2021/05/04

Shadowrun (1993)

Shadowrun

We've documented Gen Y's vices in copious detail these past few years. But if Gen Y has one virtue, it's a knack for remembering what the Pop Cult would prefer stayed memory holed.

For example, the AAA video game publishers really don't want you thinking about pre-Ground Zero 2D video games. If you did reminisce about them - or worse, go back and play them - you might realize how artistically impoverished AAA's ubiquitous mud genre offerings are.

One forgotten touchstone of High 90s gaming was the rivalry between Sega and Nintendo. Gamers didn't split along hardcore vs casual lines back then. Instead, you identified yourself by your gaming hardware. The vast majority of households only had one gaming device, and with PC ownership still relatively rare, that meant you were either a Sega Genesis kid or a Super Nintendo kid.

The two industry giants' console war played out on TV, at department stores, and in school cafeterias nationwide, where competing versions of the latest games fed ammo to both sides. Titles released for both consoles gave Sega and Nintendo kids the chance to directly compare their machines' performance. 

Every Y remembers the debates over Mortal Kombat and Aladdin.. But another controversy, almost totally forgotten now, divided vidya gamers and tabletop RPG fans into two intractable camps. That memory-holed battle of the console war raged over the Genesis and SNES versions of FASA Corporation's sci-fi urban fantasy TTRPG, Shadowrun.

As with most titles shared by the Genesis and the SNES, gamer consensus generally favored the Sega version. But today I'm breaking from the pack and reviewing the criminally overlooked Shadowrun on Super Nintendo.

What makes the debate over the Genesis and SNES versions of Shadowrun stand out is that unlike other shared releases, each console got a totally different game instead of slightly tweaked ports of the same game.

Shadowrun for Super Nintendo debuted in 1993. It was published by the now-defunct Data East but produced by Australian startup Beam Software. In contrast to the Genesis version's more standard 3/4 third-person view, Beam went with a 45 degree isometric environment. They also chose a point-and-click interface, both of which give the SNES version more of a PC feel.

Shadowrun SNES 1993
Super Nintendo

Shadowrun 1994 Genesis
Sega Genesis

A color palette replete with grays and earth tones adds to the SNES version's gritty, neo-noir feel. Yes, both of those terms are hackneyed clich├ęs in Current Year, but they were all the rage at the start of the High 90s.

In keeping with its noir influences, the main plot and game play of Nintendo's Shadowrun revolves around amnesiac Shadowrunner - game universe slang for a gun-for-hire - Jake Armitage tracking down the shadowy forces behind an attempt on his life. Along the way, Jake will pick up firearm, hacking, and even magic skills to aid him in his search.

Unlike the Genesis version, which places heavy emphasis on combat, Jake's weaponry - and even his emerging shamanic powers - are tools in the service of the detective work that drives the SNES version. To progress on his quest, Jake must unearth hidden clues and interview often reluctant witnesses to unlock crucial keywords. If you've played PC detective games, or even the Japanese version of Final Fantasy II, you'll be familiar with this game mechanic.

That doesn't mean Shadowrun for the SNES falters in the action department. Jake still has a price on his head, so would-be assassins lurk in dark alleys, behind flophouse windows, and even on rooftops, providing random encounters that pay out in karma and nuyen. You use the former to improve Jake's skills and the latter to upgrade his hardware - including cybernetics that can turn him into a veritable killing machine.

Like any good RPG, Shadowrun for the SNES features pre-scripted battles in the form of action set pieces and boss fights. None of them feel like violence for the sake of violence. Instead, all constitute authentic action arising from the story. It turns out that Beam Software loosely based the game on a novel by frequent Shadowrun TTRPG contributor Robert N. Charrette, and it shows. The plotting and characterization are remarkably tight, especially considering the game's technical limitations.

Speaking of characters, Jake needn't go it alone. This is a Shadowrun game, after all, which means you have the option of recruiting a motley assortment of mercs to your cause - for a price. More than just walking arsenals, the SNES version's shadowrunners boast specialized skills to help Jake slice through megacorp data mazes and gain the spirits' favor. They're even willing to adjust their fees if Jake pumps some karma into his negotiation skill.

All of these elements gel to create an experience that's as close as vidya gets to your high school buddy's Friday night Shadowrun game. Pick up a copy of this lost SNES gem if you have the means, and grab a few slap patches; you're gonna need 'em!


For a quick demo of Shadowruno (1993), watch me playing it on my original SNES hardware on this Geek Gab test stream:


And don't miss the main event: Final Fantasy IV: Retro-Spective! Stop by Geek Gab's channel on YouTube tomorrow, Wednesday May 5, at 10:00 PM Central to experience FF IV as it was meant to be played: on a 30-year-old Super Nintendo with no glitch or bug left unexploited!

8 comments:

  1. "You were either a Sega Genesis kid or a Super Nintendo kid."

    Truer words were never spoken. My brother and I started out as Nintendo kids but became Sega Genesis kids through no fault of our own. You see, my mom never really understood anything we liked and had a weird habit of getting us adjacent items rather than what we asked for. So when our Nintendo was finally giving up the ghost, we asked for the newer Super Nintendo and got...a Sega Genesis for Christmas.

    We were grateful, but we knew NOTHING about the Genesis games except that they didn't have the titles we were familiar with (Final Fantasy, Mario Brothers, a handful of others we'd gotten to know at friends' houses). To this day, I still prefer Super Nintendo games to Genesis, although I do recognize a few classics like Altered Beast. Fortunately, we got a PC when I was in High School and I for one never looked back.

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    1. She sounds like the class of consumer that's keeping Asylum Films in business, bless their hearts.

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    2. Had to look that up, but you're not wrong.

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    3. *asks for Transformers for Christmas*
      *opens package to find it's Transmorphers*
      *better off for it*

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  2. As the only owner of both an SNES and Genesis during the high 90s, it was up to me to unite the two sides and put an end to the console war. I failed in my mission.

    Both Shadowrun games are great for different reasons. Genny Shadowrun gave players an early taste of open-world gameplay mixed with a Lawnmower-man-type internet to hack. If you wanted to learn shamanic powers, you had to travel to the mountains and earn it. The goal is to take down the primary Megacorp, but you can't just waltz in there. Have to lie, steal, and cheat your way from the gutter. Quite a journey.

    To those who might want to give it a try, I do recommend a ROM hack called "Shadowrun 2058", which enhances and expands the game experience.

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  3. One of my favorite Genesis games was Sid Meier's Pirates! Gold.

    Countless hours sailing the Spanish Main, sinking pirates, capturing or destroying enemy ships and towns for King and Country.

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