Raptor: Call of the Shadows, My Introduction to Gaming


A true legend of the scrolling shooter genre, Raptor: Call of the Shadows was one of the two first computer games that I had ever had the blessing of playing, along with Doom. Regardless of how the game may hold up today (as sublime as ever, in my humble opinion), through the eyes of my young self, who had no previous concept of computer games whatsoever, both it and Doom were utterly breathtaking.

The first computer we had in the United States, and the first one I ever used, was a magical yet now nameless artefact that I no longer possess any records of, save for a Windows 95 certificate of authenticity and a manual for the Spacewalker HOT-557 motherboard inside of it. Among other programs, this PC happened to come with demo versions of Doom and Raptor. This was in the mid-90s, at which time my main pursuits were reading books and watching the television (mostly cartoons and horror movies) for ungodly long amounts of time.

My father attempted to lure me over to the computer quite a few times in the hopes of having me learn how to use the new tool, but nothing took until I got a glimpse of the two fateful games, upon which his challenge instantly shifted towards attempting me to do something other than replaying them.

Back in the days when Raptor and Doom were becoming my world, my parents and I lived in a dingy apartment after having immigrated into the United States, and our financial situation was not remotely enviable. As such, it would be common for me to receive assorted toys and other items that were found at nearby dumpster by my father and family friends as gifts.

One of these presents was a raggedy red helmet, which I excitedly appropriated as a "pilot helmet" and ritualistically wore whenever I played Raptor. I even briefly developed a special interest in planes based solely on my enjoyment of Raptor. The game was just that much of an experience for me.

For anyone wondering, lamentably, I never did obtain a yellow helmet for my Commander Keen adventures.

Maintaining a player's attention can be an insurmountable task when a game has to share its computer with a competitor as legendary as Doom, but Raptor is truly that much of a spectacle to behold. Even today, I humbly think the graphics hold up as impressive. Back in the day, they seemed almost downright photo-realistic to me. The art is top-notch, the music is some of the most addicting I have ever encountered in a game, and the animations are incredibly fluid and pleasing to watch.

On top of everything else, there are even fantastically drawn cinematic animations that appear at the start of the game, when you beat an episode, and, rather uniquely, when you die. While most games are content to send you straight back into the fray (or a simple "game over" screen) when you kick the bucket, Raptor actually shows a relatively long cutscene of your plane going down in flames as the pilot sits mournfully in the cockpit lamenting their fate and morose music plays in the background. <screenshot> This absolutely blew my mind as a child, and I still think it's a very nice touch.

Another feature of Raptor that was quite unique, at least for the time, is that while it has absolutely no bearing on gameplay, the game actually lets you pick which gender you want to play as. At the start of the game, you are allowed to give your player a name and a call sign, as well as to choose their appearance based on four preset portraits, two of which are female. Although a male myself, I have played almost every single game of Raptor as the orange-haired woman because I thought she was the coolest looking option. <screenshot>

I've probably beaten the entire first episode of Raptor over 100 times alone. Certainly enough times that I know exactly what comes after what, and when, on every single level. Even what appears or doesn't appear on which difficulty setting. As such, there are a great many things that most would likely consider insignificant, but that have special personal value to me.

The plateau near the end of E1M2 for instance, is the first instance of elevated ground in the game, and appears on-screen at the exact moment when the background music reaches a "lighter", more grandiose tone. While the "elevated ground" is obviously just a drawing, to my child self who knew exactly nothing about computer games, this always felt like a highly impressive vista that never ceased to excite me when I saw it. <screenshot>

A consequence of spending such an excessive amount of time with Raptor is that I wound up inventing nicknames and stories for a great many of the enemies despite them never being presented as anything but nameless, faceless ships. Two that I remember are that the first new enemy on E1M4 was nicknamed "potato chip" because I thought its design resembled a tortilla or potato chip, <screenshot> and the ship on E1M2 was "the sad one" ("pechalniy", in Russian) because it was the only ship that appeared on the lower difficulty levels and I imagined it was depressed over this.

I also head-canoned (and still do) that the long, weapon-less ships in episode 1 are supposed to be airborne oil transport ships due to their size and the proliferation of oil refineries in the episode.

I am grateful for what an enthralling spectacle Raptor was for my child self, as I surely would never have had the patience to play it to the end if it did not captivate me as much as it did. For anyone who hasn't seen the rest of the website and isn't aware, I am autistic, and my dyspraxia was monumentally worse as a child than it is an adult. Among many other things, this made playing computer games extremely challenging for me until I eventually learned to adapt.

Despite being a master of the game now, for the longest time, I struggled to play Raptor even on the comically forgiving Training Mode difficulty, which limits the player to the first four levels of the game. I still vividly remember excitedly calling my cousin one fateful evening after I finally beat the boss on E1M4 and graduated from Training Mode, following a visit from him when he beat said boss in front of me and shared words of encouragement with me.

Boss fights were the bane of my Raptor existence for a long time because they were almost the only foes early on and on Training Mode/Rookie difficulties that could not be avoided with some nervous and clumsy side-stepping due to most bosses actively targeting the player instead of passively firing forward. My father even invented a term for the bosses because of my complaints and requests for assistance - "Bolshoi Dada" (Russian for "big guy") - because neither of us knew that the term "boss" existed for this phenomenon.

The active targeting behaviour of the bosses proved to be especially vexing when I first started playing Raptor. At this point I could barely avoid enemies at all and had to follow a helpful strategy my father devised on the spot, of hiding on the top right corner of the screen for the entire level, which, on Training Mode, happens to allow you to avoid nearly every single enemy. This worked almost flawlessly (there are a few collisions with enemy ships) until the Bolshoi Dada, who cannot be passively avoided and who will not go away without being killed, showed up.

I did wind up forging a close friendship with the buffoonish Bolshoi Dada on E1M2 however, as it is unique in not having a targeted firing mechanism and can be avoided until the heat death of the universe by simply lurking in the top right or left corner of the screen.

My Bolshoi Dada struggles were quite ironic in retrospect, seeing as most of Raptor's bosses are actually very underwhelming, featuring a very basic attack pattern that can be avoided by simply orbiting them and firing at them during intermissions between their attacks. A handful of notable exceptions do exist, notably the underground ambush boss in E1M5 and many bosses in episode 3, which are ground-based and composed of multiple components that all have their own attacks and must be destroyed independently of each other.

The criticism I would be most likely to slap Raptor with, if I had to, would be the truly lamentable lack of viable options in terms of weapons. Although the game's arsenal seems quite rich upon first glance, closer examination reveals that there are only a small handful of weapons that are at all worth using. Very few weapons can actually be looted in a level, and most are only available via purchasing. This is problematic, because weapons are sold for half the cost that they are bought at, meaning that the game encourages the player to save money and tolerate weaker armaments until they can splurge on something powerful.

In spite of how much the descriptions of the other weapons may hype them up, the mighty Twin Laser is realistically the only viable weapon in the game by the time the player starts advancing into episode 3. The closest weapon to it, the Death Ray, is quite literally less than half as powerful, and only has a small fraction of its attack radius.

Due to the exorbitant cost of the Twin Laser and the machinations of the bartering system, any player that attempts to slowly move up the ranks and upgrade their weapons by purchasing the next most powerful or expensive one whenever possible, will quickly wind up destitute and completely ineffectual against enemy ships that have leveled up far more quickly than the player's financial habits have allowed them to.

The tragedy is ultimately that there are actually some interesting guns that can be purchased, including two auto-targeting cannons and a weapon that fires projectiles that briefly disable the firing mechanisms of enemy ships, but they are so pitifully weak that they are essentially useless outside of the early stages of the game (during which you may not even be able to afford them!)

What adds even more insult to injury is the fact that every single weapon that you need in order to beat the game, aside from the Twin Laser and the Pulse Cannon (an expensive yet necessary weapon that is easily the best choice until you can afford the Twin Laser), is given to you for free by the game. The Air/Air Missiles you receive in the very first mission are more than enough to tide you over until you can buy the Pulse Cannon, and the Air/Ground Missiles you receive in E1M3 are pound-for-pound the best weapon in the game for taking out the pesky ground targets that most weapons will ignore.

Speaking of free weapons, there is a hidden and unintentional benefit to the items that Raptor allows you to collect in some of the levels. The way the game works is that you can cancel any mission while playing it, provided that you are still alive, but you retain whatever level of health you have at that moment, you do not keep any of the money you earned while playing the level, and you are forced to start the level completely anew when you return.

This can be unfortunate for obvious reasons if you do not have a saved game handy, especially since you lose some or all of your weapons after incurring very severe damage, but it also means that you get to keep any weapons or non-monentary items that you collected while on the level.

In the shareware version, the main use for this is in farming the unwieldy yet expensive Dumb-Fire Missiles near the start of E1M6 for quick cash, but the registered version allows for an equally useful and lolworthy use for this exploit. Two levels happen to have a free Phase Shield, essentially a backup health bar, early on in the level that can be collected endlessly.

These can be bought in the game shop in-between missions, but you are limited to only having a maximum of five at a time using that method. For whatever reason, this limit does not apply to Phase Shields that you pick up on levels, and they are instead counted against the maximum number of items you can have on your ship (~19), which includes typical weapons, Phase Shields, Mega Bombs, and anything else. This allows for the acquisition of enough Phase Shields to almost make playing as a kamikaze a viable option, at least for a time. <screenshot>

One thing that Raptor undeniably deserves credit for is the fantastic assortment of easter eggs that it has hidden beneath its surface. Raptor essentially features an entire secret game mode that can only be accessed via loading the game on a select few days of the year, or through pressing a series of switches before loading up a level. The dates correspond to birthdays of members of Raptor's development team (12 March for Bobby Prince, 16 May for programmer Scott Host, 28 August for artist Rich Fleider, and 2 October for level designer Jim Molinets).

Loading Raptor on any of these dates causes the Apogee theme jingle to be replaced with a recording of the developers attempting to do a goofy rendition of the tune by singing it. Furthermore, most (although not all) levels of the game inexplicably feature additional enemy types that are normally nonexistent. These include monkeys that hurl coconuts at the ship and feature drunken voice acting by the game's developers <screenshot>, to giant cows that fire missiles and lasers <screenshot>, to ludicrously overpowered alien spacecraft in episode 3 <screenshot>.

Most of the new enemies are unusually challenging, enough that this mode could be considered a hidden difficulty level if the enemies weren't rather rare. The alien spacecraft in episode 3 alone are easily the toughest non-boss enemies in the entire game. However, a few of the enemies are actually completely innocuous. There are velociraptors that harmlessly march across the screen <screenshot> (more than likely a pun on the game's name, considering Apogee itself advertised Raptor by clarifying that it's not another dinosaur game), pedestrians that inexplicably explode when killed <screenshot>, and in the city level of episode 2 (E2M4) a woman sunbathing on top of a rooftop <screenshot>.

Interestingly, the game vaguely foreshadows this lunacy by telling you to "watch out for the Battle Cow!" in the hints section, although there are no other mentions of it to clarify this confusing warning, and the player is left to stumble into it by chance. I do wonder how many players had their first experience with the game in this bizarre mode due to first loading the game on the wrong (or right, one could argue) day.

As mentioned earlier, the oddball enemies can also be unlocked by pushing some buttons on the "episode selector" screen that you are presented prior to going on a mission. There are a number of interactible buttons at the bottom of the screen that do not seem to serve any purpose but that can be pressed. <screenshot>

Pressing down on the cyan button in the middle to darken it, and then either pressing the three switches next to it or pressing the first and last switches (depending on the version of the game) will cause the level that the player enters to be populated with the hidden denizens of Raptor as if they launched the game on one of the special days. I am not at all ashamed to say that I was bored enough to discover this on my own as a child.

There is one mystery in Raptor that I am not sure was ever solved. Although the game's plot is intentionally very bare bones (essentially that you are a mercenary working for an organisation known as the "MegaCorps", destroying their enemies for profit), the congratulatory text at the end of the first episode specifically heralds you for destroying the oil rig of one Lithos Petroleum. There is no other mention of this individual in the game or what he did to deserve the MegaCorp's ire, and I have never been able to find any official literature online addressing this.

The obvious answer to this enigma is that Petroleum is/was the leader of an enemy corporation, yet I find it interesting that he was given a full name, an honour that eluded even the unknown masters of the space station you destroy at the very end of the game. Even after over two decades of first seeing the mention of him, I would be interested in finding out if there was a "deeper" plot revolving around Mr. Petroleum that was ultimately cut out of the final game due to being deemed unnecessary.

Another area that Raptor undeniably deserves praise for is the quality of the registered version relative to the shareware one. Having spent years endlessly replaying demo versions of many of my favourite games before I had access to the full versions, I was disappointed with a number of them after noticing that the shareware version completely outshined the full game.

This shouldn't have been as surprising as it was to me, considering it made perfect financial sense for developers to do their utmost best for the portion of the game that everyone saw prior to paying anything, no different from how people will put more effort into their appearance and behaviour on a first date with someone than when they're sitting on the couch eating pork rinds and watching a b-movie with them 10 years into the marriage.

Unlike so many of its colleagues, Raptor delightfully bucks this trend however. While the shareware episode is largely a bunch of barren deserts and seas with occasional landmarks such as a nuclear reactor and a massive oil rig, episode 2 is a colourful romp across the entire world, featuring rich farmlands <screenshot>, thick jungles dotted with ancient temples <screenshot>, and an entire city. Episode 3 follows up with a trip across the solar system, including Mars, the light and dark sides of the Moon, a volcano-riddled alien planet/moon <screenshot>, and the inside of a monolithic space station.

This is where I should add that the dark side of the Moon really is dark. Another one of the cool features in Raptor is the two night levels that occur in the registered version, the other one being a second city level in episode 2. These feature unique background music and a unique night time palette. The overwhelming blackness of these two levels could easily have gotten stale and perhaps a little aggravating if there were more of them, but as it is, they are a very welcome change of pace. <screenshot>

For anyone interested in taking Raptor for a spin, I highly recommend seeking out the original DOS version instead of the Windows version that is commonly offered by GOG and other vendors. The reason for this is that the newer, non-DOS iterations of the game feature a crippling bug that severely slows down the player's mobility, at least when using the keyboard.

This is completely unintentional behaviour that makes the game vastly more difficult to beat, if not outright impossible. Some people may certainly be content to play the game using the mouse, but for me, I did not even know that such a thing was possible for many years, and am far too used to using the keyboard to have any desire to change.

In closing, I want to add that I have been lectured many times on how Raptor is supposedly lacking in terms of gameplay and features compared to its competitors, namely Tyrian and Raptor's pseudo-sequel Demonstar. Much like with Wacky Wheels however, none of these arguments will ever sway me from my decades-long adoration for the game. While I certainly consider it an extremely high quality game that everyone should play at least once, Raptor is also a sublime comfort food for me. A reminder of an incomparably more innocent and blissful period, both in my personal life and in the computing world.

All melancholic personal anecdotes that are unbefitting of an article such as this aside, it astounds me that I can go on Steam today and find myself facing an onslaught of advertisements for a seemingly infinite cornucopia of diverse computer games, yet find no real interest in perusing any of them. Yet, back then, in the bygone golden age of gaming, I could find endless satisfaction in a comparatively meager nine level shareware episode. Continually discovering new aspects of the game to amuse myself with, from amusingly-shaped enemy planes to comically overpowered monkeys that were lying in wait to punish me for my curiousity about the episode screen switches.

Perhaps it's just rose-tinted glasses speaking, but having given the entirety of Raptor yet another replay while in the process of writing this article, I still humbly chalk it up to the timeless quality of the game. For a game about wreaking senseless death and destruction in the name of some faceless corporation, there is a certain irresistably comfortable and homely quality of Raptor that always lifts my mood whenever I play it. For me, the endless firebombing in Raptor has always felt less like a horrific military campaign, and more akin to the comfort of a fireplace in the dead of the winter.


Many thank yous to ShadowM00n for his eagle-eyed proof-reading. A great many thanks to Mr. Alec Lownes for providing the CSS behind the CRT effects in this section, and to Mr. Zeh Fernando and LÆMEUR for the More Perfect DOS VGA font!!