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Shadowrun Returns
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by Nightmare, Kurt Kalata and Sam Derboo - updated September 1, 2013 (originally posted April 21, 2007)

Pen-and-paper role-playing games are, now and probably forever, stereotyped as little more than fantasy-based Dungeons and Dragons clones. One of the major titles that defy this convention is FASA's Shadowrun. The world of Shadowrun borrows heavily from cyberpunk lore, the genre practically invented by author William Gibson with his book Neuromancer, and the atmosphere is heavily influenced by Ridley Scott's 1982 classic film Blade Runner. Expansive cities bathed in near perpetual dinginess, despite huge technological advances - Shadowrun's choice setting is a futuristic version of Seattle. Mega corporations rule over practically everything. And there's an exaggerated sense of the '80s-bred paranoia that the Japanese were going to take over the world, manifested in a heavy influence of Japanese culture, and the currency in this world is even called the "nu-yen."

But Shadowrun does things a bit differently, by taking this dystopic landscape, filled with laser guns and computer hackers, and meshed it with the usual role playing conventions like magic spells and dragons. Humans share the world of Shadowrun with dwarves, elves, orcs and trolls. Players fight vampires and zombies with pistols and grenades. Amidst the techies that outfit themselves with the latest cybernetic enhancements to interface with digital landscapes, there are shamans who hold deep mystical beliefs and wield magic powers. The world is inhabited by strange people who speak English with their unique brand of slang ("Hoi chummer!" you'll be greeted with many times, even as a complete stranger.) It's a completely unique world which, naturally, made for some excellent video games.

During the 16-bit era, there were three Shadowrun games, published for the SNES, Genesis, and Mega CD platforms. Each of them were made by completely separate developers and offer entirely different takes on Shadowrun. None of them, however, strictly adhere to the guidelines usually applied to console RPGs. The SNES version blends elements of point-and-click adventure games with role playing elements. The Genesis version more closely mimics the rules and experiences of the pen-and-paper game, offering a hugely open ended game experience that's closer to Grand Theft Auto than Final Fantasy. And the Mega CD game, released only in Japan, a digital novel with tactical combat segments liberally interspersed with the text. Even the 2007 release, published a decade after any of the 16-bit titles, takes the concept of a tournament first person shooter and seeks to reinvent it. The 2013 Shadowrun Returns is more along the lines of what one would expect, but puts an emphasis on its content creation tools. These reasons alone should be enough to convince anyone to adventure into the dark underworld of Shadowrun.

Shadowrun Returns (Windows)

Shadowrun (SNES)

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Shadowrun (Mega CD)


Shadowrun - SNES (1993)

Japanese Cover

American Cover

European Cover

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The Super Nintendo apaption of Shadowrun was developed by Australian development company Beam Software (also known as Melbourne House, which later became Krome Studios Melbourne) and published by Data East. As soon as the game begins, the protagonist Jake Armitage is seen getting ruthlessly murdered by a group of street thugs. Shortly after the thugs clear the scene, a fox crawls from the shadows, enchants his body, shapeshifts into a woman and runs away. The game starts when the morticians are putting Jake on ice. As soon as they leave the room, he awaken from his slumber, apparently unharmed despite being riddled with bullets just moments earlier. And as luck would have it, he has completely lost his memory. So after freaking out the morgue guys, he escapes, and finds himself facing a number of problems: Who is he? Who was the transforming fox lady? Why are there random snipers on the street shooting at him? Who is this man named Drake? And most bafflingly, why are talking dogs advising him of his destiny?

The game is an odd mixture of PC-style point-and-click adventure games with role playing mechanics. Although Jake is controlled directly with the directional pad, a cursor can be called up at any moment to look at the surroundings or interact with them. The interface is certainly very clumsy, especially when trying to attack enemies. All that's to be done is pressing the attack button to activate the targeting cursor, highlight the bad guy, and keep hitting fire until someone gets killed. At the beginning, Jake's skills are pretty weak, so he often finds himself missing targets even at point blank range.

This is where the RPG elements come in. Karma, Shadowrun's equivalent of experience points, is earned by defeating enemies. Whenever Jake goes to sleep, these Karma points can be used to raise various abilities and skills, ranging from extending the life meter to gaining computer hacking skills. Gaining Karma is tedious (especially at points where its required), but it can be lost as well. Shooting at friendly NPCs brings up a message to stop hurting the innocent. When ignoring the warning, one Karma point will be deducted from the current total.

Shadowrun (SNES)

There are also these cybernetic parts called Cyberware, which Jake can install on his body for boosts in certain aspects and stats, like the Wired Reflexes, which allows him to pull the trigger of his gun faster, and the Dermal Armor, which grants a bit of extra protection. Since Jake becomes entangled in shamanic tradition, he can also learn magical spells to aid himself in battle. Compared to other console RPGs, there's a lot more freedom and interaction in developing the character, even though the plot itself is still pretty linear.

Although players technically only get to control Jake, several Shadowrunners can be hired as merchants, who'll tag along and use their skills in any area where Jake may be lacking. They also aid in combat, where they are controlled entirely by AI. (In the early stages of design, there was to be tactical combat, with individual orders given to each companion, but this was unfortunately scrapped.)

At a certain point in the game, it becomes possible to "jack" into the Matrix, a complex computer system (and world) that everybody wants to rule. In these short intermissions, the viewpoint changes from isometric to overhead, as Jake moves his avatar around this computerized world. The goal here is to try to retrieve data and be careful of various 'mines' that are in the way. These sections aren't really that hard or interesting, since it's really just trial and error, but they do their role in mixing the game up a bit.

Shadowrun (SNES)

Many mysteries await their solving, so there is a lot of detective work to be done by talking to everyone around. Important people will mention highlighted keywords, which are topics of conversation that then other people can be interrogated about. Jake can ask many, many questions using the keywords acquired during various other conversations, but not everybody knows about all the keywords. During conversations, both Jake and his interview partner are represented by their mugshots. All the artwork is of mixed quality, but especially Jake's face is so ugly that its a blessing some of it can be concealed by wearing sunglasses.

Shadowrun also has some really badass music. It's a lot grittier than the average SNES soundtrack, but the sample quality is right up there next to the later Square games. One of the best themes is played in the morgue at the beginning of the game, driven by an electric guitar, a catchy bass line, and a haunting flute melody. While the number of tracks is low, they're almost all excellent, and contribute heavily to the oppressive atmosphere.

Shadowrun (SNES)

It's surprising to see such dark subject matter in a SNES game - Shadorun was released in 1993, before Nintendo loosened up its censorship standards, so seeing the protagonist brutally murdered within the first few minutes of the game is bound to have been quite a shoc for many players. Yet there are points where Nintendo did some tinkering. Right at the beginning of the game, Jake needs to loosen the lips of an NPC. The only way to do this is by going to the bar, ordering his favorite drink - an "iced tea" - and delivering it to this character, who suddenly becomes a lot more talkative. There's a beta ROM of Shadowrun floating around, which is slightly less censored than the actual release copy. In the uncensored version, the morgue is referred to as a "chop shop" (keeping in line with the pen-and-paper RPG), and rock musician Kitsune is a bit more flirtatious.

There are some minor problems with Shadowrun. Aside from the dull combat, it's often a bit aimless, and it's far too easy to miss small items, halting progress and requiring to scan over every visited scene. The interface could've used some work, but it's about as good as it could be without the use of a mouse. Otherwise, Shadowrun has a fantastic plot, with superb writing - definitely superior to any of the Japanese translated RPGs on the system - and unique gameplay that has cemented its reputation as a cult classic.

Shadowrun (Super Famicom)

Data East also brough the game to Japan. This release is very odd - instead of replacing the text, all of the English is kept as is, with Japanese subtitles popping up around the screen. The interface has been changed a bit, too. In the English versions, when interacting with an object the default selection from the verb menu is "Quit." This means the player has to point at something and manually select an action, even if there's only one choice. The Japanese version instead highlights a default action, allowing to simply highlight an item and hit the button twice. On the downside, the L and R button shortcut mappings, which were meant to circumvent this issue in the English release, have been removed.

Quick Info:

Developer:

Beam Sotware

Publisher:

Data East

Designer:

Paul Kidd
Greg Barnett
Arthur Kakouris

Genre:

RPG: Western Style

Themes:

Cyberpunk
Player Character: Amnesiac
Sorcerer's Apprentice
Urban Fantasy


Shadowrun (SNES)

Shadowrun (SNES)

Shadowrun (SNES)

Shadowrun (SNES)

Shadowrun (SNES)

Shadowrun (SNES)

Shadowrun (SNES)

Shadowrun (SNES)

Shadowrun (SNES)

Shadowrun (SNES)

Shadowrun (SNES)


Comparison Screenshots


Additional Screenshots


Shadowrun - Genesis (1994)

Cover

Shadowrun on the Genesis was developed by Blue Sky Software, who also did the 16-bit Jurassic Park games for Sega, along with the Vectorman series. It's a very different game, but the setting and mood are still pretty much the same. The hero this time is a young man named Joshua. Before the game begins, his character class is chosen from three different options. Samurai are most suited for combat, Deckers are the best for jacking in the Matrix, and Shamans are the best magicians.

After selecting the class, the opening cinematic details the story of Joshua's brother, who was a Shadowrunner. He went on a mission with some of his fellow buddies, but they were ambushed and killed. One of his mates had a cyber eye, and the eye captured a video of the whole massacre. With this as the only clue, Joshua must investigate his brother's death and take revenge.

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Arriving in Seattle, he discovers the hotel where his brother was staying, but the skeezy owner demands some cash before he can claim it. And so begins Joshua's career in shadowrunning, as he begins running quick missions for the local "Mr. Johnsons," shady crooks who need someone to do their dirty (and occasionally not so dirty) business. Sometimes this means playing delivery boy, running packages from one place to another. Other times people need to be escorted. Joshua can also hang out at abandoned buildings and kill some ghouls, or hunt down troublesome gang members. These missions are all randomized, so they can be repeated over and over to get different variations. Successfully completing missions earns cash, along with karma, which can once again be used to upgrade numerous statistics.

The Genesis Shadowrun is pretty open ended, almost overwhelmingly so. Joshua is constantly told the names of different locations without having any clue where they actually are. This is a game where that really demands sitting down and explore to get into it. Once gotten past the first few steps of the game, the whole city of Seattle is open to the player, and most of it can be easily accessed via taxi, summoned at any number of computer terminals. It's then possible to begin one of three different plots and progress through them in any order, even switching in between them. When all of them are completed, Joshua eventually proceeds to the final steps of the story, although there are tons of different sub quests to run. Most of the game involves running around, talking to new people, and getting contacts. Although it's not possible to interrogate people like in the SNES Shadowrun, different responses when talking to people are available, and there's more dialogue overall, all of which is very well written. The story isn't remotely as involving - or as good - as the SNES game, but it's passable. It also doesn't suffer from Nintendo censorship - the hospitals are still referred to as "chop shops" here.

Shadowrun (Genesis)

There's a lot of customization to be found in this Shadowrun, with twenty different skills to upgrade, like firearm proficiency, computer skills and endurance. Unfortunately, much of this is restricted by the class chosen at the beginning. Although there's nothing stopping Joshua from getting Cyberware as a shaman, his Essence will decrease, weakening his magic casting. All classes have Essence, but only shamans need it.

The combat is pretty simple, and everything takes place in real time. Joshua aims automatically at enemies, and the player just has to push the button to fire. After an attack, there are a few seconds of cooldown time. Joshua has two health bars - one for physical and the other for mental health. If one of them runs out, he'll black out and end up in the hospital. Thankfully, the only penalties are a loss of 10% of cash (much nicer than the 50% of Dragon Quest games) and any hired mercenaries.

But just because it's simplistic doesn't mean it's easy. Even with a maxed out character with all the best weapons, Joshua will get his ass kicked regularly. Luckily, he can hire some Shadowrunners for protection, and it's even possible to switch to controlling them with the B button. They are most useful for complementing Jake's class, so he can choose to be a Samurai and just contract Deckers or Shamans to help out, for example. Shadowrunners can be hired just for one single run, or as life long partners. Naturally, the one-time run is much cheaper. After getting shot with Shadowrunners in the party, or abandoning them in the dust when they are down, they will be quite grumpy in the next meeting and ask for higher pay.

Matrix running is much more integrated here than in the SNES game. Not only are these sequences a big element in many of the missions, but it's also possible to sneak in at any time to steal data files and sell them on the streets for extra cash. Once Joshua gets a datajack (or hires someone who has one), he can plug into any terminal and hack into it, allowing him to access the databases of the huge corporations. While cruising through through the maze-like nodes of cyberspace, the decker will run into various defense programs called ICs, whose job it is to terminate pesky hackers. In order to combat them, there is a variety of offensive and defensive computer software available. Since a maximum of five can be loaded at the same time, and each has different success rates depending on the IC being fought, choosing the right software is critical for victory. Some ICs can even attack the decker pyssically and destroy the datajack. These scenes look a lot like the battle scenes from Phantasy Star 2, complete with the blue grid. However, only a single character is controlled in the fight, with the avatar bearing a suspicious resemblance to the Silver Surfer.

Although there is not much interaction with the game environment, the whole world feels remarkably alive. In some districts of Seattle, there are gangs who constantly stalk Joshua and try to smash in his face in. If to get them off his back, he has to go to their base and cough up some money to ask for safety. Unfortunately, this only lessens the frequency of random attacks, and he'll still be assaulted. This can quickly become a problem early on, because buildings cannot be entered when under attack, and thus the only options are to run away (which is nigh impossible) or to try and kill the attackers.

There are other random events, as well. When walking around in some district, a screen will pop up describing some event - civilians under attack, usually - giving three different choices on how to react. These usually include the choice to open fire, to step in and interject, or just walk away quietly. Choosing wisely might bring in some extra cash - while a poor choice can result in death. Other times, smugglers offer illegal grenades. This can mean a great deal to get them cheaply, but other times a Lone Star (equivalent of a police in Shadowrun) officer will reveal himself and take Joshua to the headquarters, where he has to pay hefty fines.

Shadowrun (Genesis)

The SNES Shadowrun had some dark visuals, but it's nothing compared to the dank and decrepit world on the Genesis. The lower color palette actually works to its favor and adds to the creepy atmosphere, even if the visuals are technically rather unimpressive. The music is also largely forgettable, although some themes are particularly creepy, especially the humming in the Matrix sequences.

Although it can get overwhelming at the beginning, the Genesis rendition of Shadowrun remains much truer to the pen-and-paper gaming rules, and is definitely worth it for those who like a lot of freedom in their RPGs.

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Quick Info:

Developer:

Blue Sky Software

Publisher:

Sega

Designer:

Tony Van
Scott Berfield
John Fulbright
Heinrich Michaels

Genre:

Action-RPG

Themes:

Cyberpunk
Urban Fantasy


Shadowrun (Genesis)

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Shadowrun (Genesis)

Shadowrun (Genesis)


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