Thursday, January 26, 2012

Review: Shadowrun (SNES)

Action RPG, Super Nintendo Entertainment System
1993 Data East

For those unfamiliar, Cyberpunk is an odd man out among the science fiction/fantasy genres. Popularized by authors like Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, it came to be in the 1980s with the popularization and increasing affordability of computer technology to the general public. It was a time when words like "hacker" finally found their way into our lexicon, and computers seemed to be the surefire way to propel ourselves into the magnificent future. But with every gleaming image of the great world around us, there must be a dark counterpart. I like to think of cyberpunk as the underbelly viewpoint of technology's ever-increasing entanglement in our daily lives.

Cyberpunk worlds are ones of the highest technology and the worst kinds of people. Neon signs and skyscrapers tower over the city slums where hackers are mobsters, detectives, and cold-blooded killers. The genre often has a lot of parallels to dystopian and film noir type stories, and it's easy to see why. Shadowrun originally began as a tabletop RPG (like a cyberpunk version of Dungeons and Dragons), but its ever-increasing lore and storylines expanded it into a series of novels, and ultimately, the video game here before us.

Our protagonist, Jake Armitage, awakens from a morgue slab with no memory of his past life. As he wanders through the world of year 2050 Seattle, he receives cryptic warnings from a telepathic dog and learns of a mob boss named Drake that has something to do with his attempted murder. To get to the bottom of what happened, he has to avoid numerous additional attempts on his life and become entrenched in the seedy world of hacking and crime.

Though we've established that Shadowrun is a cyberpunk game, there is yet one more element that sets it apart from even its own subgenre. As a nod to classic fantasy, elements such as orcs, dragons, and magic are incorporated seamlessly into the world. It's jarring at first to see these things in a futuristic dystopian setting, but ultimately it makes the world that much more unique.

Just as it blends elements of multiple literary genres, Shadowrun incorporates different types of video games as well. It's a top-down isometric game, typically reserved for the more "board game" style selections like Ogre Battle and Final Fantasy Tactics. To interact with objects, you have to press a button to pull out a cursor, then slide the cursor over to the object, then select a type of interaction (inspect, open, take, etc) just like an old point-and-click adventure along the vein of Leisure Suit Larry or Maniac Mansion. These design choices seem to try to force the player to acknowledge the tabletop RPG beginnings, because in reality the gameplay doesn't seem to necessitate any of them.

As you can see, Hamfist is a real looker.

The game also has a heavy focus on dialogue and learning key phrases. The player cannot talk to someone about a topic unless they've learned the phrase related to it. It's a sort of roundabout way to try and unlock dialogue options, but it really forces you to read the dialogue and explore all the options to ensure you don't miss anything.

I personally know of very few people who have played Shadowrun. At the time of its release, it received a solid amount of critical acclaim and was even voted best RPG of the year by many gaming magazines, but somewhere along the way it seems to have fallen out of the public eye. I rarely see it mentioned when people reminisce about their favorite old Super Nintendo games. I was able to get my cartridge on the cheap from eBay, and to anyone interested in a dark and unsettling noir type RPG, I highly recommend you do the same.


  1. Excellent review, puzzled as to why this should have dropped off the radar, it's got all the elements that should have made it a cult success.

    Just back from a quick visit online, the tabletop RPG was pretty astounding too, a very rich game world, problem is now I want to play both. :(

    Thanks for the heads up!

  2. Thanks! I've always been curious about the tabletop version, because I've always enjoyed D&D and Warhammer, but I've never met anyone that plays it.