Developer: Blue Sky Software
Publisher: Sega

PAL Region Warning: Shadowrun was only launched in the US and comes with regional copy protection. You can get around this via an Action Replay cartridge though though then the game will run at 50HZ (slower music and image will be slightly squished). Instead, I recommend a 60HZ switch instead which bypasses regional protection and runs the game as intended.

Generally speaking, it's easy to review a game and give a detailed opinion of whether or not the title at hand is well designed. Shadowrun for the Sega Genesis however is an odd exception in which most elements need to be deconstructed individually.

Every great idea implemented here is offset by a frustrating flaw, some intentional while others were an oversight by the development team likely due to time, budget and other resource constraints though perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.

Shadowrun for Sega's 16-bit console was the second game ever made based on Fasa's pen & paper role-playing game. The previous title, also named Shadowrun had launched exclusively for the Super Nintendo a year prior, despite sharing a name and universe, these were completely different games in both story and gameplay. At the time, Nintendo's version garnered a positive response by the press and Sega, not wanting to be left behind commissioned the version we see today.

To this day there is still an open debate on which game is better, Nintendo fans argue their version features a better story and superior graphics while Sega supporters defend this game for its gameplay and adherence to the pen & paper's rule-set. Having never played the Super Nintendo version I can't comment on which is the superior version, though after finishing Sega's rendition I can easily see why many swear by it as a hidden gem in the Genesis' library while others quickly dismiss it as an ugly, boring and over-complicated game.

Starting the game, you're asked to choose between three 'classes', Street Samurai, Decker and Gator Shaman with no choice of race, instead limiting players to playing as a Human. Right off the bat the selection seems paltry, at first I assumed this stemmed from cartridge space limitations, until I discovered you can hire other shadowrunners to join your crew who feature difference races and classes including an elven mage, troll samurai and even a dwarf rat shaman. Why the developers chose to limit the main character's creation process is beyond me.

Another issue I ran into was the class balancing system. Simply put, I see no reason why players should choose any class other than Gator Shaman. With enough grinding any character can max out the firearms, hand-to-hand combat and hacking stats while spells remain exclusive to magic-wielding users. Now granted, installing cyberware will decrease your magical prowess, but a simple matrix-jack implant has such a low cast on this that I eventually had a magic user, who was an expert hacker and was a master at both hand-to-hand combat and SMGs.

Street Samurai is perhaps the worst starting class to pick, not due to a design decision, but rather because of a game-breaking bug. Out of 8 possible cyberware enhancements, the three most powerful ones, Enhanced Reflex, Muscle Replacement and Dermal Plating break the game and produce the opposite effect; instead of making characters more powerful, they die in one melee hit. This is only one of several bugs I ran across, most are minor though others were annoying including one where runners I had hired for life suddenly leave my team after a single shadowrun job, at its worst Shadowrun feels broken and unfinished.

Yet, for as many issues as Shadowrun has, it offsets them with sheer moments of brilliance and attention to detail I never would have expected to find in a 16-bit game. Initially, the quickest way to gather money and experience is to take on shadowrun jobs, these are given to you by Mr. Johnsons who can be found in bars throughout the city. these run from low-level escort and/or delivery missions to high level hacking, VIP extracting or company sabotage and this is where the game gets interesting. 

Depending on your skills and shadowrun team, there are so many ways of doing one job it's astounding. Need to break into a corporation headquarters? You can go in guns blazing, killing everyone in your path or you could cast an invisibility spell, learn guard patterns and sneak in. Or you could buy fake ID's, boost your fast-talking skills and let the everyone think you work for the company. Alternatively you could get into the headquarters, find a computer, hack the system to shut down cameras and learn where your target is, and complete your job in five minute or less. The offset being you can get your team stuck if you don't prepare in advance for a shadowrun. The degree of freedom is staggering!

This doesn't apply just to shadowrun jobs either. Companies, gangs and factions will remember your actions. Get caught carrying an illegal weapon and suddenly you're wanted by the police, expect frequent ambushes. Want to stop these raids? Find a contact within city hall and bribe him to delete your criminal record. You can even pay gangs protection money, learn who controls them and ally yourself with them, though now you can expect the rival gang to do anything in their power to kill you. As you progress, you soon build a network of contacts, friends, shadowrunners who provide you with legal and illegal weapons, hacking gear, friendly discounts, cyberware, fake permits, company keycards and more. Corporations will often start targeting you if you accept too many shadowruns targeted at them and they don't forget as easily as the police.

If the real world is a becoming a tad too dangerous you can also try to jack into the matrix. There, the world radically shifts both graphically and gameplay-wise. Suddenly, the ugly top-down view is replaced by an over-the-shoulder perspective with scaling effects. Combat changes from real-time to a Final Fantasy-esque active turn-based system. It feels completely different from the real world while still holding enough a strong connection to it. There, you can try to access random or previously discovered fixed points in the matrix and data-mine, that is, steal private, valuable information and then sell it to the highest bidder. This can range from company marketing, security and top secret data to police records, prison records and more. 

Data-mining is so profitable I eventually stopped doing shadowruns altogether. While the highest paid jobs will usually net you between 5.000-7.000 Nuyen, a single data run on a high level corporation's top secret files could net me anywhere between 2.000-30.000 Nuyen. There's more to the matrix than just data runs though, while physically infiltrating a company you can jack into the company's computers to disable alarms, alternatively, you might also download files that provide hints on what you need to do to progress the story or simply provide extra lore to the world.

Unfortunately, as is custom with this game, for each great idea implemented there is another concept in which Shadowrun drops the ball. Although the game doesn't directly explain this, jacking into the matrix is not advisable until you get at least mid-tier equipment and you maxed out all hacking related skills. Worse still, hacking related items are the most expensive in the game, with the best deck costing around 200.000 Nuyen and that is with your bartering skill maxed out. Hacking programs can be upgraded up to 8 times, maxing just one of these costs about 100.000 Nuyen, no matter how you slice it, becoming a great hacker is a costly, time-consuming process. 

The issues don't end there though, at times you may encounter an IC with a defense called 'Tar Pit' this deletes a program from your deck, meaning if you had a fully upgraded attack skill, not only did you just lose all the money and time investment required to install it, you are also now defenseless and must jack out. Frustratingly, you can't delete your own programs when you want to. Even the highest deck has a limited disk space and certainly not enough to fully upgrade every program there is, this means if you made a poor choice you might not have room left to get a program you want or even have enough room left for profitable data-mining.

Jacking out into the real world is a quick endeavor though it's also a grim reminder of how below graphically disappointing this game is. Streets and characters look very muddy and dark to the point where it's hard to make out characters, buildings or locations, while this may have been done on purpose, the artists went overboard. Dialogs are handled on a black choosing your line of dialog. Oddly enough, each character portrait seems to having been drawn on just one layer, meaning they are limited to a mere 16 colors and generally lack detail, palette swaps of said portaits are also common, likely to save cartridge space.

You'll notice I have yet to mention Shadowrun's main story, this is due to how uninteresting the plot itself is. The main plot largely consists of fetch quests with some combat in between. Hacking and any non-combat skill rarely if ever comes into play when following the main story-line. You may be on a quest to find your brother's killer, but characters rarely ever feel real, providing very little dialog or backstory. Instead, the true star here is the mood, tone and setting the game provides. Visiting a cyberpunk dystopic Seattle, discovering how Native American tribes have since flourished in this new world and the control corporations have over the average citizen play front and center turning the plot itself into more of an afterthought.

Occasionally you'll come across a few cutscenes, mostly consisting of still screens with text explaining the plot as you progress. One aspect the story gets it right is making you feel like a detective tracking down your brother's killer. It may lack any human touch or connection but considering how most tasks can be carried out in any order gameplay soon becomes a matter of putting clues together and deducing where to go next.

At best, Shadowrun is brilliant and engaging, at worst it's a frustrating, broken experience. This could have been not just the best role-playing experience on the Sega Genesis, but the best 16-bit RPG, period. Even despite all its bugs and glaring design flaws there is still enough here to make it one of the best RPGs of its time. Shadowrun is what Fallout or The Elder Scrolls would have been had they been created for a 16-bit system. Despite its high price, this game is worth tracking down provided you have a high tolerance for the occasional bug and questionable design decision.

Trivia: During the Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter campaign of 2012, its developers promised the new game would be connected to both Genesis and Super Nintendo Shadowrun games. In the Genesis case, this was done by having Harlequin as a returning character.

- Engaging roleplay mechanics with a surprising amount of freedom
- Multitude of ways tasks and missions can be carried out make for a fresh experience
- Hacking feels like a completely different world to discover
- Imagine if Fallout 3 or The Elder Scrolls had been created for a 16-bit system. This is it

- Occasionally buggy and with some questionable design decisions
- Main quest and plot hold very little interest
- Graphically below average

Final Grade: B+

For a console game, Shadowrun brings a lot of extras. The full packaging comes with the box, game, black and white manual, a free 6-month subscription to Sega Visions magazine and a double-sided catalog/Eternal Champions poster.

I quite like the game's cover even if it was directly taken from the first and second edition Shadowrun books. It's a testament to the game's quality when I feel the cover so accurately reproduces what actually goes on in the game. Both the cartridge and manual feature the same design though sadly the latter is completely in black and white.

I quite like the Eternal Champions poster, the first time I saw it seemed very reminiscent of Boris Vallejo's style. Upon a short Google search I quickly discovered the artist behind this was Julie Bell who happens to be Vallejo's wife. I'll admit I'd much rather see Julie's skills put towards a Shadowrun themed poster but it's hard to deny just how striking the image is. I don't quite understand what that white thing coming out of the guy's watch is, but I don't care, it's cool, it's 90s and I love it!

The other side of the poster features a catalog with Sega's latest offerings including Genesis, Game Gear and Sega CD titles. I'm surprised at how little I care for the Genesis offerings in this poster, that's what happens when half the games you're promoting are sports and racing titles.

At least they took the time to show off Sonic 3, Aladdin, Toejam & Earl, Sub-Terrania, Sonic Spinball and Eternal Champions.

Not too impressed by the Game Gear catalog either, most of the games there I could probably find for the Master System without having to worry about battery life. Still, Sonic Chaos, Jurassic Park and Deep Duck Trouble are often regarded as strong titles.

Finally we have the Sega CD catalog and I'm glad to say, it's not all FMV games, in fact, games for that ill-fated adapter are looking pretty good! The standout title would have to be Final Fight CD which is still considered one of the best home ports. I never really cared for Sonic CD, but I know it has quite the cult following. Lastly, there's Silpheed which I'd love to get my hands on should I ever own a CD adapter for my console.

Shadowrun's manual comes in a poor quality paper, made even worse by the fact it's not in color, despite this, the information contained within should be a mandatory read before playing the game. 

It accurately describes every facet of gameplay, tells you what to do and where to go and is even kind enough to provide maps for all the major regions.

I'm not used to Sega games containing so much information, I guess this only shows we European users got the short end of the stick with our VCR style manuals.
I like how they took the manual's back cover to sneak in an ad for Landstalker, another game I'd love to own, hopefully one day. Though again, the ad is also in black and white so some of its flash is instantly lost.

Overall I'm quite impressed with Shadowrun's packaging, its cover fits the gameplay quite nicely while still providing an actually useful manual and beautiful if off-themed poster. Had the manual been in color and in a slightly higher quality paper I probably would have given it a maximum score.

Packaging Grade: A-


  1. this game brings me so many memories of my childhood, this, sir - is a great article that makes justice to one of the best games, in my humble opinion, ever made to genesis!
    even that i've had spent many hours on this game, some of your observations may have slipped through my eyes, maybe because of the euphoria that log in into the atmosphere of this game caused me at the time but i shall be aware of them in the future in a possible replay of it!
    thanks a lot by this piece of text, bringer of lots of joy and entertainment!
    from your brazilian pal - Andrey.

    1. Thank you! I really appreciate it! Shadowrun was a review that took quite a while to fully master the game and condense my thoughts into. It was also my first review which featured animated gifs.