Shadowrun is probably best described as the cyberpunk equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons. It would be inspired by, some might say derivative of, the works of William Gibson were it not for its anathematic dwarfs, trolls and elves.
Shadowrun was Melbourne-based development company Beam Software’s attempt to transfer a dice and paper game to the Super Nintendo. It’s not the straightest of RPG conversion: it has an at times incredibly obscure method of progression, and the level up system is far too slow in the game’s early stages, but it is nonetheless stangely compelling. I devoted many hours to it and, despite its misfires, I do not feel that those hours were spent in vain.
It should be noted that, despite its Australian origin, Shadowrun was incredibly difficult to find on our fair shores due to its coming at the end of the period where Nintendo hardware in Australia was distributed by Mattel, the software by Mattel and Metro. Metro “lost”; Shadowrun was distributed by Metro.
Shadowrun begins with Jake Armitage awakening in the morgue, his brain fried and his memory completely shot. If you had stuck around for the prologue sequence after the title screen, it would be apparent that Jake got there after being shot up by thus and visited upon by a fox woman.
Anyway, Jake’s resurrection freaks the heckfire out of the morticians, and you have to figure out who Jake is and what to do from that point on. This is the first weakness of Shadowrun: the first sections give you no clue as to where to go and, despite the fact that several people know Jake, they’re not much help to him.*
Compounding this fact is that the first items that you must find in the game are well hidden, and you may be tempted to use a healing patch that you pick up because the gun men who hang around the place are guaranteed to shoot you up but good. This is not an option! You need that healing patch to heal an invisible shaman who has been injured and is trapped in a crypt that you can only enter if you use a scalpel on the door! To be fair, the door says “this looks like it could be cut open” if you look at it, but who honestly tries to use a scalpel to open a door? At any rate, if you use that patch you’ve got no means of healing the shaman and the game has rendered itself unwinnable.
The game’s experience manifests itself in the form of “karma”, and at the start of the game you are so incredibly weak that it is easy to get yourself picked off while searching in vain for the save point. This would not be a problem if one of the stats wasn’t for firearms. Upgrading this stat improves your accuracy and, unless you’re on at least level four, barely any of your shots are going to hit. If one karma point in the first town equals eight kills (and doesn’t it seem strange that you get karma for killing people?), then to get your gun skills to an even vaguely acceptable level, you have to kill 80 thugs.
At that point of the game, your gun is terribly weak and only about 1 in 10 shots hit. Even to make contact with an enemy takes an insane amount of time. This is discounting the fact that there are about ten other stats that need your attention, although to be fair only three of them are needed early on.
The conversation aspect of the game is how the plot advances, but the connections that you have to make are so nebulous that I had to use an FAQ to get anywhere. My brother managed to finish it with few problems back in 1994, but that may well have been because of his Shadowrun/D&D history and the fact that he had a network of Shadowrunning friends.
The problem with the conversation system is that the keywords that you pick up along the way grow into an unwieldy list, and the only real way to figure out what to do is to throw words at likely suspects until they stick. If the words disappeared from your vocab when no longer needed, the interface may have been cleaner and a lot of heartache prevented. What is particularly strange is that one plot development involves using a word that you learn in one context (“ice” in the context of hacking the Matrix) in another (as in that which you put in a drink). It’s an interesting concept but not one that is entirely successful.
I’m an inordinate amount of words into this article and I seem to have been overwhelmingly negative so far. What’s more, I’ve only covered the first twenty minutes or so. It looks like the game makes a bad first impression, but if you dig beneath the obvious flaws you will find a game that is something of a rough diamond.
Pretty much as soon as you’ve negotiated the nightclub, you’re sent to the junkyard. There you must fight in gladiatorial battles to the death, escape the clutches of the King and go out and buy a gun that can actually hit a target and do some decent damage! Now you’re cooking with steam, punk!
Yes, from this point the game becomes marginally clearer in your goals … for a time. As soon as you escape the junkyard, you can make your way to a street doc, who will kindly activate the time bomb you’ve been lugging around in your head. With your head set to explode, there will be no saving! You need a certain amount of money to get a more competent doctor to defuse the bomb, and you’d better damn well know what that amount is and have it before you go to his office!
That sorted, the story is revealed through very loosely connected events involving fighting vampires, freezing mermaids and taking down large corporations while discovering the true dog shaman inside yourself. Lurching from adventure to adventure is fun, if obscure, but the game flows so much better by this point of its existence that it seems petty to complain: the levelling system becomes suddenly a rapid fire rollercoaster of shooting and rolling into bed and the game doesn’t have a chance to become dull in misdirection.
Technically you can hire shadowrunners (nothing like blade runners!) to help you shoot things up, but they cost a lot of money and they leave you after a while. By the end of the game, if you’ve played your cars right, almost no foe will be even capable of wounding you. Hiring two or three fiends (the good ones, though; without consulting an FAQ it’s the luck of the draw that determines whether any given shadowrunner is a genius or a moron) is novel simply to see all of your enemies getting ripped through by automatics, but it’s not cost effective or strictly necessary, especially when the only fiend who will end up capable of hurting you is the final boss of the game, Drake.
Drake happens to be a giant dragon in addition to being the boss of a major corporation; apparently that makes sense if you’re familiar with the Shadowrun franchise, but it was news to me when I finally reached the bottom of his volcanic lair.
Killing the final boss is not the end of the game, though: a repeat of the previous company invasion on a different company to the last. No dialogue is entered into and the ending is kind of lacklustre (“kind of lacklustre” meaning “quite lacklustre indeed”), but Drake tells us he’ll be back in Shadowrun 2. I’m still waiting, Beam Software! I haven’t been this disappointed in a sequel’s failure to be delivered since the second Super Mario Bros. movie.
In retrospect, there’s probably a better way to play this game, rather than the incredibly cautious way that I was doing it. That said, the junkyard would have been the height of tedium if I hadn’t cleaned up in the first area.
Shadowrun is strangely addictive. Born in the days before FAQs, it is ot near as obtuse as many of its contemporary PC adventure games, it has an old world, low-tech-masquerading-as-high, charm. It comes recommended for its curious nature.
*I’m struck by the thought that it would suck really badly if you were amnesic and walked into a bar where everybody knows your name.