In development terms, 3D Realms may be the house that Duke Nukem built (and then laboriously took apart brick by brick) but another, less popular, game gave it an extension and built a pond in the garden. That game was Shadow Warrior and, much as the Dukester was in his day, it was designed to ensnare the male teenage mindset at its every level. Naked anime babes! Swords that cut zombie ninjas in half! Casual racism!
Yeah, well, maybe not the casual racism. But we can't go all that far in Shadow Warrior without colliding headfirst with the portrayal of Lo Wang and whether he's a little bit offensive to residents of certain eastern nations - even if the game itself isn't sure whether that nation is Japan, China or some undiscovered country that lies in between. Lo Wang's pantomime voice (there's more than a touch of Widow Twankee to it) is clearly not supposed to be taken seriously - how can it be when he's shouting stuff like "Sayonara, scumbag!", "You are tiny grasshopper!" and "Like Chinese New Year fireworks!" as he runs amok in a shower of blood and explosions? Then again, it's hardly political correctness gone mad to wince and wave frantically in his direction when he comes out with a line like "Just like Hiroshima!" as he sets off a monolithic barrage of death.
Put simply, if Shadow Warrior came out tomorrow, the criticism would be deafening. On a scale of racialism (in which all levels are unacceptable but some bits underlined in extra red pen with worried exclamation marks around them), with Nick Griffin at the top and Sir Peter Ustinov's portrayal of a Chinese mobster in One Of Our Dinosaurs is Missing at the bottom, Shadow Warrior is certainly down at Sir Pete's end. But that doesn't stop it being ignorant. There's no way that, little more than 10 years later, it could realistically be released today.
Shadow Warrior also picked up the phallus-shaped torch left by Duke Nukem and ran with it to ever more smutty climes (despite the frequency of the sexy content in fact being far lower), but it did it heavy-handedly and, its most heinous crime of all, wasn't very funny about it. I'd be lying if I said that as a teenager I wasn't grinning inanely when I first discovered a naked lady sitting on the toilet and heard the line "Hoooo! What you eat anyway, baby?" - but replay it now and it's the scent of faint embarrassment that lingers.
Similarly, a later line about a blue-haired woman's fake tits certainly wouldn't win the Germaine Greer Award for Positive Depiction of Sexy Anime Chicks Doing Their Ablutions When Naked (With a Hidden Uzi). It's also worth mentioning (if wikiquote is to be believed - I didn't hear it during my recent play) that lines like "Oh you faggot rabbit" and "Oh, queer bunny" wouldn't have won the Peter Tatchell Award for Positive Depiction of In-game Homosexual Bunnies.
So why, after all this finger pointing and waving of the Guardian, are we still talking about Shadow Warrior? Well, because it was ruddy brilliant and entirely genre-pushing.
There's so much in Shadow Warrior that was revolutionary; ideas and gameplay ploys that have now become part of the firmament in terms of how FPS games work. There were drivable vehicles with guns on the front, and the earliest usable gun emplacements that my fragile mind can recall. Then there's melee sword combat that's actually vaguely viable in-game, alongside differing death animations for the poor zombie ninjas you use it on. Heat-seeking missiles, gas grenades that would pollute the air around them, sticky bombs that attached themselves in the fashion of Halo's plasma grenades, vehicle-based multiplayer... The list goes on.
All this was aided and abetted by what was now 3D Realms' utter mastery of the Build engine. Cars would crash in a wall of flame, vast underground drills would be turned on and dig down into the earth to open up a passageway, tube trains would appear out of nowhere and have you jump out of the way - Shadow Warrior's simple scripted sequences were furiously imaginative and by and large of a quality previously unseen. For example, the game's non-shareware opening pulls you downstream on a boat, before pulling different circular chunks of water texture down one after the other to create the impression of a whirlpool while your ride spins in circles. Not all levels show this amount of flair - there's a hell of a lot more filler in Shadow Warrior than there is Duke Nukem 3D - but overall what 3D Realms' developers lacked in cultural awareness they certainly had in unexpected and original level design.
What I find fascinating though, and apologies for my nerdly fervour on this one, is that contemporary reviewers really thought the game somewhat backward. The advent of Quake and its fantastic grimy polygons had arrived, and sprites were suddenly hackneyed and quaint - only a couple of steps away from a game of hoop and ball and a ride on a Penny Farthing. The game's innovations were pretty much invisible to the chin-strokers of the day when put alongside the stunning id tech, during a period when, I would argue, the FPS stuttered while everyone came to terms with the 3D revolution. It was only really when games like SiN and Half-Life came about that the groundwork laid by games like Shadow Warrior could truly be built upon.
It did a hell of a lot of cool stuff very early on in the life of the hallowed FPS. Comments below this article will no doubt suggest other games did clever and revolutionary things first (Terminator Future Shock certainly had drivable vehicles a few years beforehand, for example) but my argument is that Shadow Warrior put it all in one place, and nigh-on perfectly. As a result, it's virtually a museum piece - as you play, you can see direct lines between the shooters of yesterday and the scripted cinematic wonders of today. And if it weren't for the boobs, gay rabbits and questionable attitude, then right now it would probably be on show in one, rather than buried under the house.