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Snatcher

In Japan Visual Novels are the equivalent of our point and click adventure games, although they are released more frequently overseas than their US counterparts.  Focusing more on story than gathering items and solving puzzles visual novels are usually dense story wise and have branching paths such as Fate/Stay Night and Steins Gate.  As you can imagine the vast majority never make the trip overseas.  In 1994 Konami took a chance localizing one of Hideo Kojima’s finest productions and in the process created one of the best Sega CD games of all time.

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June 6, 1996.  A biological weapon under development in Russia named Lucifer Alpha is accidentally released, killing 80% of Europe/Asia’s population and in turn half the world.  A decade later Lucifer Alpha mutates and becomes harmless but still leaves Chernotown inhospitable.  50 years later and a new menace threatens the population: cyborgs.  Dubbed Snatchers due to their penchant for kidnapping members of society and taking their place no one knows their origin or what their ultimate goal is.  As Gillian Seed, the newest member of the J.U.N.K.E.R task force it is up to you to solve the mystery and recover your lost memories.

From a gameplay standpoint toss aside all preconceived notions.  This is not a Lucas Arts adventure game; as a visual novel the game is more focused on telling its story.  All actions are performed using simple menu based commands.  There are both benefits and frustrations present in this system.  One of the worst aspects of PC adventure games (and everyone will agree) are the repetitious pixel hunts you were forced to engage in to find items.  It was very easy to miss crucial story items in most games of this ilk, forcing you to back track or in some cases completely start from the beginning.  Here Metal Gear will generally clue you in as to what action you should take and won’t let you leave an area until you’ve thoroughly explored it.  As a result it’s impossible to ever get stuck.  The downside is the menus are often 5-6 levels deep and there are far too many points in the game where you are forced to engage in the same repetitive action until the next plot point is triggered.  Overall it’s only a minor complaint since it frees you to enjoy the game’s plot.

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What will immediately grab you with Snatcher is the world itself.  Heavily inspired by Blade Runner and the Terminator the cyberpunk atmosphere is tangible right from the start.  The city of Neo Kobe features a dazzling array of neon architecture and futuristic vehicles straight out of a science fiction novel.  Kojima has never been one to hide his Hollywood influences and they are immediately obvious. In this case however there are enough unique elements in Snatcher that make it it’s own beast.  There are also a ton of Easter eggs all over the place that are shot outs to other Konami series; the bar Outer Heaven is host to a masquerade night where its patrons cosplay as familiar Konami heroes.  Your navigator Metal Gear Mk II is a miniature version of his namesake which is extremely cool.

Since Snatcher isn’t focused on puzzles its plot takes center stage and luckily it’s a strong one.  There are plenty of unanswered questions right from the start with the mystery surrounding the Snatchers being the most compelling; why do they only appear at night time and in the winter?  Why do they hate dogs?  And why do they only snatch particular individuals?  Once you find the answers it elevates these blatant Terminator clones into more than just a loose movie homage.  The game does a very good job of providing answers to these questions and more at a reasonable clip, keeping you engaged in the plot at all times. The game’s conclusion is around an hour long and answers every lingering question you might have, dropping so many bombshells that it’s worth viewing more than once.  It’s a satisfying end to an extraordinary tale.

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This was a surprisingly adult game for its time, earning a mature rating which might have led to its low sales.  It’s a rating that’s well earned as the game pulls no punches; within the first ten minutes you’ll come across a decapitated body and must examine the remains.  There are a ton of instances of bloody violence and even some slight nudity.  The conversations respect the player’s intelligence and never devolve into the juvenile hijinks so prevalent in most games of the early 90s.

Not to say that it doesn’t have its funnier moments.  Gillian is a lecher even though he is technically still married (though separated) and many of the responses available will produce comedic results.  The interplay between Gillian and Metal Gear is at the heart of the story and their relationship grows naturally as the story progresses.  Metal Gear is initially hyper critical of Gillian’s lackadaisical lifestyle but comes to respect him as he spends time with the actual human being and not just the data he was programmed with.  Gillian’s playful attitude masks a man who is hurt by the separation from his wife and the distance their lack of memories has caused in their relationship.  The cast of characters in the game is kept pretty small with nearly all of the most important figures receiving some sort of growth.

Aiding in this growth is the excellent voice work.  There isn’t as much voiced dialogue as you would expect but Konami still did an ace job hiring professionals to bring the cast to life.  The best voice acting in the world would mean nothing if the actual text their reading is shit (Castlevania: Lords of Shadow I’m looking at you!) and once again the localization crew created one of the best scripts of that era, keeping the game’s mature edge.  The game’s oppressive atmosphere is also shepherded by its dark and foreboding soundtrack.  The music gives off a constant feeling of dread, as if a Snatcher could attack at any moment.  It’s a feeling that will bristle the back of your neck when it’s time to explore any abandoned environment.  If there is one weak element to the game it would be the first person shooter segments.  The occasional moment where you’ll have to manually eliminate a target is welcome but the forced waves of enemies are out of place in a game that revels in its atmosphere.  Luckily there are only 3 or 4 of them in total.

There’s no question that Snatcher is one of the all-around best Sega CD games ever.  Unfortunately it’ll cost an exorbitant amount to play it.  Snatcher was released on a large variety of platforms however this version is the only official English edition.  While I would never advise someone to pay hundreds of dollars for a game but if you do you’re are in for one hell of a ride.

9-out-of-10

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Shadowrun (SNES)

With two Kickstarter funded Shadowrun games in the works all I can say is “What took so long?”  Of all the properties that have sat languishing in licensing hell why Shadowrun?  While we’ve had a near endless procession of terrible Ben 10 and Spongebob games but to date there are only 4 Shadowrun games.  With a universe this rich in history you’d think this would be a shoe in for exploitation (I use it only in the best possible way) but for some reason it never happened.  The SNES and Genesis games were two wildly different takes on the cyberpunk genre, fully immersing you in the world and both worth your gaming dollars.

Jake Armitage should be dead.  Literally.  After waking up in a morgue with no recollection of how he wound up there it isn’t long before he learns that there are some very bad people who went to great lengths to put him there and want to finish the job.  Now he not only has to stay one step ahead of the assassins but piece together his identity and the reason a particular party wants him dead.

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This version of Shadowrun has more in common with action role playing games and point and click adventures than the top down open world of its Genesis counterpart.  Played from a ¾ isometric perspective your primary means of interaction with the world comes in the form of a cursor that is used to examine objects, speak to people, and use weapons and magic.

For the most part this cursor based interface works but it does come with some of the usual frustrations that were also rampant in PC games of its ilk.  Small objects can be hard to make out against the backdrops and it’s very easy to miss important story items and wander around clueless.  Combat, while functional, is a bit boring.  You simply bring up the targeting reticle and slowly choose your target.   You’re unable to move and shoot at the same time so almost every battle boils down to a bunch of stationary targets blasting one another. Your aim and defense are determined by how much you’ve built up your skills using karma as well as items so although you are essentially just pointing and shooting it’s at least engaging.

The game’s table top roots are used to enhance its RPG elements.  Killing the myriad hired assassins yields Karma that is used to enhance numerous aspects of your body and skills such as computer hacking and expertise with firearms.   Aside from weapons Cyberware is available for that extra boost.  Upgrades like wired reflexes and dermal plating are near mandatory and unlike the Sega version you won’t have to worry about it affecting your magical skills.  Speaking of magic, collecting the various random items needed to complete spells is a bit obtuse but more than worth the end results.

Fortunately that isn’t the game’s main focus.  This version of Shadowrun is more focused on the detective side of things, lending it a film noir touch.  There is a sea of interesting characters from all walks of life with plenty to say.  Key words are highlighted and learned automatically, enabling you to ask them or someone else for information.  The list of key words will grow pages long in short order but in general you’ll know which ones will yield pertinent info depending on your location and their occupation.

This is a pretty long quest and will take you to all manner of locations in Seattle, from dingy dive bars to concerts to shipping docks and corporate offices.  Since there’s a price on your head it’s not uncommon to come under fire from any point of the screen.  You know the hit men are determined to collect that bounty when they hide out in garbage cans, snipe from the smallest of windows or even in the grass (!).

While the difficulty curve is relatively light there are points in the game where it spikes so it’s a good idea to hire extra help.  Shadowrunners can be hired for a fee to watch your back or if need be you can use their skills to circumvent certain roadblocks. Even with the extra help this can be one tough son of a bitch.  Story wise it all pays off in the end with a satisfying conclusion and a rather unfortunate hint at a sequel which never came.

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Although the viewpoint doesn’t necessarily lend itself to exceptional graphics the SNES version of Shadowrun is atmospheric as hell.  This is a surprisingly mature tale and its lack of heavy censorship is amazing considering this was Nintendo at its censoring peak.  Watching Jake get gunned down in the opening moments is heavy stuff.  Aiding in the film noir touch is the fantastic soundtrack.  There are actually very few tracks but the ones in the game are heavy on the bass and electric guitar.  Even better, you can turn off all music aside from the battle theme and it works perfectly fine as well.  I actually did so by accident my first run through and feel the experience might even be stronger that way.

There you have it.  This version of Shadowrun focuses on a different side of the world and comes out a better game for it.  Both 16-bit editions of Shadowrun are absolute must buys in my opinion and will serve as a nice warm up for the (hopefully) two new games set for release this year.

8-out-of-101

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Shadowrun (Genesis)

Of all the settings that I have experienced the Shadowrun universe ranks among my favorite.  Something about the cyberpunk setting and mix of future technology captured my imagination like nothing else when I first became aware of it in 1993.  This made it optimal for use in the videogame space and in the 90s Sega and Data East responded in kind.

Developed by Blue Sky Software for Sega this version of Shadowrun was released in the fall of 1994.  Unlike the pseudo PC adventure that comprised the SNES game this version stuck more closely to the source material, weaving nearly all of the major elements of the fiction into the game.  As Joshua you are on a mission of revenge.  After viewing your brother’s death on the news you spend your last bit of cash to visit his last known transaction, setting in motion a string of events that will eventually lead to saving the world from an ancient evil.  In many ways this version of Shadowrun is a top down Grand Theft Auto years before that game existed.  For fans of the Shadowrun mythos everything they love about the pen and paper RPG is represented in some form, and for RPG fans a hard but satisfying quest awaits.

The 3 character classes, Street Samurai, Decker, or Mage specialize in a specific field although it doesn’t mean they won’t be able to utilize the skills of the others.  I say this for one reason: with enough karma points you can build your skills in the necessary fields to become just as adept in a matter of time.  Distributing your karma points in the 20 or so skills will allow you to tailor your character however you want, to a ridiculous degree.  You can completely circumvent the limitations of your class with enough points, becoming a weak combatant with excellent negotiation skills or even laser focus in one area.  It’s a pretty comprehensive list that covers nearly every facet of the game, from individual areas such as SMG or throwing skills to electronics, computers, and even reputation.  Nearly every skill has a tangible and immediate impact on your performance which makes the choices even harder.

Some thought needs to taken into consideration since you cannot respec and the amount of karma needed to raise your skills increases.  It’s entirely possible to screw up, raising skills that aren’t necessary for your immediate task and forcing you to spend large amounts of time grinding repetitive quests for karma.  To offset this you have the option of hiring 2 additional runners at any time, temporarily or permanent and can make use of their skills in a necessary field if you find yourself lacking.

Aside from retrieving your brother’s stuff you have unbridled freedom to explore almost any one of Seattle’s numerous districts as long as you have money for the trip; sometimes a little too much freedom to be honest.  Despite giving you clues as to how to advance the story, you can complete many of the events out of order.  The only things stopping you the majority of the time are money and equipment and it is here where the game’s many different options to gain both opens up.

The runs you receive are where the comparisons to Grand Theft Auto begin.  Scattered around the world are Johnsons who will offer you work for nuyen and karma, with the amount differing based on the difficulty of the run and your own charisma.  Johnsons also offer contacts who can offer you many illegal upgrades not sold in the streets.  Shadowruns fall into many categories, escort, retrieval, data theft, ghoul runs, etc.  You aren’t tied to any one Johnson and can leave to find work with someone else at any time.   The money offered loosely gives you an idea how much you should advance your character before attempting the job.  These runs are where the meat of the game occurs.

In the beginning the runs start out simple enough.  Escort a client here, deliver a package there.  You’ll need the money so you’ll bear the tedium.   In short order you’ll want to tackle the larger runs where the real cash can be found.  Ghoul runs offer decent money for a large number of kills. Corporate runs will make the hairs on your neck stand on end as you move from room to room in search of your objective.  Matrix runs could have been a separate game entirely in terms of the options and depth involved.  The higher the reward the tougher the job in most cases but with few exceptions anything beyond simple escorting will present a challenge.  There is very little middle ground; go big or go home more or less.

Your attributes govern success or failure in fields such as aiming, manipulating computers or even negotiating payments.  The effects of these have a tangible impact on the game, with mag locks opening almost immediately with a high enough skill or your shots missing less.  There are tons of random events that crop up that can be beneficial or harmful.  These range from someone needing help, Lone Star accosting you, to the run specific events.  How you react when they happen will have an effect on the outcome.  Sometimes you’ll get away none the worse for wear; other times it’s an ambush leading to an all out brawl.  If you’re negotiation skill is high enough, you can bullshit your way out of it.  The corporate runs prove the most harrowing, where nearly everything that can go wrong happening if you are unlucky.  These prove the biggest test of your preparation.

The many ways to tackle these and every other situation produce the best moments in the game.  Just as an example:  you are in the Renraku building and are stopped by a company man.  You can try to cover up and avoid eye contact, yell at him, or make up a fake story.  If your charisma is high enough, not only will he ignore you, he might believe your fake story and actually tell you what floor your objective is.  My favorites are the security tiles you step on.  If you spend too much time reading the description the game will inform you that you took too long and tripped the alarm.  Finding the easiest runs that offer the most money will make you feel godlike when you reach the point you can breeze through them.  By the midpoint of the game my tricked out Street Samurai was able to enter any corporate office, hack the security cameras, open every mag lock on the first try and complete the mission without any conflict whatsoever.  That is the epitome of bad ass.

My biggest issue is that the game as a whole is very difficult. The beginning stages are extremely grind heavy as you work for little money and have to spend most of it buying more clips or resting to restore health.  I’ m talking 40 to 50 nuyen per run whereas most decent weapons or armor are in the thousands.  Because equipment upgrades tend to be very expensive you’ll spend hours repeating the same boring quests.  The shadowruns that offer decent amounts of money will require decent equipment before you can even dream of completing them.  Even when you are relatively maxed out all it takes is one random hell hound attack to leave you dead.  Luckily there are so many ways to make nuyen that you can avoid a lot of this stress but only if you are prepared to grind a bit.

Also, and this might just be me, the story can be obtuse and hard to follow.  You are only given basic directions where to go in most cases and as I mentioned earlier can complete them out of sequence.  This wouldn’t be a problem if certain story events were not designed for you to tackle later on when you have had the chance to power up, so to speak.  Because you might not know any better you could lose progress and money by dying needlessly.  Which is soul crushing as the game is extremely difficult.

It can be daunting in the early stages but the game is so good it will hook you.  You won’t care about the grind as you immerse yourself in the world.  This version sticks to the pen and paper rules of the fiction closely and benefits from it.  With a world as ripe as the Shadowrun has become it’s a damn shame that there haven’t been more games in the series.  But due to the magic of Kickstarter fans have another adventure to look forward to.  In the meantime I recommend a trip down memory lane with this classic.

8-out-of-101

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