Developer: BlueSky Software
Platform: Sega Genesis
Genre: action RPG
I’m a sucker for obscure pen-and-paper role playing games. Unfortunately when I was younger there were people playing Dungeons & Dragons and nothing else. Little did I know so many better games awaited if I persisted far enough into the hobby. Shadowrun was one of those games, and I wouldn’t have heard about it if I didn’t stumble across a video game adaptation of it made for the Sega Genesis.
Although released in 1994 by BlueSky Software during the twilight years of the Genesis, I never saw this game in my childhood, even though I held onto my Genesis for dear life in its final days and was still playing it well past the turn of the millennia. Instead, I found it while I was trying to inhale every cool sounding Genesis title that I could find on ROM sites in my early teenage years. Prior to this, I was not familiar at all with cyberpunk culture, but as if by fate I stumbled upon Shadowrun, Beneath a Steel Sky, and Dreamweb all within a few months of each other, and that got me pretty hooked.
This game was the closest thing to an actual pen-and-paper role playing game released up until that point, and stays very true to the RPG regarding the system and the environment. If you’ve ever spent a weekend playing D&D with friends, you’re likely to think this game just feels as if you’re playing a pen-and-paper game.
In this game, you are the main character, Joshua. The overall mission is to figure out who killed your brother and why. However in order to do that, you must put yourself into the underbelly of Seattle by becoming a shadowrunner. A shadowrunner is a person hired by corporations, governments, or anyone by money to solve problems, usually through illegal means. “Runners” are deniable mercenaries, and they are always hired through middlemen known as Mr. Johnsons so whether they reach success or failure in a mission, nobody but the runner themselves will be held accountable. Missions will earn you Nuyen to buy better weapons and equipment, and Karma which will help you level up your stats and skills.
You have the choice of three classes when starting: Street Samurai, Decker (think a futuristic hacker), and Shaman. These class choices are largely useless. The magic user is the only distinct character class but Samurai/Decker can easily do the same things as each other, they just start with slightly different stats and starting equipment.
Starting out is when the game is the most boring. You are virtually confined into one area of the city forced to do many fetch quest missions and the occasional ghoul hunting quest (which is hard unless you start out as a Samurai and save money for an expensive weapon upgrade) in order to collect enough karma to upgrade your skills and to have money to afford decent gear and to hire other shadowrunners in order to stand a chance at surviving. It’s impossible to be at all useful to participate in the main story without making sharp upgrades at first and I really wish the game went at a more fluid pace.
You will get frequent opportunities to hire up to two other shadowrunners to accompany you for missions or as permanent hired mercenaries. The game can be done solo, but this takes longer to level up and it is a lot harder. I tried this the first time as a kid, and I was able to get more life out of the game. I wasn’t intending this at the time, I just was going through a phase where I hated AI controlled allies in games if I had the option to get them or not. In this last playthrough, I hired other shadowrunners as soon as I possibly could, and it really made the difference. Fights no longer become a dangerous possibility, even in the worst areas of the game world. Unfortunately this gave you a feeling of invincibility as a player. I praise the developers for what they did with the world, the mechanics, and their attempt to scale the difficulty in how they predicted the player would advance, but it feels easy to break the game at the mid portion of it. I’m reminded of playing Dungeons & Dragons, getting my character overpowered with insane gear, and the dungeon master not knowing how to provide a challenge appropriate test for me as I easily destroy wave after wave of his planned encounters.
Contacts are useful because they can do things like help hook you up with illegal items, gain you access to certain areas, or wipe your criminal record from Lone Star’s record. Contacts are optional, and are not required to beat the game. To obtain them, you have to talk to the right people, or pay for their contact information. This might sound a little hamfisted, but the opportunities are presented in such a way within the dialogue of the story that it feels completely natural and seamless during gameplay.
Random encounters really give this a classic pen-and paper RPG feel. Even games nowadays struggle with unique random encounters, and before you mention it, let’s be real, random battle encounters in turn-based RPGs do not count. I’m talking about encounters that you can’t simply press your attack option and mindlessly get through. Walking into combat is just one way you could get surprised in this world, but you also may find situations that could get you arrested, that could lead you to finding useful information, or being able earn quick nuyen (their form of currency) if you assess the situation properly. What will you do if you encounter a Lone Star (the city’s police force) patrol who want to do a stop and frisk when you know there’s a warrant out for your arrest? How will you handle a supposed escaped mental patient screaming that his caretakers want his blood, and the people trying to restrain him seem completely sketchy, but they are offering you money to assist them? These are some of the many situations you could come across. Moments like this in games are unheard of, most of what you will see are planned encounters that appear to happen randomly in other games. Only Elona is the only other game that comes to mind that truly had random encounters such as the ones you find in Shadowrun.
The ending was unfortunately rushed. Towards the start of the game it feels like you’re finding new clues at a reasonable pace, and once the story feels engrossing you realize that you’re at the end of it. You’re given way too much info too quickly at the end. This doesn’t ruin the game on a storytelling aspect, but it could have been paced much better. This potentially could have had to do with developmental timeframe restraints, but I suspect this had something to do with the limited memory capacity on the Genesis cartridge, which I believe was somewhere around the 4 MB mark.
Perhaps the game was too ambitious for a console game at the time. I’d like to think that this game would have been better suited on a PC release, the extra space a CD-ROM would have provided could have made the difference in taking Shadowrun from obscure hit to masterpiece. There have since been reboots of the series by other developers, and they themselves have been solid games in their own right, but still something has kept me coming back to this game. And yes, while it is limited and flawed in some ways, it’s ambitiousness to do what it did within the constraints of the platform it chose left us with a game that is undeniably enjoyable.
[image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18217702]