1993 was an amazing year for me. Halfway through the year, I turned 16; shortly before that, I did work experience – a two week stint as a dogsbody in retail, which opened my eyes to the fact that there was a life and a world beyond school. Jurassic Park was released; the hype was real and it was an incredible experience – it felt like a seismic shift in the way that movies were made, with its representation of dinosaurs that felt like living, breathing creatures (though many mention the CGI, the computer generated effects wizardry in Jurassic Park was actually deployed sparingly – there were a perhaps surprisingly large number of practical effects and creatures used). It was also the year that I started to broaden my horizons beyond my then-limited selection of reading material, thanks to a friend’s older brother – who had discovered William Gibson and other cyberpunk authors.
I’d seen the term cyberpunk used a lot in magazines I read and on the occasional TV show. The notion of cyberspace was something I was already familiar with – even before reading Neuromancer, the William Gibson novel in which the term was coined. The notion of virtual worlds and accessing a worldwide network of computers in a way which enveloped the senses of the user was an intoxicating and enticing proposition. The stories of broken people fighting back against ultra-powerful mega corporations – with no true good or evil, no black and white; only grey – really spoke to me, an intelligent student who struggled within the education system; someone who didn’t fit in with what was expected of me, frustrated and confused at what I saw as arcane and unnecessary rules that were meant to be followed.
So yes, cyberpunk was an important cultural movement for me. It felt grounded and real despite the sci-fi elements, which themselves felt somewhat inevitable. I became obsessed with reading anything I could get my hands on that had even the faintest aura of ‘cyberpunk’ around it – not only that, but watching cyberpunk-esque movies or TV shows (which are laughably dated now) or playing games with the theme (the Cyberpunk TTRPG being a particular highlight) was also something I loved to do.
It was through these TTRPGs that I first heard of Shadowrun. It was drenched in all of the usual paraphernalia – street gangs, distinctive future slang, drugs, mega corporations, hitmen, shady jobs undertaken for untrustworthy people and cyberspace-dwelling hackers. What truly set it apart, however, was a significant twist: in Shadowrun’s cyberpunk future, fantasy creatures and tropes were real. Orcs, elves, dwarves, dragons and more, along with spells and magic.
It was a fusion of genres that, against all odds, actually worked.
It was so popular that video games were pretty much inevitable. Being a console owner – and SNES specifically, at the time, it was beyond exciting to read about the Shadowrun game being released. Though a highly regarded – and very different – adaptation of Shadowrun also arrived for the Mega Drive (or Genesis, for my cyberpunks across the pond), the only one I could actually play myself was for the SNES.
It didn’t disappoint. Taking the form of an isometric RPG, players were cast in the role of Jake Armitage, who – gunned down in a brief but atmospheric intro sequence using, as games did at the time, in-game graphics – wakes up in the morgue without any memory of who he was or how he got there. The first action you do in-game is check your character’s toe tag, which gives you your name; the first clue you find in a long, twisting sequence of clues and revelations.
There are elements of point and click games here, with your character highlighting objects of interest in the environment. There’s also a nicely implemented system of NPC conversation; if you manage to get them to say certain key words through your chosen conversation options, those key words are added to your vocabulary, widening the scope of what you can speak to NPCs about.
Jacking into a computer to gain access to cyberspace sees you infiltrating networks via a Minesweeper-esque mini-game. Combat is real-time, though it definitely still has RPG elements – with hit points evaporating in the air as successful hits land. Your character has several stats which can be improved throughout the game, adding to the RPG feel.
It was a technically impressive game in its day, and – like its source material – a successful mashup of genres. Aside from the aforementioned opening sequence which sees your character gunned down, there was also a cinematic intro showcasing the future Seattle that the game takes place in, which owed more than a little to Blade Runner (as most cyberpunk does, frankly). The music, also, was a revelation; the soundtrack is one that was very impressive and varied given the technology the composers had to work with.
It took me few hours to get home once I’d purchased Shadowrun, having travelled from North to Central London via train to pick it up. I pored over the manual all the way home, which was a typical thing to do back then, immersing myself in the background and reading about all of the controls and interweaving systems. When I finally got home, I couldn’t put Shadowrun down; I played it from late afternoon, right through to the following morning. I would have likely kept going if I could have.
Shadowrun was an absolutely pivotal game for me. It convinced me that RPGs could move away from their usual fantasy worlds (though of course, elements of fantasy still remained in Shadowrun despite the cyberpunk setting) and also, that console games could be a lot more mature than I’d come to expect at that time.
It was such a revelation, in fact, that the concept was rebooted for a trilogy of games (and at least one spin-off) recently. The first, Shadowrun Returns, was an early Kickstarter success that promised to revive – and modernise – the SNES-style gameplay for a modern audience. Stacked with references to the earlier game, with brilliant writing and a superb soundtrack, it was followed by two standalone sequels that both improved on an already great formula. The SNES version has also been recreated in its entirety as a user-created mod, somewhat impressively, in the second of these games, Shadowrun: Dragonfall.
Even the TTRPG is due an imminent sixth edition; it’s enduring success and popularity is clear. Shadowrun’s influence continues to make waves even now, twenty six years on.
Long may it continue.
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