Other History Lessons posts can be found here. In particular, you may want to read the post about Duke Nukem 3D for some context. This post is also an honorary member of the Keeping Score series about games and their soundtracks.
Back in the early days of this blog, before I even had screenshots in my posts, I wrote about Duke Nukem 3D. I was curious about the game because of the release of its sequel, Duke Nukem Forever, that same year; a game that had reached near mythical status due to its seemingly endless development cycle. It was crap, by all accounts, but it only made it to release because the original Duke Nukem 3D had been one of the most popular games of its era, before the rise of the linear shooter. Duke Nukem 3D is dumb and very sexist — something for which I didn’t criticize it harshly enough, in retrospect — but its imaginative level design and arsenal made it a lot of fun to play.
While many more games would appear using the Build Engine that powered Duke Nukem 3D, only one was by Duke developers 3D Realms: 1997’s Shadow Warrior. It was not nearly as popular. Duke Nukem 3D had been criticized for its sexism, but Shadow Warrior was also criticized for its racism, and it didn’t seem to do enough to offset its offensive stereotypes. I was surprised, then, when a remake, also titled Shadow Warrior, appeared in 2013, and even more surprised when it got good reviews. Good enough that a sequel appeared in 2016, also receiving critical praise, and a third game is planned for this year. I was intrigued. How did this happen? Why remake a game that seemed better forgotten?
The original Shadow Warrior, now re-dubbed Shadow Warrior Classic, was released for free in 2013 to help promote the remake, and I grabbed it but never got around to it. Now, I’ve decided to check it out, so later I can compare it to its more favorably-received remake. Having played it and the two expansion packs bundled with it, I can confirm that it is very racist.
A few words on running Shadow Warrior, before I get into the critique. The free version runs in Dosbox, but there are source ports available that make it more convenient to run on modern hardware. One of these is actually official: Shadow Warrior Classic Redux not only runs natively on modern machines via OpenGL, it features remastered graphics too. But it costs money, unlike Shadow Warrior Classic, and I’m not sure I like the shinier look. So I turned to fans for source ports instead. When I played Duke Nukem 3D I used EDuke32, and the same team make a source port for Shadow Warrior called VoidSW, but I was flummoxed by the early 2000s website style with no explanation of what the source port is or how to install it. So I turned to BuildGDX instead, which is much more user friendly. What a difference a simple description and Q&A make! Installation was simple, and then I simply pointed the BuildGDX launcher to the folder where Shadow Warrior Classic was installed, and everything worked perfectly.
That done, I fired up the game, and quickly discovered that its infamy for racism is well deserved. Like Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior has a talkative protagonist who cracks jokes and has one-liners ready for most situations. This time it’s Lo Wang, a titular shadow warrior who works as an enforcer for the Japanese corporation Zilla Enterprises. That is, until he learns that Zilla plans to summon demons to conquer Japan, and quits in protest. So Master Zilla sends the demons after Lo Wang. That’s the entire story, really, and the game unceremoniously begins with Wang inside his dojo as the demons break in. I began the game holding a katana so I ran up to the nearest demon and chopped it in half. Then Lo Wang spoke.
Lo Wang is played by a white man, John William Galt (no, not that John Galt). But he’s sure trying his hardest to use the most exaggerated, stereotypical accent possible, and too often it seems like the accent itself is meant to be the joke. Chinese people sure sound funny, don’t they? Or is it Japanese people? Galt can’t seem to decide which accent is correct here, and the rest of the game is a weird mishmash of Japanese and Chinese influences too. I suspect the developers simply didn’t care. They just wanted to make a silly homage to kung fu cinema, and throw in some ninjas while they were at it. But the result is astoundingly insensitive and insulting. None of the jokes are funny. They’re just stupid, and I cringed whenever Lo Wang said anything. Even in 1997, an entire game built around a racist caricature shouldn’t have been greenlit. If it had been released today, Shadow Warrior would have sparked a massive media backlash, the type that forces companies to remove their games from sale, issue public apologies, and start internal investigations into changing their corporate culture.
I write this a few days after a white man murdered eight people in a mass shooting of three spas and massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent. This comes after former President Trump — who, I’m just going to say it, is an absolute piece of shit — repeatedly blamed China for the COVID-19 pandemic, even though the high mortality rate in the United States is actually the fault of horrible mismanagement by his government. These statements led to a clear rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, of which this murder spree is only the latest and most egregious example. I watched as Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department explained that the murderer had had “a very bad day”, as if this could justify murdering eight people. I watched as news programs focused on the murderer, trying to determine his motives, while completely ignoring the victims. I watched as others reminded us of the long history of anti-Asian racism in the United States dating back to the 1800s, and demanded better coverage by the media. Only those who enjoy white privilege could be unaware of this history, and think that the character of Lo Wang is just a harmless joke.
This murder spree was also yet another example of violence against women, something that is a constant presence in our society. I just wrote about a recent, high profile example in the UK at the end of my latest Scratching That Itch post. And Shadow Warrior doesn’t forget to be extremely sexist too. Like Duke Nukem before him, Lo Wang will occasionally come across women in his adventure who are literally part of the scenery. Usually they are “anime babes” who are highly sexualized (sometimes even nude), and players can use the “interact” key on them to make Lo Wang spout a horrible pick up line or suggestive inuendo. Sometimes the women are insulted, pull out an uzi, and shoot Lo Wang. Other times they flirt back, and even offer Lo Wang some items or ammo. In one mission, I encountered an older woman, and interacting with her caused Lo Wang to comment on how ugly she was, while she aggressively flirted with him. There are also female ninja enemies, wearing some absurd and highly sexualized black leather dominatrix outfits. In short, the attitude towards women is awful, indicative of a complete lack of respect from the development team. I bet it never even crossed their minds that a woman might actually want to play their game.
The worst part of all this is that Shadow Warrior would be so much better if these things were simply removed. It doesn’t need them. Most of the game is about running around and gunning down Zilla’s demon hordes, and that’s actually pretty fun. Strangely, the violence itself is tame and cartoony, despite the gratuitous gore. Elaborate death animations depict demons spewing blood when shot, or spilling guts after being sliced open, and many levels feature grisly remains as part of the scenery. This brings to mind over the top horror films where the gore is shocking but intentionally unrealistic, and soon I was barely noticing it. I was instead captivated by the level designs.
Following in Duke Nukem 3D’s footsteps, Shadow Warrior’s levels are based on recognizable places. Where Duke tended to move through city streets, high tech facilities, and space stations, Lo Wang treks through temples, monasteries, fishing villages and the like, although he does visit urban locations like train stations and markets too. Compared to competing games at the time from the likes of id Software, whose levels were often abstract spaces with no purpose other than to facilitate firefights, these levels help ground the adventure and allow for fun riffs on particular themes. There’s only the thinnest thread of narrative connecting these, really they’re just excuses to pit Lo Wang against some baddies in interesting locations. So why bother adding sexist and racist jokes? Surely blasting through a volcano temple is enough?
The levels share the design style of Duke Nukem 3D, which is to say they’re highly nonlinear, looping around on themselves in ways that modern games no longer attempt. Today’s games are careful to funnel players ever forward, ensuring they always know where to go next, but these early shooters from the ’90s often left players lost and wandering around. The levels have actual floorplans, with rooms and corridors in semi-logical layouts, and progression is gated by various locked doors and their color-coded keys. Exploring that warehouse might net you the red key, which is used all the way on the other end of the level in the parking lot, leading to the green key that opens the door back at the start. Levels are also strewn with switches, which can do everything from opening up a shortcut leading back to an earlier area, or moving a set of platforms so Lo Wang can jump across to somewhere new. Sometimes the way to proceed is cleverly hidden, but I found I was eased into the right mindset for exploring the levels, retracing my steps, and figuring out where to go. For someone who’d never played a game of this era, however, the level design will be something of a shock. Hopefully a pleasant one.
Shadow Warrior brought several improvements to the Build Engine, too. There are climbable ladders, transparent water (sometimes), drivable vehicles like boats or forklifts (although usually within strictly confined areas), and multiple firing modes for weapons. The riot gun, for example, can fire a single shotgun blast, or a burst of four. Some alternate firing modes are almost new weapons themselves, like the heat-seeking missiles for the missile launcher which require Lo Wang to find a special card first, or the single-use nuclear warheads that can be loaded instead of standard missiles. Yes, you can fire nuclear warheads, and it’s just as ridiculous as it sounds, nearly guaranteed to kill Lo Wang along with his enemies unless he can take cover behind a wall before the detonation. There’s even a grenade launcher, which — like the famous grenade launcher from Quake a year earlier — lets players bounce grenades around corners or over barriers to hit enemies out of view. This is especially helpful since many of the enemies in Shadow Warrior have hitscan attacks, which don’t simulate projectiles but just automatically damage Lo Wang if he’s in view when the enemies fire.
The biggest engine change, however, is the ability to have parts of the map be directly above others. The Build Engine, like earlier first-person shooter engines, actually creates levels in 2D, with heights assigned to each surface to simulate the third dimension. In Duke Nukem 3D, this meant that explorable areas could not be on top of each other. Shadow Warrior dispenses with that limitation, and the level designers clearly had a blast playing with vertical space. Lo Wang might climb a hidden ladder in a chimney and emerge on the roof, or he might find hidden tunnels running underneath the level. Or even find his way up to a mezzanine, letting him launch grenades down into the room below. This emphasis on vertical design throughout the levels is largely absent in modern games, with some notable exceptions. These places were great fun to explore, and I also liked their manageable sizes. A typical level can be completed in less than a half hour, as long as players don’t get too lost, and much faster if they already know where to go. It was nice to be able to get through a level in a quick play session. There’s also some incentive to replay, since every level is packed with secrets, and I usually found less than half of them on my first try.
Even with all these improvements, however, Shadow Warrior never seemed quite as fun as Duke Nukem 3D. Part of this is the arsenal, which is less exciting than Duke’s. Most of the time, I used the twin uzis, riot gun, grenade launcher and missile launcher, with little need for anything else. There’s nothing as imaginative as Duke’s shrink ray or freezing gun, and I missed the silliness those weapons brought. Lo Wang does get to use the hearts or even severed heads of his demonic enemies for magical attacks, but they’re simply not as fun as Duke’s weird sci-fi weapons. A bigger issue is once again related to the theme. Duke Nukem 3D is a mockery of hyper-macho Hollywood action films, so its ridiculous and explosive arsenal of weapons makes sense. Kung fu films, on the other hand, tend to feature acrobatic and stylish hand-to-hand and melee fighting, which Shadow Warrior completely fails to simulate. Sure, Lo Wang has a sword and his fists, but they’re barely used, and awkward when they are. He has a selection of ninja-inspired tools too, like throwable caltrops, shurikens, and smoke bombs to become partially invisible, but why use any of that when you can blast baddies with shotguns and rockets? The ninja equipment might be more fun in multiplayer, which I didn’t try, but a kung fu and ninja theme is still a strange choice for a genre that’s all about shooting guns.
My version of Shadow Warrior is “Shadow Warrior Classic Complete”, including the original four-level shareware campaign, the eighteen-level main campaign that continues the story, and two expansion packs: Twin Dragon, and Wanton Destruction. Of these, the shareware levels are the weakest, which is strange since their purpose is at least partially to convince players to buy the full game. Lo Wang is stuck with early, weaker weapons for too long in these first four levels, making even the lowliest enemies dangerous. The hitscan attacks got really annoying in these levels, and I was particularly frustrated when I ran into packs of tiny, fast-moving wasps in the third level that are almost impossible to hit. I turned to the internet for advice on how to kill these, and found suggestions to lure them into narrow hallways and hurl shuriken at them, but I first encountered them while trying to climb narrow pathways on the side of a mountain, with no narrow hallways in sight. I eventually beat them by switching to Lo Wang’s fists (so as not to waste ammo) and holding the attack button to make him repeatedly punch with incredible speed. Any wasp getting near got punched to death. I’m not sure why the developers thought these wasps were a good idea. At least they only rarely appear in later levels.
I’d selected the third of the four available difficulty settings, and decided to drop that back down to the second setting for the main campaign, only to find that these levels are easier anyway since they’re more generous with powerful weapons and ammo. I ended up liking the difficulty setting though, it shifted the focus more toward exploration and away from tense battles. The full eighteen-level campaign is fun, taking players first through forests, caverns, and remote temples before returning to the urban settings of the start of the game for a final confrontation with Zilla and his demonic army. But I felt the levels in the expansion packs were more interesting. Twin Dragon was released as a free download in 1998, featuring thirteen more levels to play. Apparently it has a story about Lo Wang’s evil brother or something, but this isn’t mentioned anywhere in the game itself, and it’s clearly just a bunch of new levels to play. Some of these are really clever, like the level set in a hospital emergency room, or the Fishing Village level in which Lo Wang must drive his boat up and down a river, stopping off on the shore to explore a few buildings as he finds the right keys.
The Wanton Destruction expansion pack has a weird history: made by Sunstorm Interactive rather than 3D Realms themselves, it was shelved at the time. A few of the levels were released for free in 2004 when the designer who made them got a job at 3D Realms, and then, in 2005, Sunstorm Interactive found the rest of the levels and contacted 3D Realms, arranging to release the whole pack for free. Wanton Destruction therefore appeared eight years after the original game. The expansion pack follows Lo Wang’s adventures after the end of the original campaign, as he tracks down Zilla a second time. Curiously, the developers made the decision to re-skin most of the enemies, in the process somehow making Shadow Warrior even more racist. The standard demon foot soldiers are replaced with men in suits, who bark some weird imitation of Chinese or heavily accented English instead of the original demonic groans. The green-skinned Guardian demons are replaced by wizards in traditional Chinese robes, complete with long white beards and conical hats, with Guardian heads mounted on their staves. More Chinese stereotypes are definitely not what Shadow Warrior needed. And the re-skinning makes the different types of foot soldiers harder to tell apart at a glance, to boot.
This is a shame, because Wanton Destruction contains some of the most memorable levels of the lot. One is set in the cramped confines of an airborne passenger jet, where Lo Wang must force his way into different cabins, the baggage storage area underneath, and even out onto the wings of the plane to battle ape-like demons in an homage to The Twilight Zone. The finale of the expansion pack, set atop several skyscrapers in Tokyo, is also cool, with Lo Wang forced to make daring leaps between buildings as he fights his way to a final confrontation with Zilla.
Ultimately, I was left agreeing with the assessments I’d heard about Shadow Warrior. It has some good level design and decent combat, but isn’t quite as fun as its predecessor, and it sours the experience with its racist, stupid tone. I had fun when I was able to push the racist trappings to the back of my mind, and enjoyed the nonlinear exploration, but there are better games that can provide similar enjoyment without being openly offensive. Why play this when you could play Duke Nukem 3D (which is still offensive towards women), one of the third-party Build Engine games, or even Doom or any of the countless mods that are still being made for it? So, I’m still left wondering how — and why — Shadow Warrior was made into a successful reboot series in recent years. I guess I’ll have to play the newer games to find out.
The soundtrack for Shadow Warrior was composed by Lee Jackson, and came bundled with my copy of Shadow Warrior Classic Complete. It was composed at a time when game soundtracks were transitioning from MIDI to CD audio, but only the shareware missions allowed for MIDI audio, with the full game using the CD music exclusively. This apparently allowed Jackson to use specialized synthesizer sounds that could not be accurately reproduced in MIDI. The soundtrack contains 13 tracks spanning nearly 45 minutes, and the majority are slow to mid tempo pieces that build tension through quiet string drones or ominous percussion. Most of them are pretty good.
As far as I can tell, the music is entirely synthesized, without using any real instruments. Even so, it features decent replicas of plucked koto and shakuhachi flute, both of which assume lead melodic duties in many pieces. The shakuhachi especially sounds eerily realistic. A few pieces, like “Love Field” and “Landwaster” are little more than ambient sound, fitting during play but less interesting outside of the game. The strangest of these is “A Game of Chants” which is made up entirely of chanting monks, their words not quite discernable. But other pieces are standouts even on their own: “Everybody Off!!!” is one of my favoriates, pairing a funky bassline with dueling koto melodies and a little shakuhachi on top. “Shellac” anchors its layered synths with a soaring shakuhachi melody to create a piece that works equally well in an open fight as it does when creeping around, watchful for hidden adversaries.
A few compositions are more upbeat. “Shadow Raver” is, I believe, reserved for the final boss battle in each campaign, and drops some pulsing, high energy acid techno beats to make the duel feel more epic. Here the koto embraces its synthesized nature, appearing as a hyper-fast arpeggiated melody appropriate for a rave, as the title suggests. Then there’s the game’s main theme, groan-inducingly titled “Okinoww!A”, which throws in some rocking electric guitar to get players excited. A separate reprise version, which plays during the end of level summary screens, is also included. I like these pieces too, although I’m more likely to listen to the slower ones if given the choice.
Overall, it’s a good soundtrack, only let down by the final track, “Lo Wang’s Rap”, which plays during the end credits of each campaign. The music for this track is fine, a funky hip hop beat that I’d gladly listen to in instrumental form. The problem is that it crams in as many of Lo Wang’s terrible lines as possible on top, and even (I think) some outtakes from the recording sessions. First Lo Wang spouts random cliched nuggets of wisdom, then taunts an unseen opponent and beats him up while hurling insults, and finally tries to flirt with a passing woman in the most inept and offensive way imaginable. It’s all of the worst parts of Shadow Warrior rolled into one piece of music. Ugh. The first 12 tracks, however, are quite nice, so I recommend simply stopping the soundtrack before the end.
Since Shadow Warrior Classic is free, the soundtrack is effectively free too, although it doesn’t appear to be available separately. So if you are interested in the music, just grab the game itself. I think the soundtrack is only bundled with the version from GOG.