Compile CD cyberpunk: Shadowrun on Mega CD!

The last official Mega CD game managed to send off the system with both a bang and a whimper, being as it was an undoubtedly achingly stylish top-tier game for the add-on… just one with the spectacularly poor luck of arriving years too late for anyone to care and during the year that saw Panzer Dragoon Zwei, Tomb Raider, Super Mario 64, Guardian Heroes and Resident Evil debut on hardware that was both more powerful and popular. Compile really had no hope trying to take on a year with that many heavy-hitters in it and coming out on top, and we should doff our caps in Compile’s general direction for seeing the game through to the finish instead of quietly cancelling their Mega CD exclusive project like everybody else did.

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Officially this is a role-playing game but in reality it plays out more like a typical Japanese adventure game, with the majority of your time spent looking at some glorious event art while choosing actions from a short look/talk/move/item style menu. There are times when you’re allowed to wander around areas as a cute little train of SD characters, take part in SRPG-like battles, and brave the 16-bit FMV that is cyberspace, but on the whole it’s just you and your plucky band of Runners, a lot of (interesting) text, and some beautiful scene-setting art in the main window.

The good news is that while it takes most of its cues from the typical J-adventure framework it’s not one that leaves you with four items in your inventory and a dozen places to use them, desperately clicking on every last pixel and using every item on everything until you finally stumble on exactly the right combination – Shadowrun only allows you to go to places you need to go to and find things you need to find. While the mostly linear nature of Shadowrun is something that I’m probably supposed to frown I find the relentless march forward without time to engage in idle banter or grope anyone with breasts really suits the unforgiving world the game takes place in – a time where gang violence, malevolent hackers and corporate mages can cut you down for nothing more than poking your nose in wrong place at the wrong time. Your group may not be the biggest Shadowrunners around but they’re an established team with their own shady contacts and doctors of questionable legality and they just want to get on with the jobs that come their way. It’s worth noting that the alternative to this railroading is the ‘freedom’ you find in games like Bubblegum Crash, which succeed only in wasting your time visiting empty places that have nothing to do in them because the game’s still expecting you to do everything  and speak to everyone in a very specific order.

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In a nod to the pen-and-paper original there are a few dialogue options and moral choices scattered throughout the story,  although the impact they have on the plot is minimal and immediate. You might receive more (or less) nuyen for your troubles based on how you reply to a client, or possibly a helpful plot-specific item, but there’s no hint of any real role-playing systems going on under the hood or that you have a real hand in how events unravel. This may feel a little disappointing for veteran Shadowrun fans but as it’s not unexpected for the era, hardware, or genre in question it feels unfair to hold this against an otherwise gripping tale.

Sadly Shadowrun’s battles are about as bad as the rest of the game is good, so we need to spend a little time on some of the games flaws. Let’s start with the dice rolls: The reason tabletop RPGs have these is because they need a way to randomly generate numbers without any of the participants being able to skew things for or against themselves or another player. Computers and consoles don’t need dice because they’re perfectly capable of generating random numbers between two values all by themselves! Unless you’re Shadowrun. Shadowrun lets you watch a full visual representation of every single tedious roll, even though these animations take forever and add absolutely nothing to the experience. The only good thing about Shadowrun’s dice rolls is that you can turn them off (and you should, immediately).

Then it somehow gets worse in an absolutely mind-boggling way for a developer as experienced and professional as Compile: Spellcasting doesn’t work. Try casting a spell. Any spell at all. It will fail to hit its mark. Always.

Always.

I’m sure you’ve read lines about games that claim a particular feature or character is ‘broken’ before, but they’re rarely to be taken as literally as I mean it with Shadowrun’s magic system, which renders one of your four party members virtually useless in battle for the entire game. You can try to compensate for this shocking oversight by giving Street Shaman Mao a decent gun, but that would mean spending time digging through the nightmare that is the bottomless pit of shop menus-within-menus and overly verbose shopkeeper dialogue (and even then she’s going to miss most of the time anyway). The good old days of console games without patches eh?

But even these plodding sections aren’t completely without merit as all skirmishes, dull as they may be, are at least directly related to the plot and take place in specific locations – no being whisked off to generic battlefields for random fisticuffs here! This is honestly something I wish RPGs did more often; the only similar title that immediately springs to mind is Hudson’s take on Falcon’s excellent Legend of Heroes III (now there’s another game I really need to write about properly!).

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The important thing is that when Shadowrun gets it right it’s so right you want to hug the case tight enough for it to crack it under the sheer intensity of your adoration. However I can’t let the game off the hook entirely as when it’s bad, it’s literally broken. If the idea of JRPG-style Shadowrun battles are something you’ve dreamed of, or your main interest in Shadowrun in general is  the ‘aggressive negotiations’ side of things, steer clear - the battles here neither reflect the system they’re based on nor strike out in to brave new cyberpunk JRPG territory like they should have, leaving you with a combat system who’s biggest positive is that at least you don’t have to suffer through them all that often. On the other hand if the elves-n-dystopian-tech-future setting has always been your thing, Mega CD Shadowrun unquestionably delivers in spades and is well worth gritting your teeth through the hollow SRPG sections for. The only caveat here is that you’ll need a relatively decent grasp of Japanese or at least a willingness to flip through a dictionary to get anything out of this part of the game, as to this day it remains untranslated.

If you’ve got this far and you’re still aching for more Compile Shadowrun, you can find the (rather anemic) official website archived over here - http://www.compile.co.jp/game/history/md/shadowrun/index.html