2014’s Shadow Warrior and Wolfenstein reboots left me feeling a teensy bit nostalgic. As someone who doesn’t have any particular affinity for the copious amounts of pixel-fuelled indie platformers that have had the blood flowing to people’s nether-regions, it was nice to finally have that warm and fuzzy feeling that thinking about the good ol’ days tends to elicit, even if the tendrils that connect them both to their forebears were wobbly at best. Wolfenstein of course made it into my Most Agreeable Games of 2014, and rest assured Shadow Warrior wasn’t ever too far away from making the cut.
To think that two shooters that cut their teeth in the 90’s were my two favourite first person shooters of the year is pretty crazy, particularly when the genre is close to being crowded out by the big end of town throwing every piece of eight they can scrounge up at development. Perhaps even more surprising is that neither game has multiplayer – a god send for someone like me that wouldn’t touch it with a ten metre snag – which is perhaps is indicative of the developer’s broader shunning of modern genre conventions. But there was something about both games that perfectly treaded the very dangerous line making a game that respects its elders and one that worships them. The lack of pandering was admirable for both games, but its the way that they still managed to capture the essence of the spirit of both games in a way that plays in the modern era, that had me clenching my controller tightly and hogging the telly. For me it was a reminder that despite cutting my own teeth on the plethora of old-school platformers on both Commodore computers and the Game Boy in the 80’s and 90’s, it’s the move to three dimensions – faux or not – is where my greatest retro affinity lies. And Shadow Warrior hit all the right notes to have me yearning for the days of shooter yore.
But I shouldn’t detract from the fact that Lo Wang’s modern Shadow Warrior adventure is one mighty fine bloody shooter. Its focus on fast-paced action had my adrenaline pounding so hard that I almost burst a pooper-valve, with the circle strafe making a much needed triumphant return in a very timely reminder that cover just isn’t all that. And the upgradeable weapons are a big part of what makes the game the fun and throwback-ish romp that it is, with each and every weapon being deadly in the right circumstance and ammunition never scarce. Rest assured you’ll find your play style and reason to use each and every one of the game’s weapons – from the the ugly-arse shotgun (their words) to the rocket launcher that fires “Nuke Dukem” missiles – which is perhaps a kind reminder to modern first person shooter design of how liberating giving player choice can be.
But great weapons aside, the katana is the real star of the show, and what a relief it was to see that the series’ melee weapon staple wasn’t relegated to last resort status. Ample ammunition would’ve been the easiest excuse in the world to leave the short range of the sword behind as soon as you have a gun in your hand, but an actually useful range of upgrade abilities powered by Ki (read: Chi) elevates it to an almost mandatory part of your arsenal. It is an effective and stylish way to cut your way through the hordes of enemies the game will throw at you, spewing giblets and limbs all over the place, until the otherwise beautiful cherry-blossom lined environments are covered in all manner of viscera. Melee combat quite simply hasn’t been this good since Riddick, and add to that both offensive and defensive ‘spells’ that can be unlocked, and you’ve got first-person sword fighting that tops even most of the front-runners in the roleplaying genre.
Across all media I’m a fan of creators cleverly playing on people’s nostalgia through great writing or subtle references, rather than simple rehashing it in the most obvious way possible. Back to the Future wasn’t great because it brought back the 1950’s, it was great because it juxtaposed it against the then modern world, to draw out just how much the world has changed in a very fish out of water way. It was clever because it was simple, and Robert Zemeckis didn’t need to shoot the film in sepia tone, and the audience didn’t have to have been there, to make it feel nostalgic. Shadow Warrior brings out those warm and fuzzy sentimental feelings in the same way, never being overly self referential or in your face rather instead subtly paying homage to its roots at just the right times to remind you that the game has 90’s pedigree. It’s not perfect, it’s not smart or clever and it’s visually stunning take on eastern lore and culture – which as a setting is sorely underutilised – is a bit skewiff, but the strength of its gameplay alone (and the occasional dick joke) had me losing track of the hours in much the same way I did with early pioneers of the genre. Shadow Warrior has the spirit of the 1997 but the design of 2014, which as it turns out, is a match made in heaven.