One of the hardest challenges of making an RPG is finding a way to integrate plot, setting and gameplay into something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Some games, like the Final Fantasy franchise, are surprisingly good at all three. Others unapologetically settle for one or two–Fire Emblem being an example of one that eschews plot and world for superior gameplay. But wrapping all three together, and doing so in an innovative way is a rare treat.
Finding a game like this in 1994 is even more amazing, but Shadowrun for the Genesis managed to pull it off when Square was trying to figure out how they could make the most complicated Final Fantasy plot ever–a feat that would take them nearly another decade to achieve, in 2001, with Final Fantasy X.
Admittedly, Shadowrun had a bit of a head start in the form of a fantastic franchise license. That’s not to say a license is a free pass to commercial success–we can witness the 2007 use of the Shadowrun franchise as an example of taking something awesome and wasting it. There’s probably a joke here about my large penis but rapid orgasm, but I’m trying to write more mature reviews. Ask your mom if you want more details.
The strength of Shadowrun’s franchise is two-fold. First, it is a world where anything goes. Elves, dragons, orcs, computers, guns–frankly it’s surprising there are no aliens involved. This gives developers incredible flexibility in terms of classes and races and allows for combinations we don’t usually expect. An axe toting orc is old news, but one with an AK-47 is slightly more interesting. The second (fold) is a compelling setting of a futuristic society ruled by megacorporations–which creates a ripe setting for intrigue, easy villains and a steady supply of work for anyone of dubious moral character.
Finally, and most importantly, is the Matrix. Unlike the movie Matrix which involves humans running as batteries (which is about as efficient as ethanol, a net loss energy production, by the way; focus on wind and solar, much better bets), the Matrix in Shadowrun is a virtual world where business is conducted. Because Shadowrun is filled with jerks, the Matrix is more often than not the playground of hackers looking to profit off other people’s hard work. Patrolled by ICE, cybernetic guardians, the Matrix serves as a secondary world for Shadowrunners to participate in, creating a unique aspect that is leveraged to good effect by the Genesis version of Shadowrun, where players must traverse in both the real world and the Matrix world.
The game begins with a fairly routine figuring out “who killed your brother” plot, but while you work on that task, you also are faced with the need to develop your bumpkin self from loser little brother to badass mercenary killer. To achieve this, you run missions for various “Mr. Johnsons”–semi anonymous middlemen who serve up various tasks from simple escort missions to hacking to basically mass murder.
In addition to giving you missions, Mr. Johnsons also sell you special “contacts” who can provide you with various goods and services outside of the norm, such as corrupt police officers who provide illegal weapons permits, or elite hackers (NOT l33t haxx0rz, you internet savages) who sell high end software for the Matrix.
The game gives you three character class options, but features additional classes and numerous races that you can recruit to join your merry cyberpunk band at various points in the game. As you gain “karma”–which is not a measure of good and evil but rather power, you can level up your attributes or a surprising amount of skills.
Additional customization is available in the form of numerous cybernetic implants, but most of these toys are off-limits for magic users–because such implants inhibit their arcane essence. You’ll get over that one through a wide variety of spells and power enhancing totems with which you can barbeque your enemies, fortunately.
These skills come in handy, because futuristic Seattle is a scary place, and not just because there is a Starbucks on every block. As you wander about, you’re constantly faced with random occurrences–is that hurt man actually hurt, or is he a vampire playing possum–knowing he could be either, do you help him? The cops will constantly shake you down, and if you’re wielding an illegal weapon (like any badass should be), be ready to pay a fine or have that handy permit ready to send them to pester someone else who isn’t as well connected.
Adding yet another layer of complexity, there is a variety of warring gang factions–most notably the Mafia and Yakuza (courtesy for a gaming era when we could be politically insensitive to the failings and feelings of the Italians and Japanese) which grant a variety of mutually exclusive benefits. While many of these features–deep character development, warring factions, solid class systems–would permeate RPGs over the subsequent decades, no other game had this level of depth in 1994 and many RPGs still don’t have anything comparable, or worse yet, try and fail at being coherent complex games.
That’s not to say Shadowrun is perfect. Combat in the actual world is a bit crude, and often suffers from difficulties in seeing enemies on the screen. Some items and weapons are imbalanced, a gripe I always have and always will as games will always be rushed and undertested. That said, much like the recently reviewed Star Control II, Shadowrun set the bar high for RPGs that created an immersive world that is fun to not only achieve plot in, but explore and exist in. And that’s something which remains a rarity and a pleasure in today’s gaming world–and makes me sigh that I have to go back to 1994 to find such enjoyment.