One of the best sources prospective video games can draw inspiration from is a core rulebook from a tabletop RPG. They are filled with every resource you could need to set up your own game including rule sets, character classes, combat mechanics and plenty of lore. There is so much to work with that adapting a tabletop RPG into a video game becomes comparable to adapting a popular novel into a film. In the early nineties, the cyberpunk trend was growing in popularity and few games fit better into the trend than Shadowrun.
The Role You Play
You play as Jake Armitage, a courier en route to delivering a valuable piece of data stored inside of his head computer when he is intercepted by a gang of hitmen and shot down, left to die in the middle of the street. He is saved from death by a fox spirit named Kitsune and wakes up later in the city morgue. Jake has to piece together the events that led up to his attempted assassination, and he does so by fighting off other hitmen with guns and spells to gather more information about his enemies by hacking into computers as well as interviewing different people. He can also recruit others to fight alongside him who specialize in combat, spellcasting, hacking, or any combination of the three.
The plot revolves heavily around answering the questions of Jake’s assassination attempt. A lot of the clues quickly point to the Drake Corporation and its leader, the aptly named Drake. Jake has to find out who Drake is, why he ordered the assassination and ultimately get revenge.
While mechanically it is very much an RPG, Shadowrun plays more like a fast-paced point-and-click adventure game. The combat engages in real-time whenever you encounter an enemy and to attack, you point your crosshair and shoot. Battles aren’t always challenging, but they are frequent and wear you down over time. Because of this, it’s important to make sure that you can get back to a bed safely.
Another big part of the game is the hacking sections. Early on, you will acquire a cyberdeck that allows you to hack into computers and access the matrix. While inside, you can gather data files, access elevators and drain money from bank accounts. It seems very simple at first, but you take damage fighting through the computer’s inner defense systems. If you aren’t careful, it is possible to die as a result of taking too much damage.
It can be hard at times to figure out where to go or what to do. A lot of the information you gather piles up over time and you can easily stumble into dead ends. While you’re running around figuring out where to go, there is also a strong temptation to grind for karma points. On a regular playthrough, Shadowrun can take about 7 hours to complete, but if you are fixated on grinding for karma and maxing out all of your stats, it still isn’t that long and will max out at about 10 hours.
There are only about a dozen tracks in the game, and they are spread out quite a bit. The same tracks are used for multiple sections of the city. Multiple clubs use the same song, and all the graveyards use the same music too. Because a lot of the tracks are very ubiquitous, they have a more adaptable tone to them so that they can suit a multitude of settings. One track plays in the background in a city, a high-rise building, an abandoned boat, and an underground research laboratory and it surprisingly works.
Cyberpunk became a popular trend in fiction in the 1980s due largely to the works of William Gibson. That began to inspire a lot of cyberpunk fiction including, but not limited to, the Shadowrun core rulebook. To no real surprise, many of the concepts in the SNES game come from the tabletop game. This includes the currency nuyen, using Karma for leveling, improving your body by installing cyberware, and also a lot of plot ideas from a Shadowrun Extended Universe novel called ‘Never Deal With a Dragon.’ Additionally, the game also takes a few ideas from the William Gibson novel Neuromancer. Jake’s last name ‘Armitage’ comes from one of the characters in the book. There’s also a doctor you can visit who installs cyberware upgrades for you, and he says they’re “the best Chiba has to offer.” Chiba is a district in Tokyo where Neuromancer takes place.
The Talking Parts
Dialog plays a huge part in Shadowrun. One of the game’s core features is being able to open up a conversation with nearly every character in the game. You can either just talk to them or ask them about certain keywords that you have learned about. Their responses vary depending on whether they actually know anything or not, whether they want to tell you, or whether they require some coercion first. It can require giving them an item, paying them nuyen, finishing a task, or asking them about a different keyword. There is a lot of detective work that goes into finding out what you need to ask different people and it can usually mean running between a lot of far-away places in the process and having to do some shooting or hacking in-between.
Z…We’ve Reached the End. Anything Else?
Though it’s never specifically mentioned in this game, it takes place in a near-futuristic Seattle. One of the hints to this is that the Space Needle is visible in one of the opening cutscenes. Another clue is that you have to take a ferry to Bremerton. Bremerton is a city in western Washington on the other side of the Puget sound that you can reach from Seattle by taking a ferry. Another clue is that after getting to the top of the Drake Technologies building, you can travel to a volcano. This is likely referring to Mt. St. Helens, an active volcano in southern Washington state which famously erupted in 1980 (and again in 2004.)
For anyone unfamiliar with Shadowrun or the cyberpunk genre, this is a great first step. Shadowrun is a well-made, competent RPG that delivers a solid, yet simple story. It can get a bit repetitive at times and there is an impulse to want to fight every enemy you come across to acquire karma, but it is hardly necessary. It’s paced well, it matches the theme of the tabletop game well, and it’s satisfying. Not only that, there’s a whole Shadowrun universe open to anyone curious.