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they both still exist) so that you could browse the internet of yesteryear, under the mistaken impression that using an outdated search engine somehow magically turns back the clock on all the websites that it links you to.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.

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