It has been my experience that whenever pen and paper roleplaying games cross the line into video games, the experience is distinctive. In the mid ’90s, a popular Sci-fi pen and paper game by the name of Shadowrun got turned into several video games. Different companies undertook the challenge of making the games for each system. They were all released around the same time, but all had the name Shadowrun.
Shadowrun is a wild mix of cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic with a dose of fantasy thrown in for good measure. That gives it an expansive, rich and interesting universe ripe for setting video games in. NPCs can be any multitude of races and occupations. You will find troll hackers, orc shamans and even elf gang members. All that variety continually makes you think about your role in the world. To be fair though, Shadowrun’s interpretation of the Internet, known as “the Matrix”, can feel a bit outdated. And before you ask, this Matrix was around long before the movies of the same name!
These games must have been a great marketing tool to bring more people into the pen and paper game. I know when I got my first job, one of the first things I spent money on were Dungeon & Dragons and, inspired by the console games, Shadowrun rulebooks. I guess that means the video game idea worked, right?
When I was a teen, the Super NES and Sega Genesis Shadowrun versions befuddled me. It was not totally uncommon for both systems to get multiplatform titles, but both versions were completely different from each other. They were different stories, gameplay and style. I thought that the idea was crazy and pondered why they would do such a thing. My youthful self didn’t understand that both games were designed by two different studios. It is something that with age and hindsight seems pretty obvious now.
The Super NES version of Shadowrun was developed by Beam Software. Beam chose to use a third-person isometric view and control scheme that felt more like an adventure game. The story was also loosely based on a Shadowrun novel called “Never Deal with a Dragon.” Ideas like those were not done so frequently in that era. They really focused on the story rather than the gameplay. It makes this game a must-play for gamers looking for something a bit different to the more well-known Super NES titles out there.
You start the game waking up in a morgue, believed dead by most people. Using the trope of amnesia, you don’t know who you are or why you are in the morgue. After startling the morticians and wandering outside, a passerby that you know tells you your name is Jake. Now as Jake, you stumble around the shady streets of Seattle trying to put the pieces together why someone would want you dead. It has a very “film noir” vibe.
For the Sega Genesis, BlueSky Software had a very different idea on how Shadowrun should be made. They chose to focus more on the mechanics of the pen and paper game than the storytelling. The generic plot is that you are investigating who murdered your brother. About 10 minutes in, you completely forget the plot and get lost in the game’s early idea of an open-world game. The idea of an open-world game was not as common as it is now — it’s something I didn’t even know to call Shadowrun until Grand Theft Auto was released.
BlueSky used a top down view, rather than the third-person isometric view. The point and click style of play was gone too. It only takes about five seconds to realize all the differences. The setting, however is very much the same as the other version, making the two versions of Shadowrun a great comparison of how the same idea can be executed many different ways.
I remember the exact moment I made the discovery about both games. I got the Super NES version of Shadowrun as a birthday gift, and several months later my friend Nick got a Genesis for his birthday along with BlueSky’s take on the franchise. We had already played through my Super NES copy a few times and he was bummed to get the Genesis version. The discovery that both games were completely different led us down a rabbit hole that lasted months. We played both games again and then argued over which was better. It’s silly, I know, but what else would 12-year olds do with this knowledge? The funny thing was I liked the Genesis version better and Nick liked my Super NES version better. Thinking back now, I think I just liked the Genesis version more at the time because it was the version I didn’t own.
A few years ago, I found out that there was a third Shadowrun game released around the same time as the other two. It was only out in Japan for the Sega CD, which is why I had no idea of its existence. I have never played it, but have seen footage. This version is anime styled and I have heard there may have been an anime series too. Like the other two games, this one is drastically different. It has a visual novel style of storytelling mixed with a turn based strategy RPG element. I wish I spoke Japanese so I could tell you more.
Recently there has been a resurgence of love for Shadowrun, thanks largely to a Kickstarter campaign last year. It made its goal and soon there will be a new Shadowrun game. Shadowrun Returns looks to be a mash-up of all three of the previous games. A bit of open world like the Genesis version, the isometric perspective of the Super NES edition, and strategic combat like the Sega CD. The recent demo video they put out sold me on the game. The main character of the Super NES game is even a party member.
After all these years, these games still leave me itching for more. Hopefully, the new game will scratch that itch. If it does not, I see another play through of both games in my future. There is nothing like throwing a fireball and then hacking a computer system a moment later to show you what you have been missing. Games really need to borrow more ideas like Shadowrun. It could help break some of the staleness we have going on in modern gaming.
The Vault is our weekly delve into gaming history to seek out the underappreciated and overlooked classics of yore, hosted this time around by Lou Page. Follow Lou on Twitter here.