Gameology 11 - Case Study: Shadowrun

Show Notes:

Mathew talks all about the Shadowrun series and specifically his favorite entry in the series; Shadowrun for the Sega Genesis.

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Extended Thoughts (written by Mathew Falvai)

What a joy to talk about my all-time favorite video game on the GAMEOLOGY podcast.

For the uninitiated, the Shadowrun universe is a wonderful mashup of Fantasy and CyberPunk. Set in a dystopian future of Mega Corporations, the Awakening returned Magic to the world and many humans mutated into elves, dwarves, orcs, and trolls. You play the role of a Shadowrunner: skilled mercenary for hire. Oh yeah, there are also Dragons. Powerful and intelligent beings that operate behind the scenes.

The Sega Genesis version of Shadowrun is a masterpiece in combining systems, attention to detail, and player choice.

The combat is a great place to start. Everything happens in realtime from the same perspective you see for the entire game. All of the dice-rolling and stat-tracking is done behind the scenes as guns, melee, and magic combine in fast and furious battles. A great detail is the ability to purchase guns from both legal and illegal shops. Illegal guns are the best but can be confiscated by police through random events (we’ll get to those later). You can either purchase armor that conceals the weapons (but provides less protection) or purchase a weapons permit from a specific contact. This mechanic breathes life into the world and adds weight to your choices. I love how these elements bounce off each other.

Speaking of breathing life into the world, random events are another wonderful element of the game. While navigating the world, the view will switch to the conversation screen and play out one of several scenarios. This could be the police wanting to speak with you, an injured man asking for help, or a shadowy figure offering illegal grenades. You always have multiple options to proceed and the outcome will mostly randomly generated. Helping the injured man might result in a cash reward or it could be a supernatural being luring you into a trap. The grenade salesman might be offering a sweet deal or could be an undercover cop. These moments offer engaging diversions that help flesh out a world limited by 16-bit hardware.

Another system I love is the ability to get a criminal record. Being arrested for infiltrating a corporation or carrying illegal weapons results in the record. This restricts your ability to purchase a visa that would allow you to reach the second wilderness hub. However there are multiple ways around this. You can either pay a phone contact to delete this record or pay a different contact to fly you into the second wilderness area undetected. These contacts are only represented by a beautifully drawn image on a vid-phone and plenty of text, but it further expands the universe.

Many of these details and mechanics are completely optional. For example, three separate gang factions exist. The player can gain access to each gang boss by either paying cash or having their reputation at the right level. These gangs offer contacts to their affiliates (Yakuza, Mafia, Seattle City Officials) and/or protection from random gang attacks. Another element that could be completely skipped over but deepens the universe.

The atmosphere is very dark and mature. The story begins by showing the player’s brother’s murder. The main quest is to avenge his death by following clues from one narrative set-piece to the next. Many NPCs are openly hostile to you and the world is painted as a corrupt/dangerous place to be. This is accomplished through a ton of text. Although text can be off-putting to some, it has the advantage of providing the depth of narrative detail found in books. The limited graphics and lack of voice-acting mean everything must be described in words. This not only invokes the imagination to further immersion but has the added benefit of infinite randomly-generated mission. 

Within this detailed world exists a Matrix, which is Shadowrun’s internet. The Matrix is represented with a completely different interface. The character’s virtual avatar uses programs that act much like spells with cooldowns. Defense programs guard access to the rest of the system and the highest level ‘Black-Ice’ programs can even cause physical damage to the player outside of the Matrix. A character can jack in through any cyber terminal and steal data to complete missions or sell off to a particular NPC. It’s also useful during infiltration missions to access the Matrix from inside a corporation to shut down security systems, cameras, alarms, and unlock doors. 

I could go on forever about this game but my biggest takeaway is how well it translated the Shadowrun universe into a video game using detailed, inter-connected systems. It was great then and still holds up during my semi-annual playthroughs.

Thanks for reading.