Shadowrun on the SNES is based on FASA’s tabletop role playing game of the same name. It is set in a cyberpunk future reminiscent of William Gibson’s book Neuromancer (1984). The world of Shadowrun, however, combines Gibson’s cyberpunk world with the world of magic and monsters popularised by the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.
The SNES game, starts with the player waking up on slab in the morgue as Jake. Jake complains that his brain feels burnt and is suffering from amnesia. It’s a now familiar trope of the blank slate protagonist where the player must explore the world afresh to find out what is happening and who is trying to kill him. Jake is shady kind of courier – a shadowrunner working in a city run by sinister giant corporations.
Shadowrunners, are skilled mercenaries with specialist skills. The games pen and paper origins are apparent in the character classes of Shadowrunners: ‘Mercs’ have a skill with firearms, ‘Mages’ capacity to wield magic and ‘Deckers’ to jack into to cyberspace to breach the corporation’s data empires. Jake is a shadowrunner, but unlike that original roleplaying games where each of these character classes are separate. The player as Jake can combine classes and choose how to level up in the differing skills areas. Jake can also hire expert Shadowrunners from the differing classes to help achieve his game missions and discover who is trying to kill him. The game encourages the player to build teams of balanced skills to help them progress.
Pauli Kidd was the lead designer on Shadowrun. Kidd had a background in design for pen and paper RPG and before joining Beam had already published two well received pen and paper RPGs Alberto (1988) and Shadow and Steel (1989). Kidd’s appreciation of the pleasures of playing a pen and paper RPG are apparent in the designs foregrounding of story and exploration. She also focused on maintaining a sense of the darker and seedier urban cyberpunk atmosphere for the game. This was made difficult by Nintendo’s strict restrictions on what could be shown in their games. Kidd’s wry and witty writing helps navigate these constraints, sharing the joke with the player for example when as hard-bitten shadow-runner Jake they find themselves ordering “a glass of warm milk” in one Metro city’s seedier establishments.
The game was quite ambitious with its systems which some player wryly referred its design as PC style on console. It’s point and click adventure style mechanism was a bit clumsy on the SNES controller as you need to switch to a cursor select the object you wish to interact with – then move though a menu to select the desired option. In addition to the more traditional point and click interface the game also had an innovative keyword dialogue system where the player interactions with NPC’s allowed them to expand their in-game vocabulary. As a player learnt new words to describe the city it unlocked new kinds of interactions with NPCs and opened up hidden areas of the city to explore. Whilst keyword systems had been used in PC games this is believed to the first time it was deployed on a console game. The game offers a sense of open exploration. A quality that can be linked back to the pleasures of pen and paper RPGS. Shadowrun’s world design is admired for how Beam’s artists created a rich atmospheric neo noir game-world on the constraints of the SNES. In part through shifting from the usual top down perspective to isometric.
Creating the Tools to make Shadowrun
Andrew Bailey the Systems Programmer who created the development tools for the Shadowrun team recalls the graphics capacity of the SNES with great fondness. “The SNES was a great machine, especially after working on its predecessor the NES. Its very non-orthogonal hardware always made it a challenge on how to design a game around it. It was probably the most powerful graphic chip of its type, even compared to the AGB. It not only had a CPU whose speed was measured in the low MHz but a host of special DMA tricks (giving us the famous Mode 7) and excellent audio that for the first time allowed a musician to actually compose real music for a videogames (1).”
The original Shadowrun game design concept was developed by Gregg Barnett. [Barnett left Beam to start a studio in the UK as Shadowrun went into developement.] It was very forward thinking according to Shadowrun map designer Justin Halliday but also rather technically infeasible. The games design document promised the feel of a 3D world. Halliday explains “It envisaged this beautiful isometric game on the SNES with forced perspective where you could move your character between foreground and background objects and where your character rode around on a motorbike between scenes.” (2) None of which had previously been done on the SNES.
Whilst the motorbikes did not make the final design Beam Software tools programmer Andrew Bailey successfully created a graphics system with an isometric view that allowed for graphics to be layers and the character to weave between objects. “We wanted the game to be in 3D, not top-down as in other RPGs.” explains Bailey. “A room based isometric view was designed. The overall graphical system was highly tailored to the system hardware, including the scrolling of two screens and also the number of levels of items that could be overlapped.(3)” The graphical limitations of the SNES provided a big challenge to programmers Bailey and Darren Bremmer. Bailey explains:
“The SNES did not provide an arbitrary bitmap rendering system as is common today but used a system of character generators and sprites. This meant that the backgrounds had to be built in a rigid 64 by 32 grid of eight by eight cells. The hardware provided three layers with which characters (implemented using spites) could move, but this was not enough. We used a special hardware trick called “sprite masking” which was actually a hardware bug that let us cut holes in sprites where the characters were, so we could make sprite appear behind a pillar for example.
This required a complex database, so the PC tool allowed designers to construct levels from modular part from the artist and build 3D information (floor is flat, wall is upright etc). The levels would then be compiled into a single database so that all the graphic information could be shared in a virtual character set. The runtime building of the levels from this database was written by Darren Bremner, all in glorious assembler code(4).”
All of Shadowrun’s systems were written in assembler but Bailey describes how with only 128K of RAM in which to decompress the art and audio and the logic to run the game they choose not to write all the game logic in assembler. They choose to write their own language that was less heavy in RAM. Compiled to a virtual stack-based code that was the runtime code would interpret and execute. Bailey explains:
“The language was designed so the compiler could pre-compute the exact workspace size (or stack) a script would; need down to the byte, so the runtime could allocate exactly the space required (a concept I learnt from work with transputers). This let us run multiple scripts for all the characters in a scene with very little space, A few K. I wrote the compiler and Darren wrote the runtime (5).”
(1)Murphy, D (2013) “Shadowrun” RetroGamer, issue 120, p.21.(2) ibid, p.22.(3) ibid, p.22. (4) ibid, p.22. (5) ibid, p.23
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