Friday, June 4, 2010

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Platform:  Sega Genesis
Developer:  BlueSky Software
Released:  1994
Genre:  Action RPG

The Game
Joshua is not a happy man.  His brother Michael was killed in a failed shadowrun, and he intends to find out who did it and why.  To these ends, he spend the last of his money to buy a ticket to Seattle to visit Michael's last known place of residence, a coffin motel in the Redmond Barrens.  From there, Joshua becomes a shadowrunner himself, traveling back and forth across the Seattle Metroplex and beyond in his tireless quest to avenge Michael's death.

The Genesis version of Shadowrun was released a year after its SNES cousin by a different developer and with a completely different storyline and gameplay.

The Characters
You play as Joshua, a somewhat hot-headed young lad who starts out looking for revenge and ends up on a quest to save the world.  The way he does this is partially determined by the player's choice of archetype at the beginning of the game . . . specifically, he can be a decker (hacker who projects his very consciousness into a virtual construct of the computer system), a street samurai (big, tough fighter skilled in the use of guns, armor, and punching things very hard), or a gator shaman (magician who follows the precepts of his spirit animal, allowing its magical energy to flow through him).

You face a number of different adversaries, but the main ones are Renraku, one of the biggest megacorporations around, and Thon, a free spirit bent on world domination.  These two forces have joined together in a mutual bid for power that naturally degenerates into each side trying to use and then lose the other.  Many of the other baddies you end up facing are working for either one or both of these nasty villains.

Fortunately for Joshua, he's also got a lot of folks on his side, though not all of them work for free.  He meets up with a number of Mr. Johnsons, people who specialize in working as middlemen for corporations and other organizations and do the actual hiring of shadowrunners for their various illegal and quasi-legal activities, who give him jobs and information.  He cultivates a list of contacts who are willing to provide him with info, gear, and various services for the right price.  And there are several fellow shadowrunners hanging about and are willing to team up with Joshua as long as he keeps them paid and alive.

He also eventually meets and teams up with Harlequin and Frosty, two legendary figures in the Shadowrun setting.  So that's pretty neat!

Like its SNES predecessor, the Genesis SR has a lot of characterization floating around.  Virtually every NPC you meet has their own unique personality and mode of speech, with only a few glitches here and there . . . every single hotel owner, for example, bitches about all their towels being stolen, even in the classiest joints.  Though there may just be an epidemic of towel thieves in Seattle, meaning it might have been done that way on purpose!

The Writing
The game's story is even deeper than the characterization, branching in several interesting directions with nicely cinematic reveals of important plot elements.  It really feels like Joshua is moving through a long and complex Shadowrun campaign, and it's great to see how they pull various disparate elements together to make a cohesive whole.

The dialogue between Joshua and the NPCs is extremely well written, and in several parts it and/or the narrative sections are interspersed with what amounts to action scenes, putting you in a short firefight before returning to the discussion at hand.  And while it partakes of the Shadowrun slang from time to time, it doesn't try to beat the player over the head with it and uses it in contexts where it's easy to understand if you're not already familiar with it.

The Gameplay
If nothing else, the gameplay alone in this game makes it worth playing.  It's an overhead game with a sandbox setup, allowing you to go anywhere in the game right off the bat as long as you're willing to pay cab fare and - in one case - for a passport.

Combat is as easy as cycling through targets and shooting/punching/magicking them until they stop moving, but the mechanics behind it are very deep.  You have a sizable list of attributes which can be advanced through gaining and applying karma, there is a wide selection of different types of guns and spells, you can buy various cyberware upgrades to enhance your stats and abilities, and you have two different life meters, one for physical damage and another for stun damage.

Your attributes also include a number of non-combat stats, including but not limited to Negotiation (influences buying and selling as well as the pay for shadowrunning jobs and for hiring other runners), Electronics (allowing you to pick maglocks and hack security systems), and Reputation (allowing you access to certain buildings, reducing the costs of entering certain clubs, and getting the attention of certain high-class contacts), adding even further depth to other areas of gameplay.

When speaking with NPCs, Joshua can pick from up to three different dialogue options (one each for the A, B, and C buttons on the Genesis controller), making chats with other people a decently interactive experience.

The menu screen overall is incredibly in-depth, storing tons of information about your character and the mission he's on.

Running the Matrix - the cyberspace construct of the city's computer grid - can get a bit repetitive at times, but there's so many options of what you can do that the player can mix things up a little if they start getting bored of the same old "continuous Deception/Attack" routine.

While there are many other games that were made since that have this kind of depth or more, this was one of the few console games of the time that went to such lengths to give the player such an immersive experience, and in my opinion all that hard work was worth it.

The Challenge
The game remains fairly challenging throughout - unless you go on a shadowrun binge and simply upgrade everything to insane levels - but is especially so at the very beginning, mostly because your stats start off so low as to be almost non-existent.  Joshua is a very weak character to start off with, and it takes a great deal of time grinding shadowruns before things start equalizing.

This is one of my few gripes with the game.  There is a nice variety of runs you can go on, but by the time you get to where you really need tons of cash and karma to get where you need to be to advance the storyline, your options have been whittled down to only two real choices:  Matrix runs or breaking into corporate buildings to retrieve a package/person.  The challenge at this point is to merely keep up the grind without getting burnt out.  I realize, however, that the limitations of the Genesis were probably what kept the developers from introducing even more variety in the run types . . . but it can still wear the player down after a while.

The Graphics
Overall the graphics were very well designed.  The opening screen itself with the Shadowrun logo looks absolutely beautiful, and all of the different areas of the city look like they should.  There's a lot of great detail all over the place - from litter and debris lining the streets in the barrens to the futuristic looking high-tech gadgetry on the desks in the office buildings - but some of it is marred by a strange sort of pixellation effect.  Some of the streets and sidewalks, for instance, look like they're only about half there, as there's a grid of black spots laying across them.  I think it may have been an attempt to give them a more textured look, but I'd say it failed if that's the case.

Another small but sometimes annoying problem is a slight warping of the image from time to time.  Most noticeable in office buildings and out in the woods, a horizontal section of the screen will sometimes become raggedy.  It doesn't obscure the image any, but it is a bit distracting at times.  I've played this game both as a cartridge and as a ROM and this ghost warping occurs in both, so it's definitely a problem with the programming of the game itself, though I can't personally imagine the exact mechanics behind it.

A lot of the NPCs that wander around outside are clones of each other with no real individualization, and there's only about five different types at most.  Meh.

These are all just minor issues, however.  The game as a whole looks great.  Especially cyberspace . . . even though they use a very basic topography (in the pencil and paper RPG, the virtual construct of a computer system can look like virtually anything the programmers want it to look like), it's very pretty and utilizes a pretty snazzy mock 3D setup.

The Music
Shadowrun is one of the few games I'd consider buying the soundtrack from.  Where it's SNES predecessor was kind of "rock noir", the Genesis version is much more techno with an occasional hint of grunge underlying it.  Each specific musical snatchet is completely appropriate for the area it plays in as well, adding to the atmosphere without taking it over.

Only problem is that when you load your game while you're already playing, the music glitches and starts playing the Redmond Barrens theme no matter where you had saved last.  Fortunately it fixes itself once you leave the area.

The Bottom Line
I absolutely adore this game.  Though it has its moments where it's a bit of a grind, the excellent gameplay keeps even doing the same thing over and over again interesting.  I love that it's very tightly based on the Second Edition Shadowrun rules, making it feel even more like Shadowrun than just the setting alone could do.  Great story, great graphics, great music . . . overall, this is just a great game and I highly recommend it.


  1. Just picked this up today. Can't wait to play it. I've played the SNES version, but I always thought this version looked better. Nice review!

    1. Excellent choice! You won't be disappointed, I'm sure. :)

  2. Killer review. It pretty much sums my feelings up this game, one of the greatest ever made for the Sega Genesis in my opinion.

    ...and I'm playing it as we speak...