Shadowrun - Staff Retroview  

The Consequences of Creating Starbucks?
by Mike Moehnke

Click here for game information
20-40 Hours
+ Wide-open and free to explore
+ Unique and interesting setting
+ No Game Over, failure is generous
- Cash takes much time to acquire
- The Matrix is expensive to jack into
- Not much happens for long stretches
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   According to the Sega Genesis Shadowrun, Seattle will look very different in 2058. Japan will dominate the Pacific Rim so much that the city will use a currency called the Nuyen, people will be capable of casting magic, inhuman races such as elves will share the world, the Lone Star police force will not care if people are gunned down in the streets so long as illegal weapons were not the cause, and hospitals will be able to patch up any kind of formerly terminal damage for a sum of money. These visions of the future may not come to be, but in Shadowrun they make for a fascinating world that has never been replicated in all the years since.

   The core plot of Shadowrun is not particularly deep, but serves its purpose of being a goad onward. A recent mission ended with the unexpected death of a veteran Shadowrunner named Michael, and his brother Joshua responds by vowing vengeance. Traveling to Seattle, Joshua promptly finds that he needs skill and money to track down whoever was responsible for his brother's death. Piecing clues together forms the narrative, though the vast majority of the game takes place outside of this setup. The story may not be particularly interesting, but is well-written and describes its murky world effectively.

   At the beginning of the game Joshua is a weakling who probably won't survive an encounter with even the weakest gang members stalking Seattle's streets. Getting more proficient at being a Shadowrunner is paramount if he is to find his brother's killer, and that requires meeting with agents who operate in the shadows and prefer the moniker 'Mr. Johnson.' These men offer runs that will net money and karma upon completion, both of which are essential to progress. The runs range a wide gamut from simple package transfers, to lengthy escapades inside large corporations that require outmaneuvering their guards and security systems. The runs are quite varied, and though they get a bit repetitive because of the sheer number that will be required, the variety offered ameliorates that.

   Combat, when it occurs, is short and sharp. Shadowrun takes an action approach to its battles, with the player simply hitting B to choose a target among whatever its randomly generated enemies are onscreen, and then hitting A to use the currently equipped weapon until one side is dead. If Joshua has hired an extra character or two on for help, pressing C cycles between them, with the AI governing the behavior of anyone not under direct control. Enemies do yield tiny amounts of money and karma, but going on runs for Mr. Johnson is a much more reliable means of obtaining these.

   Karma is essentially Shadowrun's version of experience points, though since the amount can go up by killing random pedestrians on Seattle streets, it might be misnamed. Karma is used to increase statistics and skills to enhance a character's prowess, completely at the player's discretion. Karma does accrue slowly, however, and the installation of cyberware onto a character offers further statistic enhancement in the meantime, though electronics conflict with magical prowess. Joshua's destiny is somewhat shaped by the player's decision on his class at the game's beginning, but proper karmic application will make him much harder to bring down.

Wanna see if that aimless civilian has any money?  Kill him and find out! Wanna see if that aimless civilian has any money? Kill him and find out!

   One environment with a completely different set of rules is the Matrix, which in this incarnation fortunately predates Keanu Reeves' involvement. Inside the Matrix lie computer programs that can be sold for money, and files that are sometimes the targets of missions. Navigating the Matrix is wholly unlike the rest of the game, relying on a deck of programs that guide the player's avatar around the system and hopefully stymie its defensive systems. Acquiring these programs is expensive, and navigating the Matrix itself requires much familiarization in order to understand everything that is going on. The rewards can be great, but the initial investment is similarly substantial.

   Menus and inventory require an adjustment period in Shadowrun because of several things that differ from most other RPGs, such as making the start button cancel things while the A and B button both serve as confirmation. Deviating from the norm does not make the menu system ineffective, merely unusual. Weapon damage output is dependent not only on the stated power, but also on the aptitude a character has for that firearm type and its clip size in the case of guns that need reloading, so what seems to be the most destructive armament may not match its billing. The interface is rather accommodating by 1994's standards, save for the need to buy bullet clips one at a time instead of having to option to fill a character's ammunition space in one go.

   There is a random aspect to Shadowrun, with events frequently taking place that have no necessarily correct answer. Sometimes text will describe a man being pursued by several people who appear to be orderlies at a mental hospital, and the player must decide how to react, by coming out for or against the man's capture. The events vary depending upon the area of Seattle currently being explored, and the best way to deal with any given event may change when it recurs. The random events lend an intriguing unpredictable quality to a game that already has a lot of unique facets.

The Orc cabbies might not be photogenic, but English seems to be their first language. The Orc cabbies might not be photogenic, but English seems to be their first language.

   It is impossible to truly die in Shadowrun. Every time Joshua crumples to the ground and there is no one else in his party to take control, he awakens in a Seattle hospital, minus ten percent of his money to cover medical fees. Any characters he was running with at the time will be displeased at the way the last mission ended and cost more to recruit again, but there are no other consequences for being cut down. This is important, because Joshua will be bested many times by the enemies he encounters, until at last enough karma and money has been obtained to turn him into an efficient death-dealing machine.

   Shadowrun's visuals manage the neat trick of suiting the game perfectly while not straining the hardware at all. Technically, they wouldn't be impressive even for a Genesis game from years earlier, yet the dark, decrepit things they show fit the intended mood perfectly. The music similarly fits the dank, decaying Seattle idea that Shadowrun presents, without being impressive in any other way. There is a fairly large number of compositions, but they tend to be repetitive and unmemorable.

   The story of finding Michael's killer probably requires about ninety minutes to complete, but only if Joshua is able to barrel through every obstacle without stopping. That is impossible in this game, and getting a team capable of seeing the ending probably requires thirty hours. Seeing everything in the game will take a lot more time than that, while replaying with a different class will change the game enormously, giving ample reason to spend more time with Shadowrun.

   Many of this game's most prominent qualities are very polarizing, and its lack of resemblance to anything except its pen and paper progenitor makes it a poor choice for someone seeking RPG comfort food. Going on constant runs to earn enough money for expensive equipment can also get frustrating, especially when tough enemies deplete healing supplies quickly. The negatives, however, are outweighed by the fascinating, unique world of Shadowrun. Exploring its permutations is not for everyone, but will prove rewarding for a select group.

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