As someone who identifies as a geek, the Shadowrun universe is undeniably tantalizing. The result of marrying Tolkien-esque fantasy with Bladerunner-esque cyberpunk is simultaneously tacky and irresistible. Massive trolls and monolithic corporations, mages and hackers, dragons and cybernetic enhancements; it’s the nerd singularity. It’s only lacking space travel, which I think it actually has a bit of.
As far as I know, it never really touched the mainstream in the way that Dungeons & Dragons did; a fate that many alternative pen-and-paper RPG’s ended up with. During the 90’s, FASA Corporation made a decent push for the license before they ceased activity in 2001. This meant novels, a trading card game, and, of course, video games. The first of which was by Beam Software on the SNES. Released in 1993, I actually experienced this game as a child after renting it from the local game store. Its mechanics were impenetrable for my pre-adolescent mind, and its themes completely lost. However, images of it stuck in my mind until adulthood (or my second childhood, as it might be more appropriately called), when I tracked it down.
My mind was then opened to the Sixth World.
WELCOME TO THE SIXTH WORLD
Shadowrun follows Jake Armitage, a typical blank slate protagonist who winds up with plot-convenient amnesia after a hit against him results in his near-death. Pulling himself from his own morgue slab, he sets out to find out what he was doing before he wound up bleeding in the streets, track down who’s trying to kill him, and get his revenge.
Gameplay is a cross between a simplified point-and-click adventure game and a CRPG. You progress by finding the right objects and dialogue options and rubbing them against the right person or related object. While you’re attempting to find which peg goes into what slot, you’re constantly accosted by dudes in dumpsters and jerks who fire at you from little slots in the walls of buildings. It’s kind of funny, the way that the whole world seems hostile to Jake, but also fairly unique in the SNES’s RPG landscape.
While the game takes liberally from the pen-and-paper RPG that it’s based upon, it doesn’t strictly follow it. It notably lacks major figures from the game’s world, supplementing more generic versions of certain figures and companies. It takes many liberties with the rules too, allowing Jake to be a jack-of-all-trades, rather than forcing the player to specialize in magic, decking, or combat. He can do it all, which is very much against the essence of its source material. Not that it matters much, it seems the developers were very deliberate in constructing this interpretation.
LIFE IN THE SHADOWS
The game gets off to a rocky start. It’s not exactly the most intuitive experience, as you’re left to figure things out on your own without the slightest hint of where to go, what to do, or how to work its terrible interface. Rather than use an action button that works in proximity to your character, like approximately every RPG of that era, pressing a button brings up a cursor, that you then have to move over the object you want to interact with, then either choose the quick examine or use buttons, or hit the button again and select your desired option from a menu. It’s stupidly cumbersome, especially since you need to be directly next to the desired object to actually interact with it.
This horrible interface bleeds into basically every facet of the game. Combat centers around it as well, so you have to hit the attack button, move your crosshair over your target, then start firing away. That’s a bit of a roundabout way to do it and restricts the player from moving while attacking, but it works. It gets more confusing when you add magic and item switching to the midst of a firefight, but it still works better than it does in other situations.
The dialogue system is only slightly better. As you talk to characters, they drop keywords that you can then use to get more information from other NPC’s. It boils down to collecting keywords, since you often need to get a piece of information to advance the game. The issue you eventually run into is when the NPC’s only have a unique response to, like five of the keywords in an always growing list. So you’re left with frustrating moments where you don’t know who to talk to and what to ask them, and you’re likely to just end up throwing every keyword at every character, hoping someone tells you something new.
Speaking of which, the game can be incredibly obtuse at times. This is the second time I’ve made a complete playthrough of the game, and I still ended up getting stuck in multiple places. Most notably, once when I didn’t realize I was supposed to interact with a dog, and another time when I failed to notice the smallest switch in existence placed against a noisy background. It was infuriating. It was used to unlock a door, but every door in the game gives you a message when you fail to open it, usually hinting on what the problem is. This door did nothing, making it the least talkative door in the entire game. Another switch activated door later in the same area says that it’s locked electronically which at least implies to me that the solution is in the same vicinity. So why the hell didn’t that other door provide me with the same indication!? It would have saved me a lot of running around town looking for a solution to a non-puzzle.
What I’m saying is: maybe keep a walkthrough nearby for moments when you’re stuck (shadow)running in circles.
THE STREETS OF SEATTLE
So the gameplay has a habit of sucking rocks, so what’s good about it? Basically everything else.
Shadowrun doesn’t have a habit of dipping into the SNES’s technical capabilities, but it still comes across as a pretty attractive game. Shrugging off influence from other console RPG’s at the time, it adopts an isometric angle while still putting a lot of detail into characters. The animations are goofy, but they work. The environments on the other hand are fantastic, displaying the permanent night of its neo-noir stylings. The city is desolate, the darkness pervasive. The characters who inhabit it are hostile, weird, or both. It really nails the cyberpunk feel better than any game this side of Deus Ex.
The music just adds to it, featuring a percussion and bass heavy soundtrack that works its magic in the background. There’s a wide variety of sounds backing the game, all containing elements that unify them into a cohesive theme. It’s a remarkable feat, and in my ears is up there with contemporaries like Streets of Rage and Axelay.
Beyond the aesthetic, the game’s flow and pacing is also spot on. At least, it is when it isn’t being derailed by the aforementioned periods of fruitless wandering. It isn’t exactly the deepest or most compelling of stories, but it offers enough agency when it comes to progression to stay engaging. There are no real side-quests, which is immensely disappointing, but multiple threads often run at the same time, so while you’re appeasing the dog totem, you may also be building your character or collecting items that will be useful later.
The first Shadowrun game is, if nothing else, very unique on the SNES. Even without its horrendous PC-inspired interface, it feels closer to the RPG’s that were starting to pop up on home computers than to the large pool of genre colleagues on console. Its aesthetic is in a league of its own, accurately depicting the desolate cyberpunk world of the pen-and-paper RPG. It’s not a perfect game, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one that I feel is worth playing. Just be prepared to swallow your pride and look up a walkthrough when you find yourself running the shadows in circles.
It’s just a shame that it never got the sequel that was hinted at after the game’s conclusion. It did, however, find itself on the Sega Genesis a year later, but as an entirely different game with an entirely different approach to the source material. That’s a discussion for another day, however.
This review as conducted on an official SNES cartridge. It was purchased by the author.