Shadow Warrior Hands-On Preview

One of the effects of having the App Store serve as a living museum of classic videogames is that controversy becomes quaint with the passage of time. Games like Doom and Carmageddon were shockingly violent when they were first released on PC, but on iOS, they look more like relics from a long-gone past. Shadow Warrior, which was 3D Realms’ follow-up to Duke Nukem 3D in 1997, is a low-res throwback where the pixels stand out more than the blood spatters.

In Shadow Warrior, you play as Lo Wang, a bald-headed ninja master who is one day attacked by demonic creatures. The first level finds you jumping out of your dojo, bloody samurai sword in hand, only to witness a blocky car accident and low-res explosion (complete with Duke Nukem’s squishing sound effects). On this single street corner, you have to fight more demons with shurikens and uzis before finding the key to the next location: a sushi restaurant.

Among shooter fans, Shadow Warrior is well-known for its gore, but these 15-year old graphics are definitely starting to show their age. Some objects in the world (like trash cans and coffee mugs) are sprites, which means they don’t change position when you move around them in 3D. If you grew up on PS2 games instead of MS-DOS, Shadow Warrior might be quite an eyesore.

One change we’re very happy to see is in the controls. Duke Nukem 3D’s port was handled by an outside studio, and 3D Realms stressed to us that they took a different approach with Shadow Warrior. Frankly, it shows– Lo Wang moves much more smoothly than Duke ever did on a touchscreen, and you can customize the controls to use either a dual-stick or screen tap setup.

You can even turn off the up and down aiming (Shadow Warrior was made before mouse-and-keyboard controls for first-person shooters were common), which lets you keep your crosshairs at headshot level. Our main complaint is that the fire button is a bit small for when we had to frantically start shooting.

Besides Shadow Warrior’s gore, graphics, and controls, the thing most players will probably find unsettling is its racially-charged humor. Lo Wang himself is a wise-cracking Asian stereotype, with a strong accent and cache of cliched kung-fu expressions. The locations are equally questionable, like a sushi restaurant that features a skinned cat and cream of “sum jung gai” on the menu. These were meant to push the boundaries in a 1990s gaming industry where controversy stimulated sales, but nowadays, they just seem as painfully dated as the character of Long Duk Dong in the movie Sixteen Candles.

Shadow Warrior will be free at launch this week, with four levels available to start, and the rest of the game unlockable as a $1.99 in-app purchase. For some players, it might be delightful nostalgia. For others, it’ll be a perplexing museum piece, a mish-mash of tropes and hot buttons that never should have been pushed in the first place.