SSPA – The Shadow

There is a growing crowd of super heroes in comics, video games, and movies. Between the classic DC and Marvel heroes and the heroes of independent press comics like Dark Horse and Image comics, there’s a hero, anti-hero, or villain for everyone. Personally, I’ve never had any one favorite hero, but I’d always been partial to Spider-Man and Batman. However, a new hero fell into my sights after a trip to the library and the discovery of a video game that never really existed.

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While looking through some art books I found one called “Game Graphics”, a collection box art from video, computer, and board games. It was an interesting enough read and it gave me ideas for games to pick up. One such game was The Shadow on Sega Genesis. The box art was kind of generic, but I was interested because I had never heard of it.

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Things got strange when I looked the game up and found nothing. There was no such game in the Genesis or Super Nintendo library, but What I learned about The Shadow himself was very interesting.

The Dark Avenger

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The Shadow is a superhero by Street and Smith Publications from the 1930s. The character has been around ever since in some form or another, mainly in comics since the original pulps ended. He is a detective and a master of stealth and disguise who can blend into any crowd and environment. He also has a network of agents who help investigate leads and track criminals. To gain information he uses many identities, primarily that of the millionaire playboy Lamont Cranston.

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The Shadow did not have any super powers per say. In the books he was simply a brilliant detective and talented fighter. Occasionally, he would hypnotize criminals into revealing secrets or performing simple tasks. It wasn’t until the Shadow Radio Dramas that he gained “…the power to cloud men’s minds so that they cannot see him.” This gave him invisibility, telepathy, and the ability to throw his voice.

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The radio show also changed other things for simplicity’s sake, such as the shadow’s identity. In the books he is a former World War 1 flying ace named Kent Allard who turned his savage talents in combat toward a war on crime. After setting up as the Shadow, he intimidated Lamont Cranston into leaving the country for long periods of time and assumed his identity to infiltrate high society. The radio program dropped Kent Allard completely, and simply made Lamont Cranston the Shadow, making him a criminologist who learned mystic secrets across the world in his youth, giving him his powers.

The show also removed the agents. Although characters from the books would occasionally cameo in the show, the only agent to work directly with the Shadow was Margo Lane, a character created especially for the show.

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Even a casual observer could see the similarities between the Shadow and Batman. The dark aesthetic of their costumes, the detective skills, the playboy alter egos, and the subordinate agents are almost the same in many cases. However, the Dark Knight appears to have mimicked the Dark Avenger as Batman’s first appearance was a good eight years after the Shadow’s first novel. Batman’s first comic also follows an abridged version of the plot of the Shadow novel “Partners of Peril” almost exactly. Early Batman even used guns.

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A Shadow on the Screen

When researching this unreleased game, I found that it was based on the 1994 Shadow film starring Alec Baldwin. I knew nothing about this movie and decided to look into any other forays into film for the hero. I wanted to know more and see how the character was treated. Unfortunately, I found a steady stream of rather mediocre films. Although the Shadow lasted a long time in print and comics, film was not all that kind to him.

In the late 30s, there were two films were made starring Rod LaRocque called The Shadow Strikes and International Crime.

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The Shadow Strikes is a murder mystery, in which Lamont Cranston tries to thwart a robbery, but gets involved with a murder. Now, pretending to be the victim’s attorney, Cranston must discover who the killer is.

The biggest problem with this film is that it has very little to do with the Shadow. Sure there is a character called Lamont Cranston, but throughout the whole film, he only dons the guise of the Shadow twice and only briefly. Rather than having any agents, Cranston’s only ally is his butler, who occasionally give support.

The acting is pretty melodramatic, however the directing and cinematography is very stilted and boring, making for a very dull film. When Cranston becomes the Shadow you almost forget this movie was supposed to be about a superhero. It takes probably the most unfortunate quality of the later radio show seasons, that Cranston is the main attraction as a private eye, who occasionally becomes the Shadow to deal with criminals head on. Overall, it’s a pretty dull feature.

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It’s unclear whether International Crime is a sequel or a reboot. Once again Rod LaRocque stars as Lamont Cranston, however his status as the Shadow has changed. Rather than being a crime fighting vigilante, Cranston is an investigative journalist who presents a crime news radio broadcast called The Shadow Speaks. The movie is about Cranston investigating a murder after being kidnapped by the prime suspect. He is joined in the investigation by Phoebe Lane, a ditzy and clumsy junior reporter, and Moe Schrevnetz, a taxi driver who works for Cranston.

This movie has less to do with the Shadow than The Shadow Strikes. Change some names around and you lose all connection to the series. There is good bit more action this time around and the directing is more engaging, but the story is unremarkable and the abundance of unfunny comedy helps detract from the experience.

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A few years after these movies, Columbia produced a 15 episode serial starring Victor Jory as the Shadow. This series does a much better job of adapting the character and both previous attempts. A master criminal known as The Black Tiger has been attacking businesses and merging major factions of organized crime. The police are at a loss to figure out who he is and have called upon, Lamont Cranston, now a criminologist and chemist, to help investigate. Cranston uses the intel he gets from the police to fight the Black Tiger as The Shadow, however the police start to believe that the Tiger and The Shadow are the same person.

This series was better produced, acted, and directed than both previous films. The Shadow is present in all episodes and gets a lot of satisfying action with gun fights and brawls. The mystery of who the Black Tiger really is well-kept and there is some tension in the cliffhangers even if you know the Shadow will come out on top every time.

That said, the cliffhangers cause the only real let down in the show. In some episodes, the Shadow will fall victim to one of the Tiger’s traps, but inexplicably survive for little reason outside of being the hero. This is a common criticism of the serial, but if you turn off your brain, it still makes for a very enjoyable viewing experience.

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1946 saw the release of three feature films with Kane Richmond as Lamont Cranston: The Shadow Returns, Behind The Mask, and The Missing Lady. However, all three are painfully unfunny comedies. They go back to the style of the LaRocque films where Cranston is the main attraction and The Shadow barely shows up. Behind The Mask was the most interesting of the bunch for me. It concerns a murderer impersonating the Shadow, forcing Cranston to clear his alter ego’s name. It has some dynamic camera work, but once the comic relief steps in, the whole thing crumbles.

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After that brief burst of film failed to catch the public eye, there wasn’t much for the shadow in feature films. There was a failed attempt to start a TV series called Invisible Avenger, but it didn’t go anywhere, however the pilot was released as the film Bourbon Street Shadows. It was very dull and poorly acted

Decades passed and then came the Superhero cinematic revival of the 90s. The success of Batman in 1989 caused film studios to buy the rights to heroes left and right for some of that sweet box office appeal. For a time, Evil Dead director Sam Raimi sought the rights to the Shadow, but could not get them, so he went and made his own super hero, Darkman. The film carries much of Raimi’s signature comedic horror, and could be seen as a sort of spiritual successor to The Shadow, with similar style and themes, but the character sadly only saw direct-to-video sequels, his own failed TV pilot, and hasn’t been heard from since.

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Eventually, Universal decided to create a big budget Hollywood Shadow movie. Reading about this movie got me excited. It was directed by Russell Mulcahy of Highlander, it starred Alec Baldwin as The Shadow, which I thought seemed like excellent casting, and included actors like Tim Curry, Jonathan Winters, and Ian McKellen.

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The film is a loose adaptation of three novels: The Golden Master, in which The Shadow encounters Shiwan Khan, the direct descendent of Genghis Khan who is bent on world domination, and it’s two sequels, Shiwan Khan Returns and The Invincible Shiwan Khan. The stories were mashed together and altered to accommodate characters like Margo Lane, and a new origin story for the Shadow as Lamont Cranston.

During World War 1, Lamont Cranston discovers an inner ferocity and blood lust that makes him a deadly fighter. As the war ends, he disappears in east Asia and becomes a warlord and opium kingpin. After committing countless atrocities as Ying Ko, the Black Eagle, Cranston is kidnapped by Marpa Tulku, a Buddhist priest who intends to reform Cranston and use his talents for good.

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Three years later, Cranston has returned to New York City. Reformed for good, he taps into his inner savagery to become the Shadow and fight crime. His time with the Tulku has imbued Cranston with the power of hypnosis, allowing him to influence the weak-minded and render himself invisible. After some time passes, Cranston encounters Shiwan Khan, another student of the Tulku, however Kahn was not reformed and after learning all he could, he murdered the Tulku. Now Kahn wants Cranston to become Ying Ko once more to help him conquer America, or die at the hands of a devastating new weapon, an Atomic Bomb.

Unfortunately, the film does not hold up very well due to a combination of stilted acting, poor writing and direction, dated effects, and an earthquake that destroyed an important set, forcing the filmmakers to hastily rewrite the climax. Most of the better actors are put in minor roles and the hammy script doesn’t give them much to work with.

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Alec Baldwin is a pretty good fit for Lamont Cranston. He plays the suave playboy well, while also giving the shadow an intimidating air. However, he feels hamstrung by the script, which often doesn’t seem to know what tone it’s going for.

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John Lone is the standout actor as Shiwan Khan. His performance is just over the top enough and he works well in the part. This has the side effect of highlighting how poorly the other actors are doing.

Much of the story progression is too rushed or just lazy. The Shadow does almost no real detective work. Usually he just happens to be in the same room as someone with important intel, and only once in the film do we see him interact with his network of agents. He doesn’t even discover the villain. Kahn just shows up in The Shadow’s hideout and challenges him. Overall the pacing is hurried and unsatisfying.

The tone also suffers. There’s lot of misplaced humor that takes you out of the serious scenes, but the movie really doesn’t know if it want’s to be dark or comedic. It’s clear that the writers were trying to split the difference between the dark novels and the lighter radio show, but they don’t really gel.

Universal had quite a bit riding on this one. They intended to make sequels, they produced a toy line, and set into production a video game, the very one that set me on this trail. Although it was never officially released, the game was nearly finished when it was scrapped and the ROM files eventually found their way online.

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Eager to add the game to my collection, I was able to order a physical reproduction cartridge that worked on my SNES console.

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Story:

The game’s story is a truncated version of the film’s story. The Shadow defends the streets of New York from crime, and now he is confronted with Shiwan Khan, a master criminal who holds the city hostage with an atom bomb.

There really isn’t much added besides the shadow’s presence at locations from the film he was not originally involved in like the New York Museum and the Empire State Building.

Gameplay:

Street Fight

The game is a side-scrolling beat-’em-up much in the style of games like Final Fight and Maximum Carnage. As you go through each stage, clusters of enemies will advance on you and you have to defeat them all before moving on. You can kick and punch your foes, but you can also use The Shadow’s hypnotic power for an edge. You have a quick dash attack, an area of effect attack, and the ability to become invisible to the enemies.

In just about each level, there will be a section where the shadow draws his pistols to take on other enemies with guns. This changes things up a bit as now the challenge is to get a good shot in on them while throwing off their aim.

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Now I have to be a little merciful to the gameplay, mainly because the game was unfinished and never released. There are some rather persistent bugs with the hit detection in this game. Very often, hits that should land won’t, and hits that shouldn’t land will. It can be rather frustrating especially when you find yourself on the receiving end of the abuse. Sometimes you’ll be wailing on an enemy and they will somehow get a tiny hit in that slowly drains your health. This isn’t helped by the fact that the game only gives you a few continues before it’s game over for good.

Despite this issue, it is still wholly possible to complete the game. There is just that extra little bit of frustration that may turn off players.

Presentation:

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The game’s presentation is actually quite good. The levels are varied and vibrant. The enemy line up is not terribly original, but it fits the period and the subject. You’ll fight gangsters, disgruntled sailors, mad scientists, and Khan’s Mongol warriors.

The animation is generally smooth, but there is one peculiar glitch where, for a single frame, enemies will turn into static. It’s brief, but occurs often, however, again, I’ll have to cut the game some slack. It didn’t exactly ship like this.

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The music is alright. None of it resembles Jerry Goldsmith’s film score, and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Le Rouet d’Omphale never makes an appearance, but for what it is the music is just fine. I never encountered any serious audio glitches.

Conclusion:

This entire experience has been fascinating. Finding an unreleased game in a random library book, discovering a largely forgotten super hero that inspired many of the modern classics, reading the pulps, listening to the shows, even watching the lack luster movies, it was very entertaining.
Although Universal scrapped the video game after the underwhelming performance of the film, I think that if it had been released it would have been favorably received. Sure it’s not an astounding game, but it was a fun beat-’em-up that had so much effort put in to it as it was that it’s a shame it never saw the light of day.

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