Remakes and remasters are all the rage these days, and while it’s easy to expect big-name franchises getting the treatment, Shadowman may come out of left field for people who don’t know about it. Originally released on the N64 back in 1998, this is a game that many people missed out on back in the day and will most likely miss out on it now. But this is a case of a developer pushing game design, storytelling, and tone long before everyone else caught on to it.
A Total Eclipse of the Heart
Based on the comic of the same name (but not with the same character), Shadowman follows Michael Le Roi (amazingly voiced by Redd Pepper) who must stop the apocalypse from happening in a realm called deadside. There, he transforms into the undead voodoo-powered hero Shadowman. The gameplay is action-adventure with your main goal is to collect dark souls (no relation to the game) that power your main weapon and unlock the different areas.
The game’s progression happens at different focal points. Starting out, your mission is to collect the dark souls to open more of the world. Eventually, you’ll need to track down the missing pieces of a dagger needed to bring about an eclipse to help you fight the bosses who are in our world (or Liveside). What makes Shadowman such a unique game, and why it was worthy of a remaster, is how much the game stood out from the rest of the market in 1998.
Standing Out in the Dark
It’s important for people to understand what the market was like in 1998 and how it impacted game design. Three D games have just become the norm and developers were taking advantage of it to experiment with level design. Tracing the DNA of Shadowman, and it’s easy to see elements of Mario and Tomb Raider in it. The focus on collectible progression is straight out of Mario 64‘s playbook, while more grounded platforming and environmental obstacles come from Tomb Raider.
The level design, for the era, was one of the biggest; with each area featuring multiple paths, secrets, and reasons to return. Much has been talked about with the Dark Souls series and From Software’s environmental and level design, but we can see similar philosophy in Shadowman. While many areas are wide and stretch out in different directions, there is a circular nature to the level design. Each area will have paths that connect back to each other and shortcuts that can be permanently unlocked. You will have to visit each area several times as the game does feature upgrades that can change how you move through a level.
For most of the game, fire pits are going to be your nemesis and the main source of instant death traps. Eventually, you will gain tattoos that will make Shadowman fire-immune and the firewalk upgrade is one of the most cathartic upgrades I think in any videogame. The upgrades themselves do not add new “tech” to playing the game, but I feel that the level design is strong enough to not need it. While there is plenty of combat in the game, Shadowman‘s focus is on the platforming. For today’s gamers, there’s nothing new here, but back in 1998, this was one of the more advanced — and harder — action-adventure games released; even with the player having infinite lives.
The final point that helped made Shadowman stand out was the story. Remember, this was back in 1998, long before videogames as the entire medium, began to embrace mature storytelling and before anyone ever heard of Grand Theft Auto 3 or Uncharted. While the 3D is certainly dated, the story still tells an interesting tale of voodoo, Lovecraft, and serial killers. The in-game lore is some of my favorite, featuring multiple pages detailing everything you need to know about the game’s five serial killers/boss fights. Deadside, from an aesthetics standpoint, still holds up with its otherworldly design.
With all that said, trying to play the original version of Shadowman is an exercise in horror, and not in a good way, and where the remaster comes in.
What the Remaster Updates
The first, and most noticeable, upgrade is with the graphics. The game has received an upgraded HD look to it that also removes all the blurry textures of the original. The control scheme, which was painfully outdated, has been updated for the most part. It is far easier to select your equipment using the new weapon wheel. While I don’t remember how the jumping felt in the original, the actual platforming, mostly, wasn’t that hard.
The interesting part is with the addition of cut content, with even more content to be added with future patches at this time. There is an entirely new area that unlocks in the first quarter of the game that also fills in some of the story. The original plan was to have deadside bosses that guarded some of the important items, and those were cut. In the first version of the remaster, there is one new boss fight, and I believe there is at least one more that will be added (but I’m not completely sure on that point).
The other cut content is with the serial killers. Each serial killer was supposed to have their own personal level, however, due to limited time and budget, several of them were packed into the prison area. The remaster restores this, and while it does contradict the lore in the game, it’s interesting to see what the developers originally intended for the complete experience.
With everything said, Shadowman is an interesting piece of videogame history, but how much someone new would get out of it today is up for argument.
Shadowman was certainly ahead of its time back in 1998, but in 2021 there are some dated aspects to it for younger gamers. The map design certainly hits all the positives and negatives of early 3D games. Areas are certainly big, but it’s very hard to internalize the mapping of each area. There are plenty of hallways and corridors that all look alike, and each area has one style and color palette to it, making it hard to remember where you’ve been. There is a map that comes with the manual, but you’re not going to have access to it in-game.
This is one of those games where not seeing one platform, or one space in the wall or ceiling could mean missing out on an entire section of a level. Shadowman is one of those games that gets easier the longer you play it, thanks to being able to eventually mitigate any death trap with your fire tattoo upgrades. But that means you’re going to spend the bulk of the time having to make tricky jumps, and use some janky platforms, over firepits. The lack of checkpoints may be the game’s biggest offender for people new to it. The game only checkpoints at specific fast travel points, and at the start of each level. Miss a jump, and you may have to easily repeat five minutes of content to get back and try again. There is a lot here for fans of the original, but I’m not so sure if there is something for people who never touched it, considering how far 3D platforming and design has come since 1998.
Dining on Dark Souls
Shadowman may not have been a game everyone was asking for a remaster, but it does show a way for many classic and outdated games to get a second life. My friends and I are already dreaming about what other classics could make do with a remaster. For the reader, what classic game that you loved would you like to see come back in an updated form?
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