Shadowrun (Genesis)

Grade: B+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 23rd

Publisher: Sega

Year: 1994

Genre: Cyber-Grunge

In 1994, the internet wasn’t anything like it is now. I know that sounds like an obvious statement that probably got the older readers of this site thinking about guestbooks, frames, embedded midi files and little notices indicating that the page you’re visiting looks best when viewed in Netscape Navigator in 800×600 resolution. Maybe a few of you even got nostalgic and opened up a new tab to Lycos or WebCrawler (yes, they both still exist) so that you could browse the internet of yesteryear, under the mistaken impression that using an outdated search engine somehow magically turns back the clock on all the websites that it links you to.

X-rated website, circa 1994.

But even that really describes the internet as we knew it a few years later, around 1997 or so. For all but the most tech-savvy of us, going online in 1994 pretty much just meant logging on to America Online, browsing a few chat rooms, and maybe checking out some of AoL’s own online content. There was a “Go to the Web” button tucked away in the corner that most of us didn’t click on, and the ones who did generally came upon an incomprehensible mess, without much to see. The early internet is often compared to the Wild West, implying that it was unorganized and lawless. But this was more like the West in a different sense – a vast wilderness that only an expert could navigate, with miles of empty space and only a few tiny settlements scattered here and there.

In a way, this was the perfect time for a game about futuristic computer hackers like Shadowrun to come out, because the internet was an almost blank canvas with unlimited potential. Games could come up with any kind of interpretation of what it would look like and they all seemed plausible. For example, let’s take a look at Shadowrun’s cover art:

Kind of an exciting scene here, as the two heavily armed team members try to protect the other as he jacks into the network of whatever entity they’re trying to raid. Still, it raises the question, why are they doing such a dangerous operation out in the open like this? Because in the world of Shadowrun, you connect to the internet via payphone. So to carry out a cybercrime, you first have to go to a public phone on the street, plug your brain into it (because apparently they have THAT technology, but not the iPhone) and start hacking. In the mid-nineties, this still seemed totally plausible.

This isn’t a commentary on the “realism” of Shadowrun, a fantasy game (based on a pen and paper RPG that had come out 5 years previously) that takes place in a future where corporations rule the world, and elves, orcs and dwarves walk among us. Rather, it’s just interesting to see what forms of technology the people who invented Shadowrun imagined for our future, and consider that for the original game to have become popular enough to make a video game about, a lot of people must have found it at least somewhat believable. That’s a big part of the appeal of sci-fi – it’s a glimpse into the world that could be. And now, almost 20 years after the Genesis game came out, it’s fun to see which of these technological innovations actually did happen, could still happen, or seem hopelessly dated.

In the world of Shadowrun, the key to success is having a good Johnson.

Interestingly, it’s not always the stuff you think it will be. For example, in the game, you communicate with everyone by phone, and when you make a new contact, it’s done by obtaining their phone number. Of course, these days we have email and social networks for those kinds of things, so the idea of doing it all by phone seems silly. Especially the idea of doing it on a payphone, when even little kids have cell phones these days. On the other hand, one of the defining characteristics of Shadowrun is that magic exists, having been discovered in the near future. And while I think it’s safe to say that such a thing is extremely unlikely to ever happen, we only feel that way because it hasn’t happened yet – there’s nothing out there actively preventing it from occurring.

In other words, it’s slightly more likely that scientists will discover magic someday than it is for people to go back to using payphones.

As for the game itself, Shadowrun is an action/RPG set in the future. Also, Seattle. Although, having been to Seattle a few times in real life, it already seems like the future there. Or maybe that’s just because my hometown of Buffalo is so behind the times everywhere else feels futuristic… That could be our new tourism campaign – Remember how much fun the 80s were? Well, come to Buffalo, where it’s still the 80s, every day. 100 years from now, Buffalo will still feel like the 1980s, and we can turn the city into a theme park, like Colonial Williamsburg, except with more fringe-lined jean jackets.

Anyway, Shadowrun is an action RPG, although it might be more accurate to say that it’s really a pure role-playing game that just happens to disguised very convincingly as an action game, not unlike, say, Baldur’s Gate. The game mechanics are pure RPG, but because there are no separate battle screens, or menus to pick your attacks off of, and you retain control of your character and can move around throughout combat, it feels very much like an overhead shooter. It might be hard to imagine what a big deal this was, so I’ll just come out and say it – this was goddamn revolutionary in the 16 bit era. No RPG had ever pulled off its gameplay so seamlessly, and it would be several years before anyone else even came close. It’s only been during the current console generation that this has started to really become mainstream. When I criticize some critically-beloved, all-time great RPG for having terrible gameplay due to a half-assed, menu-driven combat system that involves picking “fight” off a menu over and over, what I’m really saying is that it should have been more like Shadowrun.

Shadowrun is also a non-linear game, allowing you to explore where you want and do some parts of the story in the order that you choose. This was still pretty uncommon at the time, but what’s really unique about it in Shadowrun is that it’s absolutely essential to the way the game is played. Even some of the most famous open-world style games, like Grand Theft Auto or Fallout 3 could still kind of work if they were completely linear – they’d be much less fun, sure, but they’d still work. Not so with Shadowrun, because Shadowrun is all about trying to solve a mystery, and this requires you to explore, figure stuff out for yourself, and take on odd jobs to earn the money to get the access or contacts it will take to find your next clue. Playing Shadowrun makes you realize that games where the story is purely mission-driven (such as GTA) are wasting a fair amount of the potential this kind of structure offers them.

Contacts can provide you with leads, but rarely spell everything out for you.

In fact, I can’t really think of any recent games that follow Shadowrun’s approach to non-linear gameplay. The best comparison I can make is the the old PC Adventure games like King’s Quest. Today’s games give you the main quest broken out into step-by-step directions, with a little note telling you what you need to do and often times a marker on your map showing exactly where to go. Shadowrun doesn’t work like that. Instead, you have things you need to accomplish, and you might have a few clues as to how to do it. For instance, you might meet an important contact, and he’ll offer to help you, but not until you take care of something for him, or bring him some hard to obtain item. But – and here’s the big difference from newer games – that contact doesn’t tell you HOW to complete the task or obtain the item. You’ll have to figure that part on your own. It makes more sense this way. After all, if the guy knew how to get the thing he’s sending you after, he’d just do it himself instead of paying you.

Compare this to a Grand Theft Auto game, where the person giving you a mission typically has the entire job plotted out to the last detail, gives you any equipment you may need, and was even kind enough to put a tracking device on your target so you can watch it in your GPS (even if it’s the 1980s, or the Wild West, and there is no such thing as GPS yet). Or Fallout: New Vegas, where not only do the leaders have the whole mission planned out for you, but they also have hundreds of soldiers at their command that they could easily send instead of some outsider. In Shadowrun, people are having you do jobs for them because they can’t do them themselves. In most other games, they don’t seem to be sending you for any reason other than to advance the plot of the game. It’s like “Oh hey, could you do this for me? I’d take care of it myself, but there’s a Law and Order marathon on USA that I really want to watch.” This is the difference between having an actual adventure (Shadowrun), or running errands for your Mom (most other open-world games).

I just have a weird feeling that if I went into a seedy Seattle bar and said I was looking for a Johnson, I’d end up on an entirely different kind of “escort mission”.

Availability: A combination of coming out fairly late in the life of the Genesis, and being a game with a cult following but lacking mainstream appeal, has led to Shadowrun being a somewhat rare game today. There was a remake for the Xbox 360 a few years ago, but it has little  in common with this one. Even searching online, we only found a few copies of the game up for sale. A nice, complete version will probably set you back $15-20, and even a cartridge-only one won’t cost much less. That’s more expensive than many of the other games in our Top 50, but given the uniqueness of Shadowrun, along with the fact that it’s a long, entertaining game, that’s not too surprising. Just watch out for the guys trying to pass it off as a $40 game, as there are better deals out there.


Sunset Riders

Grade: B+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 24th

Publisher: Konami

Year: 1992

Genre: Cowboy

At first glance, Sunset Riders appears to be the story of Billy and Cormano, two flamboyantly dressed cowboys who live in the worst town in the world. All the men are trying to kill them, herds of cattle stampede through the main street constantly, and the only woman who isn’t a prostitute is constantly being kidnapped. It’s the kind of place where a guy will just run out of a tavern and throw a stick of dynamite at you for no reason, and should you survive that, he’ll whip out a knife and try carving his initials into your face.

In other words, it’s the 1800s equivalent of modern-day Detroit.

This seems like a lot of well-organized, heavily-armed resistance, so it got us wondering – why all the hostility? Our first theory was that they saw Cormano’s pink shirt, assumed the two protagonists were gay (calling themselves the Sunset Riders probably doesn’t help), and started attacking them. We’re assuming a hyper-violent Old West town probably wouldn’t be all that progressive on gay issues, such as the right of homosexuals to not be stabbed. This could have made Sunset Riders a pretty interesting narrative – the struggle of a gay couple’s quite literal battle against intolerance and bigotry.  However, this seems unlikely considering most of the guys attacking you are also dressed in bright pastel colors, so they’d be unlikely to draw such an assumption; and even if they had, it probably would have been put into doubt after the tenth or so time that Cormano ran off in the middle of a heated gun fight to jump into the arms of a whore.

Festive clothing and violence rarely come together like this outside of Mardi Gras.

So if it’s not the most obvious explanation – a bunch of heavily armed homophobes misinterpreting a fashion statement – then what is it? Having started life as an arcade game, Sunset Riders doesn’t offer much in the way of story. Stages alternate between rescuing kidnapped women and fighting guys seen on reward posters at the beginning of the stage, neither of which seems like it should provoke an entire town to rise up against you. In fact, criminal gangs usually don’t work together, so about the only time you ever see a united front like this in old Westerns is when the townsfolk finally get brave and join together to stand up to the bad guys… Hey, wait a second…

Sunset Riders actually makes a lot more sense if you think of the two main characters not as justice-seeking bounty hunters, but rather as dangerous outlaws on a criminal rampage. Not only does it explain why everyone seems to be joining forces to against you, but it also gives us a more believable idea of what’s going on in each stage. Let’s take a look:

Level 1 – This is an assault on a small town combined with a bank robbery (the target of the first reward poster is an allegedly greedy banker). The townsfolk have been warned of your approach, and the bravest men have stayed behind to defend their homes from you. At one point, they even rile their cattle up to stampede through town in a desperate attempt to stop your attack.

Actually, they did stumble upon another more effective way of slowing you down.

Level 2 –Starting at the back of a train, you fight your way through waves of enemies and work your way toward the front. Eventually you fight your way to the lead car, and kill the engineer, taking the train for yourself. This is generally interpreted as you trying to prevent a train robbery, but that theory really only holds up if you believe a gang of train robbers would number in the hundreds, and that they are trying to steal the actual train instead of just its valuables. You have to admit that the guy who sneaked onto the back of a train and then shot every single person he came across seems more likely to be the robber.

Level 3 – You rampage through an Indian village and kill their chief. Really, that’s it. Given that this game came out in 1992, and not 1870, it’s hard to imagine how this level was ever compatible with the assumption that you were playing as the “good guys”.

Although it’s equally surprising they got away with this, too.

Level 4 – No longer satisfied with small time jobs, you stage a bold home invasion of Sir Richard Rose’s heavily guarded mansion. After slaughtering his private security force, you murder him in his own home and take his money. The only justification the game gives for this behavior is to portray him as a British Aristocrat, which apparently we’re supposed to assume was a crime in the Old West. Also, considering that in the previous level, you laid waste to an Indian village for no apparent reason, and that the boss of the second level was Mexican, it would seem that the game has taken a rather disturbing turn towards xenophobia in its second half.

“But wait,” you’re saying “those guys you killed were on wanted posters! That means they were criminals.” Well, technically, they’re not on wanted posters, they’re on reward posters. There’s no indication of any crimes that they’re wanted for, or reason to believe that the person/organization offering these rewards has anything to do with law enforcement at all. You could just as easily be a couple of freelance hitmen. Not all bounty hunters are the side of the law, after all – don’t forget that the most famous one of all time worked for Jabba the Hutt.

Ok, but what about the girl you rescue on the first stage of every level? Surely, anyone who’s willing to take out a bunch of heavily armed men guarding a tied up woman can’t be a villain, right? Sure, unless these aren’t rescue missions but rather jailbreaks. Rather than a perpetual kidnapping victim, she’s actually the third member of your gang. This is proven during the bonus stages, when she assists you in robbing a stagecoach:

Jesus Christ, Cormano! Where did you even find a pink horse?

Having her get caught every level might even be part of the strategy – a way to get a person on the inside. She gets captured, the Sunset Riders observe and watch where she is taken, and then they know where their next target is. Or she just might get caught a lot. You do have to admit that their scheme of having her hide inside a covered wagon and throw the valuables out the back to the trailing Riders doesn’t offer a lot of good exit strategies.

Gameplay-wise, Sunset Riders is basically Contra set in the Old West and with the difficulty scaled back a bit, which is to say that the game is kind of possible. Unlike Contra: Hard Corps, the emphasis is less on boss fights and more on stages where you move left to right while hundreds of henchmen take potshots at you. We’ve seen hundreds of these games before, and Sunset Riders doesn’t really add much innovation to the mix, but the execution is where it shines. The game might not be doing anything new, but it’s doing the same old thing a lot better than just about anyone else has done.

Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize you were the Billy Cool. You keep on rocking that purple hat, sir.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a great run-n-gun game like this came from Konami, who were the kings of this genre back then. Where Sunset Riders excels compared to most of their other games is in pacing and difficulty. Most of the platforming elements are taken out, leaving the focus on shooting and dodging without having to worry about jumping over gaps very often. Weapon power-ups are frequent, eliminating the negative feedback loop that often occurs in games of this type where you die, lose your powerups for the rest of the stage, and then are severely handicapped and end up dying again. The game is challenging, but not nearly as tough as many other shooters, resulting in an experience that keeps you on your toes but generally doesn’t feel impossible or unfair. It never approaches the blistering pace of the Contra (then again, what does?), but the whole thing feels fluid thanks to tight control and level designs that minimize obstacles in favor of keeping you moving from one swarm of hot lead to the next.

Everything I know about physics says that these guys probably shouldn’t be able to shoot at each other right now.

Unfortunately, by the time Sunset Riders was released, the run-n-gun genre was already losing popularity among gamers, who were looking for more sophisticated thrills than simply going left to right and mowing down everything in your path. Video games have always evolved along a path of becoming more complex and involved, but the 16-bit days were around the time where this march toward complexity passed this genre by. Games like Sunset Riders thrive on being straightforward and stripped of extraneous elements, and there comes a point where you can’t add much more to these games without changing them completely. As a result, gamers started to see shooters as simplistic, repetitive, and not all that different from each other. The same thing happened to beat ‘em ups around the same time – both genres essentially reached evolutionary dead ends during the Genesis era.

Instead of a dead end, however, I like to think that each of these genres reached sort of an evolutionary perfection. That’s not to say that Sunset Riders, or any other shooter for that matter, is a perfect game, but rather that the genre reached a point where it couldn’t be drastically improved. Tweaks could be made here or there, but all the major improvements were already made. A big part of why this game is still fun after almost two decades is because nobody has, or will, make another one like it that’s significantly better.

This is what happens when you don’t coordinate your Village People tributes properly – four guys all come as the Indian, and you end up without any cops or construction workers.

Availability: Because it didn’t sell a ton of copies back then, Sunset Riders is one of the harder games to come by today. To our knowledge, it was not released as part of any compilation, isn’t available for download on any of the current consoles, and copies of the original are somewhat tough to find. The only one we stumbled upon in our travels was from a somewhat disreputable vendor at the local flea market, crammed into a filthy cardboard box amongst a bunch of other games that it looked like he had been using to clean up coffee spills. There are a few copies to be found online; nice, complete copies seem to be running in the $20-$30 range, while cartridge only versions are a more reasonable $10 or so. That’s less than the price of a purple shirt, and way less likely to get you shot at.