Two minutes and I’m bleeding out on the pavement beside some dive bar. Perforated. That’s the real word here. I’m fucking perforated, facedown in the grime-slick streets of the Redmond Barrens, Seattle. Now part of the federal republic of the United Canadian and American States in the hellish aftermath of cascade calamities that ushered in the Sixth World.
He looked like an easy mark, some random chump. That’s what I thought. I needed cash, he probably has some, and I’ve got a gun. I forgot one thing: everyone has a fucking gun in UCAS, 2058. The razorgirls, the corporate wage slaves, even the fucking wizards have a goddamn shotgun under their sassy trenchcoats. So he turns around as I fire off a few rounds figuring I got this, and then—pasted. That’s how my time with BlueSky Software’s Shadowrun for the Sega Genesis started.
It’s cool. There’s affordable healthcare at least. Someone dragged my body to Little Chiba’s Chop Shop and they patched me up and kicked me out the front door. The 20 Nuyen on my credstick drops down to 18. This world may be a disaster but at least emergent care only costs 10% of my income.
They’re also one of the cheaper spots to get good cyberware. Right now I’ve just got a plug in my head that lets me jack into the Matrix. Before things are over though, I’m going to get a lot more work done. A lot. This is 2058, what kind of Shadowrunner even are you if you aren’t augmented? Okay, maybe you’re a wizard or a shaman, but even then…a little wired reflexes goes a long way.
Several hours, dozens and dozens of shadowruns, and a couple of rented partners later, I’m neck deep in Renraku security officers (the nastiest in the business). They’ve got me pinned behind a row of computer workstations. One of my runners, Stark, a street samurai that’s more M1 Abrams than Yojimbo, is rushing up as I’m taking fire. I slap a medkit on my soon-to-be-reperforated body and watch him work. It’s beautiful. Balletic. I forgot to tell him we were going in quiet, but when the alarms went off, I was honestly glad he was still carrying a shotgun. And the grenades. He sets his cybereyes to the task and two of the guards explode. Just fucking explode. I’m back on my feet plinking off a few rounds with my pistol, and making my way over towards Walking Bear (my tough-as-nails Native adoptee shaman). She sears the last guard’s brain with magic as Stark rips into him with the spikes that extend from his dark brown forearms.
We came here to exfiltrate a Renraku employee. A defector, someone sick of life in the colossal pyramid that dominates the Seattle skyline (and if you’ve read Renraku Arcology: Shutdown, you’ll agree it’s a smart move). Shit went horizontal almost as soon as we stepped inside, but that’s cool. We’ve got this. We’ve been running together a long time now. Most of us will make it home alive, if not necessarily with all the blood and parts we came in with. But more blood and new parts can be bought on just about any corner in the Sixth World. We’ve gone through plenty already.
Welcome to the Shadows, Chummer.
If that sounds like I’m describing a particularly thrilling session of a tabletop role-playing game, you’re not too far off. I’ve spent countless nights huddled around a dining room table with friends as simple scoop jobs turn into complete clusterfucks. I’ve watched friends get pasted, I’ve been pasted, and we also wrecked shit for months on end every weekend with hip-hop and goth industrial on a boombox, low in the background as die rolls clattered hard and fingers were crossed in prayer.
Shadowrun for the Genesis isn’t a simulation of tabletop Shadowrun. Nor is it an attempt at a photorealistic depiction of a far off future city where the gulf between social classes is big enough to park an aircraft carrier between. It’s an evocation.
Cyberpunk as a genre is a complicated mess. Everyone has a definition of what they think it is politically, textually, and especially aesthetically. When it works, it’s because it’s been broken down. Unpacking and ripping it apart to use as a toolkit is the only real option. Cyberpunk works when it’s de-corporatized, decolonized, and space is given over to the imagining of the reader.
Shadowrun isn’t a pretty game. It’s actually incredibly spartan. There’s no proliferation of Havok physic objects that burst forth. No steam rising from vents on the street. There are no crowds, no street vendors hawking noodles, dumplings, or illegal drugs. Neon kanji signage is not in abundance at all. Generally speaking, the dour and dreary graphics of Shadowrun might fit into three for four sprite sheets, and at least one of them is just a recolor. And yet, from ghoul-infested warehouses to the corporate arcologies, Shadowrun remains suggestive. Providing only the necessities of setting to induce in players the need to bring their imaginative capacities to bear, it’s an incredibly seductive use of limited resources in an era with overstuffed, overbearing assets which insist on only one correct way to interpret space. Even the remarkable soundtrack is more suggestive of atmosphere and place than it is emotion or narrative. Shadowrun signals and suggests, but rarely dictates.
The very opening cinematic lets you know that this is not a world to fuck around in. The Seattle skyline of 2058 disappears as Matrix green terminal font explains how an elite trio of shadowrunners got obliterated in the wilderness outside of Seattle. And you can tell these dudes meant business. A levitating Native, a huge gun-toting troll, and a dude so cybergeared out who’s to say how much of the original man was even left? That last dude? His cyber-eye recorded the whole massacre. It made national news. Also, he’s your brother.
You just dropped the last of your cash to fly your ass out to Seattle, find out what happened, and settle the score for your brother. His name was Michael. You’re Joshua. It’s not a very cyberpunk name (neither one is). But that’s why it’s so damn good. When was the last time you played a game where the main character had a name like “Joshua”—not even “Josh.” But he’s ruggedly handsome, black haired, and perpetually sleeveless. And that’s basically it.
Entering buildings will provide a brief description of character or environment. You can talk to NPCs and get a line or three of dialogue. In many ways, it echoes the published adventure modules from tabletop RPGs of the era—“Read this part to the players”—and then let them work with the teaspoon of concrete material you’ve offered up. But it works, for the same reason it works in tabletop—this is all you need to convey tone, politics, story, and place.
One NPC runner I hired told me he wanted to be a cop because he liked the idea of getting paid to shoot people, but then he washed out and realized he liked shooting cops more anyway. I brought him with me when we tore through Lone Star (a private law enforcement company). There’s Walking Bear, the ork who fled to the wilderness and was adopted by a tribe of Natives and now does dangerous runs to make cash for the tribe. Rianna, the decker who hates corporations but knows they can’t be stopped so she tries to do what she can to keep their power from growing. You don’t get much, but each NPC runner adds just enough small detail to flesh out this world in the player’s mind.
It’s a big departure from the much more densely written graphic adventure Shadowrun developed by Beam Software for the Super Nintendo in 1993, and Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun Returns trilogy.
Runs are everything in Shadowrun, obviously. This is how you’re going to get paid, and increase your capabilities. This is how you’re going to find out more about your brother. Which you’ll eventually do, through a lengthy multi-arc series of interconnecting storylines involving ancient spirits, dragons, corporate espionage, double-crosses and everything you’d expect from a sick as hell Shadowrun campaign. BlueSky has turned the classic tabletop cyberpunk adventure into a videogame. The SNES version is far more interested in being an interactive fiction set in the world of Shadowrun, like the branded novels. What the Genesis adaptation delivers is a streamlined, gritty, and thoroughly entertaining evocation of the tabletop game. And it mostly nails it.
You’ll die a lot in Shadowrun. Especially if you go alone. That’s why every bit of Nuyen you bring in goes directly to upgrading your kit, whether it’s more powerful guns, a faster, beefier cyberdeck with more room for software, or spells that hit like a howitzer (when they succeed). But mostly it comes down to hiring those fellow shadowrunners, NPCs with specialized skills to take care of the gangs, ghouls, ghosts, and corporate security forces you’ll spend all your time contending with. They’ll even help you out if you decide to menace the innocent populace.
In the tabletop game, combat is a tense but prolonged bout of strategic warfare, tempered by often baroque rules to determine how things like grenades hit. Die rolls are as lethal as an Ares Predator at point blank range, but the time it takes to resolve a simple four player on three security guard skirmish can take well over an hour (sometimes two or three). But as it plays out in the theatre of the mind, it’s kinetic and exhilarating when done right. There’s no real strategy layer in the videogame adaption. But it’s fast and frantic, communicating the sense of the fiction of each fight if not the minutia. Cycle through targets and unload with everything you’ve got until one of you drops. It’s still tense, and much faster, even if one wishes there was more depth to it. Bodies drop. Sometimes them, sometimes your hirelings, and more often than not, you.
Luckily death isn’t a game over. The local chop shop will gladly put you back together. Fellow runners need to be rehired and missions will need to be restarted, but it’s a lot fairer than the Death is Death approach of TTRPGs.
Missions are generated randomly, so if you want, you can just run and die and run some more, never even bothering with the main story until you absolutely want to. And while types only really fall between escorts, extractions (of people and goods), courier jobs, and murder x of y, it doesn’t wear out its welcome easily. You can spend hundreds of hours just shadowrunning in Seattle to your heart’s content as the game’s Johnsons serve up a neverending buffet of extralegal activities. Get rich or die trying (until you finally do get rich).
And while shadowrunning is the bread and butter of the series and this game in particular, what makes playing the game as a Decker so enticing is how incredible the Matrix is. This is Shadowrun and the Matrix is a big deal. BlueSky has, more than any other adaption, made this such a compelling and separate mode of gameplay that it’s hard to ever bother playing anything other than a decker.
The cyberdeck is your lifeline as a decker. Plug your brain into your shoulder slung computer, find a terminal, then boom—a chrome bodied projection floating in the vastness of cyberspace can connect to banks, corporate databases, etc. Floating from node to node might seem easy, but there’s Intrusion Countermeasures that will either disconnect you if you set off too many alarms, and some will outright fry your brain. Loading up on the best hardware and advanced software is key to success. Knowing when to run your sleeze program to stealth your way through an I/O node or when to go full out on the attack is part of the fun. Sometimes Johnsons will give you missions to go collect data, or delete it from corporate servers, but just like killing people for pocket money, you can jack in and hunt down paydata whenever you want.
There’s no faster big payday in the game than slicing your way through lethal Black IC (ice) to nab some juicy corporate secrets to sell. The trade off being, just like in real life, computers and high end software aren’t cheap. The legendary Fairlight cyberdeck costs 250,000 Nuyen. Given that a lot of early jobs only pay 55, you can see it’s an uphill climb to be the best console cowboy.
It’s worth it, because the Matrix in Shadowrun is absolutely sick. And unlike the tabletop game, you’re not going to be going out for a weed-fueled Taco Bell run and a couple of rounds of Smash Bros, while the GM and the one Decker spend hours trying to resolve one round of matrix combat (even if those are fun times too). Matrix runs are a compelling way of splitting up your time calling cabs to take you around coastal Washington, breaking one particular runner out of prison, getting in gang wars, or finishing the game’s main story.
If there’s one grand disappointment, it’s that Shadowrun isn’t local multiplayer. Even having the ability to bring one more friend on as a permanent companion runner would have opened up this already quite open-ended game a lot. But still, there’s something to be said for duet campaigns, which Shadowrun evokes more than any other adaptation of the game we’ve ever gotten. And if you’re willing to put in the work and bring your own imagination to it, Shadowrun remains one of the most compelling cyberpunk experiences available.
Shadowrun was developed by Bluesky and published by Sega, adapted from the cyberpunk role-playing game by FASA. Our review is based on the Sega Genesis version.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.