When I was 13 I went on a camping trip with my family. I noticed that my older brother was taking a break from his usual Star Trek or Star Wars or D&D novels, and was instead making his way through a Shadowrun book titled “Never Deal with a Dragon.”
Being the inveterate, inquisitive pesterer that I am, I asked him about the book… and he begrudgingly opened my eyes to the world of Shadowrun.
Seems Shadowrun was set in a crazy, impossible near-future where megacorporations ruled the world and had their own private armies. A place where a person could log (“jack”) in to a computer terminal and digitally access remote servers located across the globe. A place where specialized pilots controlled drones that were capable of mounting deadly weapons and killing people across vast distances. A place where cybernetic limbs were a reality, and self-driven cars ferried underpaid workers to their jobs, where they worked as virtual slaves to their employers. A place where, following the 2012 Mayan apocalypse, magic had been awakened, which resulted in a large number of people turning into metahumans like elves and orks, right before countless governments fell following a deadly plague named VITAS, which swept across the globe and killed billions.
Okay. Maybe it didn’t get everything right… but Shadowrun did better than Star Trek. Pshhh. Eugenics Wars. That’s just silly.
Unfortunately, I barely played Shadowrun as a tabletop game, which still bums me out to this day. My brothers were D&D guys, and my friends did not share my passion for such nerdy things. The closest I ever got to playing Shadowrun was an ill-fated attempt to play by email with people I met online (in a Prodigy BBS), and a single night where my regular D&D group “tried the game out.” They didn’t like it.
So I had to settle for the video games. Which is what I want to talk about today.
The first eponymous video game was released for the Super Nintendo game system in 1993, by an Australian company named Beam Software. Beam Software was responsible for creating the Back to the Future trilogy on the NES, which would become eventual Angry Video Game Nerd fodder.
Shadowrun won several awards for “Best RPG of the Year.” The vaunted, completely neutral magazine Nintendo Power called it “one of the best sci-fi games ever.” In 2011 it was listed in the top 100 SNES games by IGN magazine, and in 2009 it was ranked at #125 in Game Informer’s “top 200 games of all time” list.
I think it’s fair to say that the game is considered an under-appreciated gem.
Me? I didn’t like it. Never did… even when I first played it 20 years ago. I mean, I finished it, and I even started a second game. But I never really enjoyed it.
It was an interesting game, sure. There was a fairly deep film noir murder-mystery storyline that was relatively interesting. The combat was simplistic, but challenging enough. There were some role-playing elements, though character progression was quite rudimentary.
But the biggest problem with that game was that it didn’t feel like a Shadowrun game. This is because it was missing one important thing — there was no shadowrunning. There were no Mr. Johnsons, very little corporate intrigue, and no set teams of shadowrunners working together to complete an objective assigned by a morally ambiguous entity. The SNES Shadowrun was basically a point-and-click adventure with some real-time combat and RPG elements, set in the Shadowrun universe (though the story could have easily been told in any dystopian near-future setting). It used all of the jargon, it had all of the technology, and there were elves and dwarves and crap… but the heart of what made it “Shadowrun” was missing.
It’d be like making a Star Wars game focused on city building, or a Star Trek first-person shooter game. If your game company acquires a cool license, it’d behoove you to create a game focused on the aspects of that universe that interest people. People did not play a Shadowrun game to find out who shot ya’. They played to take down THE MAN and FIGHT THE POWER, goddammit. Shadowrun without the run is just Shadow. And no one likes shadow. Case closed.
Switching consoles to the Sega Genesis brings us another eponymous Shadowrun game, this one created by BlueSky Software. The legacy of BlueSky Software is a bit rosier than that of Beam Software, having created the classics Vectorman and Starflight before going out of business in 2001 after parent company Interplay Entertainment imploded.
Rather than using a “you wake up with amnesia” trope, the Genesis Shadowrun story is a simple fratrimonial revenge quest. Following in the footsteps of your recently-murdered brother, you find work as a shadowrunner in the outskirts of Seattle to find his killers, and make a boatload of Nuyen, chummer.
The Genesis version was a good early example of an “open world” console RPG game. There was a main quest, and then there was a crapload of side quests, exploration, diversions, and straight-up grinding. For example, just be prepared to kill a million goddamn ghouls in the early game, where the strategy is the wonderfully complicated “fire, fire, fire, run away, fire, fire, fire, run away, reload, run away, et cetera.” As with all modern open world games, you were not given any time limit to complete the main quest, though progressing along the main storyline did open up new areas and contacts.
Shadowrunning is the heart of the game, as it should be. When you’ve saved enough Nuyen you can hire other shadowrunners, and they join your party. With your team in place you can upgrade everyone’s stats and equipment and level up as a team. It’s what everyone wants in an RPG, but what was missing in the SNES version.
One thing lacking is memorable characters and a compelling story. Your character is pretty much a blank, the main quest is pretty forgettable, and after a while the runs start to get repetitive. But early on, making runs against huge megacorporations in randomly-generated rogue-like sequences is properly thrilling. The character progression is varied enough that multiple play-throughs are likely (I’ve probably played through the game 4 times in my life, which is a pretty high number for me).
After these two games came out there were a few decades of silence. Shadowrun seemed to be one of those awesome, futuristic late-80s-early-90s video game worlds that became less cool over time (like Battletech, Fallout, Blood Bowl, Warhammer 40k, and X-COM). But there is a point in everyone’s life where the things they liked as a kid are suddenly reintroduced, because the adults in search of a quick nostalgia fix suddenly have money to spend.
This latest 20-year nostalgia cycle brought us reboots of many iconic games from my teen years (like Battletech, Fallout, Blood Bowl, Warhammer 40k, and XCOM), as well as another Shadowrun game: Shadowrun Returns. I decided to try the game out in my iPad, because I’m a dad, I own an iPad, and I spend money on video games.
Developed by the company Harebrained Schemes, and partially funded by a kickstarter campaign, Shadowrun Returns sets out to re-introduce the Shadowrun universe to the real world. The kickstarter page mentioned the SNES game, but didn’t really say much about the Sega Genesis game.
I’m now about, oh, say, 10 hours into the iPad version of the game, which means that I’m about 3/4 of the way through the game. But in fairness, I haven’t finished it yet, meaning this is technically just a “first impression.”
And my first-first impression? Wow. There is a lot of reading. Like… a lot. Like… way more than there should be. I’m a person who loves words, as the current word count of this article can attest. But those words have to mean something. In video games (and especially RPGs), that’s rarely true. For example, here’s a screenshot from early in the game:
Look, I love descriptive text as much as the next guy, but Jesus Christ this is a video game. Emphasis on the word video. Don’t tell me what the cute bartender looks like. Show me! I’ll believe anything, master!
In the kickstarter, much was made about the “deep, interactive stories” that were going to be the focal point of the game. Indeed, though I’m not quite finished, it seems a lot of love was put into the story and characters. They got the “deep” part, but I think the developers totally whiffed on the “interactive” part. The crucial difference between a video game and a book is the ability of impact and alter the world that you’re inhabiting, and to do it in a way that is unique with each play-through of the game, so you’ll want to play multiple times.
The Genesis version had a crap-load of replay value, because you could hire different runners, your character could assume different roles (shaman, decker, street samurai), and during your play-through you could be a little white knight, or a total thieving, murdering bastard. There was the feeling that you were in an enormous virtual sandbox, with places to explore, people to meet, and prestige to gain.
The SNES version did not have that same open feel. You could hire other runners, sure, but they did not stay with you permanently. Your character was also kind of a jack-of-all-trades, with spells, cyberware, and hacking skills. The story was very linear, with very little in the way of side quests. Once the game was done I didn’t really feel like going back and playing again.
Shadowrun Returns is, unfortunately, more similar to the the SNES version. For example, my character is unable to hire runners permanently (they’re only available run-to-run), which is a big problem for replay value. As it stands there is a stable of runners that my character has access to, and they seem to gain skills independent, though concurrent, with my own character. This means the feeling of having a “party” of adventurers is completely lost, which is kind of a big deal in an RPG.
In the Kickstarter, there was also some love lavished on the “innovative” keyword dialogue from the SNES version. I may be alone in this, but I find systems like that supremely annoying. Inevitably I find myself just scanning the reams and reams of text to get to the one word that I’m supposed to say so the story can progress. With each conversation consists of, basically, three options for responses: the “nice guy pussy” response, the “strictly business” response, and the “I’m a total asshole” response. So far in my play-through I’ve been as much of an asshole as possible during the dialogue screens, but it has not made the slightest dent in any of my relationships. Each conversation is linear, because the game is linear. This means that screwing up a single important conversation could have game-ending consequences, which the designers were forced to avoid, naturally.
I thought this kind of “dialogue actually affects gameplay” thing was fixed after games like Fallout 2 and Ultima VII were released in the early 90s. I guess these guys missed those titles.
But perhaps the biggest sin of this game is, again, the absence of actual “Shadowrunning.” Sure, there’s a single Mr. Johnson who gives you a single optional side quest that resembles an “extraction” shadowrun. But that’s it. I mean… that’s just terrible. The developers released level editors so fans can create their own quests, but that won’t fix the absence of a real “open world,” where various Mr. Johnson characters offer various runs against various entities as your team of Shadowrunners gains experience, prestige, and sweet sweet Nuyen. That experience was available in the 20-year-old Genesis title, but it’s not available in Shadowrun Returns.
So what does that game get right? Well, the story is interesting. The combat mechanics are fairly fun, and I love the fact that combat is turn-based. There’s a nice cover feature, though it’s not as smooth or well-executed as the system in XCOM: Enemy Unknown (likely something to do with the budget for each title, I’m guessing). I also like what they did with riggers, which is a generally underrepresented class.
I just get the feeling that Harebrained Schemes remade the wrong game. They started with a big dollop of the SNES Shadowrun, mixed in a bunch of Fallout Tactics and Fallout 2, then added a bit of Baldur’s Gate and Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind for good measure. It does not feel like a modern title. It does not feel like an open world. It is not the game I wanted.
Here are the features from the tabletop game that I really want to see in a Shadowrun video game:
I guess, as is the case with every video game based on a tabletop game, you’re never going to get everything you want. I’m going to have to live with that, I guess. But the Genesis Shadowrun game comes closest, even including the vaunted dzoo-noo-qua. Maybe the upcoming Shadowrun Online will have more, though I wouldn’t hold my breath… especially when the main page for the game features this typo in the opening paragraph: “And never,ever, cut a deal with a dragon.” Or use a space after a comma,apparently.
If you’re truly interested in a fun, addictive, compelling game in the Shadowrun universe, then do yourself a favor and locate a copy of the Sega Genesis game. It is the true under-appreciated gem of the Shadowrun universe.
And yes, I’m aware of the Games for Windows Shadowrun game. I have given it the exact location and amount of article space that it deserves.