Throwback Thursday: The best game setting you never played in
I was a Nintendo Power kid. I’ve always been. Long before I discovered the internet, or EGM, or Gamepro, or any of those other venerable institutions of game-related content and commentary, I was already coveting whatever issue of Nintendo Power I saw that I didn’t own yet.
I never actually owned a lot of them, since my mom kept me on a very short leash when it came to dropping money on frivolous things. The four or five I did manage to “amass” over the years got read from cover to cover so much that the ink looked like it was fading from the intensity of my constant gazing.
All I knew about games beyond my Famicom outings, I knew from Nintendo Power. It defined the realities and the boundaries of my gaming world. And then -- just out of curiosity, really! -- I happened to pick up an issue of Dragon Magazine from a Nova Fontana branch that no longer exists today.
Ral Partha miniature ads featuring unsettling monsters and stunted-looking “humans”. Poorly laid-out mail-order forms for Star Trek rank badges and memorabilia. Magic: The Gathering spreads with the card text blanked out. Painterly art of monstrous demons. Women in chainmail bikinis. Polyhedral dice! Games that aren’t played on a TV! Board games for adults! Paging through that magazine was like being William in Almost Famous, discovering Led Zeppelin for the first time. It was scary and mind-blowing.
And then, of course, there was the ad about the tabletop RPG called Shadowrun.
I can’t quite remember when my first exposure to the whole cyberpunk genre was, but this could have been it: 80s-looking punks sticking cables into head-mounted ports, typing on their arm-mounted keyboards while their street samurai buddies covered them with katanas and submachine guns in meatspace. My brain was already reeling from the sheer radness of the idea, but Shadowrun even took it further, sending my developing imagination into China syndrome territory: these were elves with guns! Dwarves that flew jets with their minds! I kind of knew what these metahuman races were (thanks to the Nintendo Power Official Final Fantasy Strategy Guide), but this -- this was just enough to send me into a mouth-frothing frenzy. This was awesome. Awesome.
Shadowrun is a game currently set in 2075, but in many, many ways, its heart
is stuck firmly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You’ve got elves with a ridiculous amount of piercings smoking cigarettes in the corner of a sweaty rave, trolls with nose rings and leather jackets toting shotguns, deckers (hackers) with mohawks and 80s-cool goggles, and, well, there are dragons pulling the strings behind the scenes of this hazy neon dystopia. It’s the kind of sci-fi/fantasy blend that only a heavy metal album cover could replicate so succinctly: the love child of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Blade Runner, and Tolkienesque high fantasy, with a smattering of Native American mythology for a unique flavor. And also of course those dragons I mentioned.
It’s all such a good fit for a video game and it’s a mystery why a big Shadowrun game hasn’t happened yet until now. Over the course of five main edition releases and countless supplemental setting books that have been released between 1989 and 2013, the Shadowrun setting has grown into a rich alternate universe that possesses limitless potential for thrilling team-based storytelling.
Central to the setting is of course the Shadowrun, which the first edition rulebook defines as "n. Any movement, action, or series of such made in carrying out plans which are illegal or quasilegal." Shadowrun, like many other cyberpunk settings, is all about the skilled mercenaries on the fringes of society -- the runners who risk everything and get to experience all the action. It’s an attractive prospect for a pack of gamers looking forward to a night of colorful escapism. It’s also a woefully underrepresented setting in the video game world.
Me, I never really got into the role-playing thing beyond a handful of D&D sessions in grade school, a couple of Mage: The Ascension games in high school, and a short-lived Vampire: The Masquerade campaign in college. My early discovery of the Shadowrun universe was without a follow-through until much, much later in the late 90s when I discovered the joys of emulation. I was tooling around with a very early Genesis emulator that was included on a disc of pirated goodies I bought from a seedy shop in Greenhills (and let’s face it -- tech and seedy went hand-in-hand back in 1990s Manila) and I discovered that there was a ROM of the Genesis Shadowrun game on the disc. I was launched back to my Dragon Magazine-fearing youth with its punks and its leather-and-chains vibe and its bad typography and you can bet I played that game for what felt like a hundred hours.
I wanted more Shadowrun. I played the SNES game, which was also a totally different experience. I tracked down whatever books I could find, and I read all the cheap Shadowrun novels I came across in sales. But I wasn’t a tabletop player, and it wasn’t enough.
That brings us to 2013 and the release of Shadowrun Returns. It’s a totally new game and not a throwback by any definition at all, but the happy feelings that will emanate from you as you play this game might as well be from the 1980s for all the retro goodness that this game will deliver. The RPG gameplay is quite good and the XCOM-ish turn-based combat is excellent, but honestly, the game is generic when detached from the Shadowrun theme. It’s the theme and the story that make it come to life as more than the sum of its parts. It’s Shadowrun, with all the leather-wearing, drek-spouting, virtual reality-hacking 80s goodness that goes with it.
I believe a huge part of what makes Shadowrun Returns a Shadowrun game is the fact that one of the setting's original creators, Jordan Weisman, worked on the project. Yeah. Open one of those Shadowrun rulebooks. You’ll see his name right on the credits page. The writing it the game displays such an intimate knowledge of the setting that effectively draws you in with its inescapable combination of convincing dialogue, setting-authentic jargon, and very well-written narration.
What’s more, the adventure never has to end again! In the tradition of pen and paper RPGs everywhere, Shadowrun Returns lets players and budding designers create their own scenarios with the very tool that the dev team used to construct the campaign that the game shipped with.
Just thinking about it almost makes me believe that there’s still some stories in me waiting to be told -- this time in adventure module format.
It really is a good year for Shadowrun. There’s also Shadowrun Online, which is a browser-based tactics game set in the same universe, and a whole bunch of analog products for the setting out this year.
If you want to lose yourself in an absorbing old-school RPG setting, pick up Shadowrun Returns. If you want to find out more about the universe, you can now purchase pdfs of the rulebooks. Hey, if you want to play those old Shadowrun console games, there are ways, too! Just do yourself a favor and get acquainted with its world. You may never want to leave.
Now... how about a new Crimson Skies game?