Since I need to wait until 2013 to get my Shadowrun fix, I decided to check out an instance of the game that I'd never experienced before: Shadowrun on the Sega Genesis. (This is one of the secret joys of being an adult: you get to do all the fun stuff that you'd missed as a kid.) I grabbed an emulator and found a ROM, and soon I was running in the shadows.
I'd vicariously played Shadowrun for SNES back in the day, and remember that game pretty vividly considering how long ago it was. I'd read online that the Genesis version was pretty different, and I have to agree. The Genesis game is a more specialized, team-oriented game. In SNES, your Runner, Jake, becomes an ubermensch: by the end of the game he's an incredibly powerful, unstoppable killing, spellcasting, hacking machine. Genesis follows a more traditional RPG style of classes: you can become any type of player you want, but you need to start as one of three archetypes: the Street Samurai, the Shaman, or the Decker. I think that in SNES you could hire another runner to tag along for some missions, but in Genesis you can create a party of up to three people, counting yourself. I opted to create my character as a Decker - hey, how many games out there let you specialize in hacking computer systems? - and permanently hired a troll Street Samurai and an elf Mage to fill out my group. I got them fairly early, and we grew into a fantastic team. My samurai, a troll named Winston Marrs, initially represented with his powerful (and incredibly illegal) shotgun; I eventually outfitted him with "spurs" (think of Wolverine's claws), subdermal body armor, a heavy combat jacket, and two rounds of cybernetic wired reflex upgrades; as a result, he would charge into combat and smash opponents into oblivion before I could blink. My mage Freya would zap bad guys with mana during fight, but more importantly, she could turn us all invisible while we were infiltrating a corporation's building, or heal us between fights. Me? I had a pistol and would pitch in during fights, but I was really just there for the hacking.
The basic formula for Shadowrun is really simple - magic plus technology - but it combines in some really cool ways. For example, there's none of this silly D&D-style business about mages not being able to wear good armor. You totally can; as a result, magic users can actually stay alive during fights, and can actually do cool stuff. (I'd kind of like to see a Shadowrun movie sometime; just imagine someone blasting lightning out of one palm while they fire a Glock from the other.) There still is a limitation on magic users, in the form of Essence - basically, you love magical effectiveness as you install machines into your body, so while deckers and samurai will outfit themselves with tons of circuitry and metal, shamans and mages will try and remain "pure". It's a good system.
The music in the Genesis game was really good, in a 16-bit way. I think I might need to give the nod to SNES, just because of the awesome Maria Mercurial music, but honestly part of that may be nostalgia speaking. The Genesis game has nicely moody and dramatic ambient music throughout the game, and its main theme (which plays over the title screen and also over some surprisingly moving interstitial scenes) seems to perfectly capture the mood of Shadowrun: grimy, sinister, exciting.
The graphics held up decently well. I actually had more issues with the hairstyles than the graphics; the game came out in the early 90s, and most females still have 80's-style hair, and your main character's sprite seems to have emerged from an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Still, I thought it was very playable on the whole. Most of the game is played with overhead sprites (unlike the isometric perspective of the SNES game), which are decently detailed with some good suggestion of personality. I really only have two sprite-related complaints: Freya's hair looks absolutely bizarre, and the random civilian sprite who's wandering around looks way too much like a bad guy. All of your actual encounters with other characters take place in a separate, static dialog screen, with small portraits for each person who speaks. The portraits are low-res but, again, well done, probably more so than the sprites; a few are recycled, but each one is memorable and appropriate to the character. The interface was actually really good. I was playing with a USB gamepad hooked up to my OS X laptop, and after just a few minutes it felt very natural to navigate: A to interact or shoot, B to switch between targets, and C to switch to another character. I actually liked combat in this game much more than the SNES game, which had a bizarre cursor that you needed to move with your directional pad.
I don't remember the matrix too well from the SNES game; I'm sure I saw it, but I don't think I played much of that part of the game. Here, it's mostly optional, but can be tremendously rewarding. Literally. I made way more nuyen (that's "new yen", the currency of Shadowrun) by hacking into data stores and selling what I found on the black market than I made from all my other endeavors combined. It's a very time-consuming pastime, too. In the micro-level, combat against ICE (hey, it's good to see that at least FASA was unashamed about ripping off William Gibson!) could take several minutes of repeatedly pressing the same button over and over again; on the macro-level, most of the money you make has to be re-invested in your decker's computer if you want to be able to crack the more advanced (and thus more lucrative) systems. If someone were to modernize the game, I'm sure this would be the first part to be updated: making ICE combat more varied and challenging and fast. Still, the concept is so strong, and so surprisingly rare that I was still delighted with this part of the game. (Seriously. I mean, after the "hacking" mini-games of Mass Effect and Bioshock, I'm head-over-heals in love with ICE combat.)
And, along those same lines, this game is definitely an early-90s RPG, which in turn means spending a fair amount of time leveling up your characters so they can advance in the story. This is a technique that has been largely eschewed by AAA game developers in the past decade; modern RPGs have so much content, and are so well designed, that you can gain all the upgrades you need just by progressing through the story. Shadowrun is far from the worst offender in this regard. When I found that I was "stuck" due to being under-powered or under-equipped, it would usually just take me about 10-30 minutes of action to become over-powered for the challenge. And leveling up itself can usually be pretty fun. I especially enjoyed going on Corp Runs, with my team stealthily making its way through a highly guarded building in search of a valuable package or a defecting employee. Still, I imagine that in a remake of the game, they would combine the corp runs into the main plot (there are a few there already), and distribute more karma through the main storyline itself.
Speaking of which...
The story is pretty cool. The whole game takes place within Seattle and the outside Salish-Shidhe Wilderness. In the 2050's future of Shadowrun, the federal government has become a shell of its former self, and the largest powers are the corporations, Native American tribes, and certain tight-knit magical communities like the Sinsearach elves. A lot of the fun of the game comes from your conversations with people as you learn more about the world you inhabit; even when it doesn't directly bear on your quest, it makes the game more interesting.
The plot itself is technically a revenge story, but it resonates more deeply than most. You are Joshua, and your brother Michael was another Shadowrunner who was killed along with his entire team during a run. The story plays out like a detective story, as you cultivate leads, track down suspects, and gradually piece together the story of what happened on the night of Michael's death. This includes several cool plot twists and reversals: people who you might think are your friends turn out to be part of the conspiracy, and other people who you might assume were to blame for killing Michael become crucial allies in your fight for justice.
The actual gameplay is very nonlinear, which I enjoyed quite a bit; it's much more a western style of RPG than the lead-by-the-nose JRPGs that dominated that era of console gaming. At any given time you'll have a few clues that you can follow up on to try and make progress on the mystery, which tend to follow several disparate tracks - some clues may involve searching for a lost Elf in the wilderness, while others may point to a particular corporate stooge in Seattle. And of course, at any time you can contact a Mr. Johnson and go on a shadowrun to boost your money and karma. (For the uninitiated, karma is Shadowrun's rough equivalent to experience or levels; you mainly gain karma by completing shadowruns, and can distribute karma to increase a character's attributes or skills.) The script for the plot would probably look a bit bare by modern standards, but compares favorably to its contemporaries, and is structured well so you get some nice dramatic revelations scattered throughout the game.
I was a bit surprised that the dragon showed up to save the day. Isn't the whole point of Shadowrun that you're never supposed to make a deal with a dragon?
I kind of wish that I had gotten Stark (Michael's cybered-up best friend) earlier in the game; he seemed like a cool character, and I liked his connection to my personal story, but by the time I got him Winston was so incredibly powerful that it didn't make sense to switch. Yet another case where a remake could improve the game, by employing the now-common technique of making all recruitable NPCs level up at the same rate, regardless of whether they're in your party or not.
Harlequin's a fascinating guy; I kept expecting for him to reveal that he was actually in league with Thon, or after the same power as Thon, or looking to replace Thon or something. As far as I can tell, though, it looks like he was telling the truth about everything that happened. I guess that, sometimes, you can trust heavily-armed mafia Juggalo elves.
If you find hidden messages in the top-end corporate systems, you can learn a special passcode that lets you hack into the UCAS (United Canadian and American States) system and disrupt a plot to release a virus that would cause a meltdown in the Redmond Barrens Nuclear Power Plant. After you finish that matrix run, you get a special entry in your Notebook explaining what happened and then saying something like, "SEGA of America congratulates you for your efforts!" Awwww! What a sweet thing to say!
Speaking of which - I wish I'd figured this out earlier, but once you save enough to get a top-end decker rig (I was using a Fairlight Excalibur with maxed-out Response, Masking, and Attack, and good levels for Deception and Rebound), I think the fastest way to earn nuyen is to hack into Ito's System, then head to the red DS that's down from the first defended ICE node. Once I beat that ICE, I just grab all the data I can from that node and then log out. Previously, my strategy had been to attack the highest-level system I could; defeat the CPU, then mine the highest-level DS node, only taking 40Mp+ programs and retreating to the CPU whenever the system entered high alert. Doing Ito's system requires much less combat, and even though the 20-30Mp programs will probably be worth less, over the long run you'll be getting more money more quickly. And this way you can avoid the hardest ICE fights against the CPU of his system.
I bid a sad and fond farewell to Shadowrun for Genesis. I'm very glad to have played it and to now feel more a part of Shadowrun's legacy. I doubt I'll return to the game in the future, but I eagerly look forward to returning to that setting before too much longer. We're looking forward to what you do, Hairbrained Schemes!