked by Zilla’s forces again. Most of the voice acting consists of humorous one-liners from Lo Wang and there are numerous pop culture references peppered throughout the campaigns.
Lo Wang can walk, run, crouch, jump, swim, climb ladders, and interact with things in the environments. He can also drive vehicles, pilot boats, and man turrets. Health, armor, weapons, and ammo can be found throughout the environments and if you actually take the time to explore, you should find plenty of resources. You can find fortune cookies, usually in secret areas, that not only provide humorous text but also a significant health boost. Some items you find are stored in your inventory and can be activated at any time. You can heal yourself with a portable medkit, use a smoke bomb to become less visible, choke enemies with a gas bomb, blind them with a flash bomb, use night vision goggles to see enemies better in dark areas, and throw down caltrops to inflict damage to any foes that walk on them. You’ll also come across repair kits which will be automatically used when trying to use a vehicle, boat, or turret.
The arsenal is one of my favorite things about Shadow Warrior. Out of the big three Build engine games, I think Shadow Warrior has the coolest looking weapons and many of them have alternate fire modes. You can punch foes, slice them up with a katana, or throw some shurikens to take them down. Once you pick up two uzis, they can be dual wielded. One of my favorite weapons is the riot gun. It’s a semi-auto shotgun that can go full auto. The rocket launcher is a great weapon against any threat. If you acquire a heat-seeker card, you can fire heat-seeking rockets, and it can also fire nukes but you can only hold one at a time. It’s probably the most devastating attack in your arsenal but you need to make sure you’re far enough away from the impact. The grenade launcher is another deadly weapon and is great against tough types but you need to be a good distance away or behind cover when firing it or you’ll take damage and I do feel the blast radius is too big. The railgun is a nod to the movie Eraser which is one of my favorite Schwarzenegger films. It’s an excellent long-range weapon and can obliterate many of the lesser foes with one or two shots. Finally, there’s the sticky bombs, Guardian head, and Ripper heart. Sticky bombs do what you would expect. They stick to surfaces before exploding. When you kill a Guardian, there’s a chance you can pick up its head and use it as a weapon. It has three fire modes. One that allows you to shoot fireballs, another that activates a circle of fireballs around you, and the third allows you to shoot three fireballs that result in explosions travelling along the ground underneath them. The Ripper heart is dropped by Rippers and when squeezed, a copy of Lo Wang appears and he will attack nearby enemies. I found it quite useful against bosses. Unfortunately, neither of the expansions include any new weapons.
The gameplay is challenging when you don’t have many weapons or ammo but with some exploring, you should find more than enough resources to decimate foes and stay alive. In fact, I would even say the combat can sometimes feel unbalanced simply because of your arsenal. So it’s balanced in your favor. Many of the weapons are explosive and deal a ton of damage and most of the foes you face, even the tougher variants, can be taken down easily. You can get through an encounter in seconds with only a few shots from the rocket launcher, grenade launcher, or railgun. That being said, the gameplay is certainly more challenging on higher difficulties and there are some cheap encounters and scenarios peppered throughout each campaign. Some are simply trial and error. The hitscan enemies can be a real bitch when they appear in numbers and it sucks even more when one is draining your health from a distance and you have no idea where he is. It also sucks when you think you’re far enough away from an enemy and take splash damage or die from one of your own grenades, nukes, or sticky bombs. Many encounters are in small or tight areas where these weapons are not ideal despite how much fun they are to use. I barely fired the nuke because it would kill me more often than not but I was able to fire it at some bosses and survive. Luckily, the regular and heat-seeking rockets are great at medium to long range and can easily wipe out a group of enemies. Plus, I always had plenty of rockets on hand. Some cheap scenarios include areas with environmental hazards that you don’t realize are there until it’s too late. You can enter an area or acquire something and immediately take damage or outright die from something like a fire spitter you didn’t know was nearby. The game clearly wants to keep you on your toes but when it seems like there’s no way to avoid taking damage from a hitscan turret that you need to get passed, that can feel cheap. And you know what’s terrible? Dying from invisible what I assume are mines. They do beep and the beeps get louder as you get closer but they make navigating around certain areas very tedious. Needless to say, I would recommend quicksaving often.
The shareware levels of the original game introduce you to the most common enemy types like Evil Ninjas, Coolies, Rippers, Hornets, and Koi which are only a threat underwater. Evil Ninjas come in different types and each one utilizes different weapons. It’s the Shadow and Gray ones that you need to look out for. The Shadow ninjas are less visible, can utilize flash bombs, and unleash some kind of explosive attack. The Gray ninjas lob grenades, making them extremely dangerous in tight areas. Coolies are my least favorite enemies in the game. They carry explosive crates and will make a kamikaze run toward you. But that’s not why I hate them. I hate them because if you take one down, there’s a good chance a spectral ghost will spawn from its dead body and they fly around, disappear, and reappear, and fire projectiles. But this can be prevented with an explosive weapon. Rippers are gorilla-like enemies that can leap long distances and there is a giant variant that appears every now and then. Hornets appear in numbers and fly around you, draining your health. They’re annoying but can easily be dispatched.
The Code of Honor episode and the expansions will throw the rest of the enemy roster at you. A Guardian carries around a sword and shoots fireballs from its eyes. Female Warriors are equipped with crossbows, Baby Rippers move faster than their parents and will spit stuff at you but go down very easily, and the Wanton Destruction expansion includes new enemy types like Mercenaries and what I think are Wizards. However, these new types are just replacements for Evil Ninjas and Guardians. Their behaviors are identical. The Evil Ninjas and their variants are the only enemies I noticed that show some intelligence. They’ll duck and pop out from cover to shoot you which is pretty cool. You will engage some bosses throughout your journey like a Serpent God, the Sumo guy, and Zilla. You’ll engage the Serpent God and Sumo guy multiple times even in the expansions and Twin Dragon includes a new final boss. I am disappointed that the expansions are little more than new sets of levels. I think some additional weapons and enemies would have been welcome. But I did read that these expansions were released for free so I can’t really complain.
The level design is classic nineties first-person shooter stuff. No handholding, no waypoints, and plenty of secrets. You’ll push a lot of buttons, flip a lot of switches, and do a lot of key hunting. I did get stuck in numerous levels and it can be very easy to miss a button or switch that you need to interact with to progress. You may find yourself running around in circles for ten to twenty minutes trying to figure out how to progress before you realize there’s a small button on a wall that you can shoot through a window or a not-so-visible crack in the wall that you need to blow through. Keys will grant you access to new areas, you’ll have to solve some environmental puzzles from time to time, and some levels include platforming. Like the other Build engine games, Shadow Warrior includes interactive environments which was impressive for its time. Approaching certain objects and pressing the use button will often result in humorous dialogue from Lo Wang and sometimes a secret area will be revealed nearby. You can blow through certain parts of the environments using explosive weapons or by blowing up explosive barrels and canisters. All of the campaigns take you to a good variety of locations and I preferred the levels in Wanton Destruction over Twin Dragon only because I preferred the atmosphere of the environments. The level design is great in the original game and in both expansions, if not a little confusing at times. You’ll blast foes away at a construction site, mine, city, fishing village, palace, airplane, monastery, and military base among others. If you take the time to look around, you should be able to find a good amount of secrets which usually house resources. You’ll even come across naked anime girls. Some levels include what I call shortcuts back to previous areas which is good because you will have to backtrack from time to time. Encounters will take place in areas that range from big open rooms to small tight corridors. You’ll want to switch weapons often mainly because the level design will determine what you should and shouldn’t use. Most enemies can be dispatched easily but firing a nuke down a small hallway will not only kill the enemies but you as well. If you’re going to fire the grenade launcher, make sure there’s plenty of distance between you and the target or fire it into a room and take cover behind the wall next to the doorway. That said, I found myself using cover more often to avoid taking splash damage from my own attacks rather than from enemy attacks.
Shadow Warrior does look like a game from 1997 but I think it aged pretty well in terms of visuals. The levels are well designed, there’s room-over-room situations, and like Blood that came before it, voxels are used instead of sprites for certain thing. The sprite work and enemy designs are good and I think the all of the weapons look really cool. There’s also some nice little details like small visual changes when you switch fire modes. Some of the gore effects and death animations are excellent. When slashing away with the katana, you can actually split an Evil Ninja in two. Blowing up an enemy results in an explosion of gibs. When an Evil Ninja takes enough damage, it will appear as if it’s choking on its own blood before dying and sometimes they put a gun in their mouth and blow their own brains out. Accompanying the action is a lot of ambient music that I stopped noticing after a while but the Classic Redux version includes a remixed version of the main theme which sounds kickass. The sound effects are decent, overall. I think some of the weapons could sound a bit better or more powerful, but explosions are loud and the enemies make all kinds of noises like groans and growls. On the technical side, I did see some objects flicker, disappear and reappear, and the game crashed on me once.
I have played this before but this was my first time beating the original game and expansions and despite some issues, I had great time with this. I’ve always enjoyed Build engine games. The interactivity of the environments, sprite work, stock explosions, and non-linear level design make for a fun and visually pleasing experience. Despite some genuinely funny dialogue and moments and fun sprite-based action, I don’t think it reaches the same highs as the other two big Build engine games. Ultimately, it’s like Duke Nukem 3D with Asian influences. The game includes nods to movies like Eraser, to icons like Godzilla, and to shows like Saturday Night Live. The humor is often juvenile but funny, the gameplay can be challenging but sometimes its only because of cheap scenarios, the weapons are fun to use even if they do feel unbalanced at times, and while the levels are well designed and fun to explore, they can often be confusing.
Despite some poor design choices, Shadow Warrior is a great shooter and I would recommend it to anyone. However, I don’t know if I would recommend the Classic Redux version. I don’t hate it or anything but the original game is free. It does include full controller support which is nice and achievements but it doesn’t include anything that makes it worth the ten dollar asking price as far as I’m concerned. There are source ports out there that provide almost everything Classic Redux provides. I’ve used SWP in the past and it’s a great alternative. You’ll need to take a minute or two to download and set it up but it’s not difficult and you can play the full game and expansions from beginning to end. Shadow Warrior doesn’t outshine the other two big Build engine games but it still offers a great sprite-based action experience and because you can get it for free, there’s no reason not to check it out.