LICENSE TO THRILL?: The Shadow (1994)

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow makes his gaming debut in this unreleased beater for the SNES. 

Who made it?: Ocean (Developer), Nintendo (Publisher).

Genre: Sidescrolling Beat ‘Em Up.

Platforms: SNES.

Format: ROM.

Released: Unreleased.

The 1990s were certainly a rough ride for pulp superheroes. Three big-budget adaptations, The Rocketeer (1991), The Shadow (1994) and The Phantom (1996), all failed to strike a chord with audiences and floundered at the box office. Joe Johnston’s Rocketeer has become a beloved cult favourite, of course, but the other two have long been derided in spite of their respective accomplishments. Yes, even the one where the dude wears head-to-toe spandex. Purple spandex.

The Shadow, for me, is a highly underrated gem and a fine translation of William B. Gibson’s 30s magazines, which famously inspired everyone’s favourite vigilante, Batman. The Russell Mulcahy film was well-intentioned and utterly gorgeous to look at, making a fine argument for Alec Baldwin as the Caped Crusader. Yet, you’d be hard pressed to find a fan of it, let alone the source material. It was therefore amazing for an apologist like myself to discover that Ocean software made a Shadow game for the SNES. How did this one pass me by? Turns out they cancelled the game’s release thanks to the abysmal box office, ensuring that only ardent gamers with an emulator would be able to play it many years after it was produced. The kicker? By tie-in standards, it’s really rather good!

The player assumes the role of Baldwin’s Lamont Cranston; a debonair millionaire with a secret life as a pistol-wielding avenger in 30s New York. As you might remember, he has the power to “cloud men’s minds,” see into their dark hearts, and render himself invisible as a result. It may have been difficult to incorporate these abilities into video game form, and yet Ocean made a good first of it within the confines of a bog-standard sidescrolling beat ‘em up. You’ll have played a hundred games like The Shadow, and the clear influence was clearly the exemplary Streets of Rage or Final Fight series, yet the familiarity didn’t spoil my enjoyment. From the moment the game opens with a cinematic depicting The Shadow atop a roof, reciting lines made famous by the Orson Welles radio dramas, I knew I was in for the rare licensed title that actually works.

You all know the drill with this genre; go from left to right across the screen, beat the various enemies into submission, and defeat customary end-of-level bosses, eventually leading to The Shadow’s arch-nemesis, Shiwan Khan. It’s as simple as you can get and positively archaic by now, but I was having too much fun to care. There are eight stages to navigate – “Times Square,” “The Empire State Building,” “Amusement Park,” “Museum,” “The War Department,” “Chinatown,” and finally, “Hotel Monolith” for the showdown with Khan and a ticking atomic bomb. They are just varied enough to keep you button-bashing and even provide some quick changes in gameplay to spice things up.

The Shadow has two bars at the top of the screen; one that displays his life and the other being a “power bar.” The latter naturally builds and allows you to pull off special abilities, such as the aforementioned invisibility, a speed boost which is really satisfying, and a special move that decimates everyone onscreen at the same time (ah, that old standard). As the game develops, you’ll also have sections in which The Shadow uses his trusty pistols for shooting segments, and even a driving stage where you take out unruly Mongols on motorbikes. These digressions are reasonably well-implemented, and it’s still surprising to see your superhero flat out blasting enemies to death in a child-friendly tie-in. While there’s no hope of fully exploring the character’s powers, Ocean do just enough to make it all seem true.

Graphically, it’s hard to be churlish about a game made in 1994. The sprites are nice and big, the backgrounds just about do the job, and The Shadow is the spitting image of those old pulp covers. There were better-looking titles at the time, of course, but when comparing this to a hundred other licensed SNES games, Ocean came up trumps on this occasion. Even better is the audioscape, and as you’re probably aware, the Nintendo console is revered for the quality of its 16-bit music and sound effects. The Shadow keeps up this tradition with a nice, ominous score and some truly great SFX; I dare you not to get a kick out of the anti-hero firing his dual Berettas.

There are caveats, though. Because this game was about 95% complete before the plug was pulled, there are some unavoidable flaws. The occasional enemy becomes a blur of polygons and isn’t fully-rendered, and the hit detection is frustratingly inconsistent. It’s hard to know if the latter would have been improved had this become a go title, but happily, it didn’t ruin the nostalgic experience for me. Even with such deficiencies, it is still leagues better than the piss-poor excuse for a Rocketeer game that actually hit the shelves. Oh, the irony.

The Shadow is a fun title that actually deserved the spit and polish of a wide release. It didn’t set out to reinvent the sidescrolling beater tradition and offers precisely nothing new to seasoned gamers, but fans of the enduring character – wherever you are – are advised to give the ROM a spin.

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • The Shadow debuted on July 31, 1930, as the mysterious narrator of the Street and Smith radio program Detective Story Hour in an effort to boost sales of Detective Story Magazine. When listeners of the program began asking at newsstands for copies of “That Shadow detective magazine,” Street & Smith decided to create a magazine based around The Shadow and hired Gibson to create a character concept to fit the name and voice and write a story featuring him. The first issue of The Shadow Magazine went on sale on April 1, 1931.
  • In the radio drama, which debuted in 1937, The Shadow was an invisible avenger who had learned, while “traveling through East Asia, the mysterious power to cloud men’s minds, so they could not see him.” This feature of the character was born out of necessity: time constraints of 1930s radio made it difficult to explain to listeners where The Shadow was hiding and how he was remaining concealed. Thus, the character was given the power to escape human sight. Voice effects were added to suggest The Shadow’s seeming omnipresence. In order to explain this power, The Shadow was described as a master of hypnotism, as explicitly stated in several radio episodes.

Checkout the latest SquabbleCast in which Oscar Stainton joins me to discuss pulp heroes including The Shadow:

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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