When Shadowrun Returns went live on Kickstarter in April 2012, most people didn't know they were, by extension, funding more than one project. In a sense, they were funding dozens of them, all extensions of the much-loved RPG brand.
J.R Riedel is behind one such project - an enhanced remake of the cult favorite SNES Shadowrun. A much-loved artifact of the 16-bit era is on its way to an unexpected rebirth.
As settings go, Shadowrun is perfect fodder for video games. It's a mash-up of sci-fi and fantasy that draws on fantasy tropes like dragons, elves, and astral projection, while being set among a world of megacorporations and virtual reality. Shadowrun began life as a tabletop RPG in 1989, the heyday of both 8-bit consoles and classic PC gaming. Despite the perfect timing and video game hooks, Shadowrun was only first adapted into a video game with 1993's SNES release. In the nearly 25 years since the series first appeared, there have only been four video games set in the universe outside of Shadowrun Returns. One was the 2007 multiplayer-only shooter for the PC and Xbox 360, which was released to lukewarm reviews and quickly forgotten. The other three were on 16-bit consoles.
Of the three, the Super Nintendo version stands out as either the strangest or the most unique, depending on your point of view. With its menu-driven exploration and player-controlled crosshair, it might have worked better on the PC than home consoles. It was a very different era for games; one in which most successful western-developed games began life on the PC before jumping to home consoles. Shadowrun was mostly notable because it was developed for the SNES from the start, rather than beginning life on the PC.
Shadowrun's noire trappings also stood out on a platform that was still heavy on mascot platformers and other kid-friendly fare. Shadowrun creator Jordan Weisman remembers the original pitch: "The publishers had really started looking for a way into Shadowrun that wasn't quite as dark as the pen and paper game. So I thought about that, and came back with a pitch that started with a black screen and a zipper, after which you open up to discover that you're in a morgue in a body bag. I pitched that and they looked at me and said, 'And that's the lighter version of Shadowrun?' But they really liked it, so that became the starting point."
At the time, it was an approach that seemed destined to run afoul of Nintendo's censorship practices, and looking back, Weisman admits that there was "a lot of gnashing teeth" over whether Nintendo would approve it. But it was late 1992, and things had changed a lot since the 80s. By positioning itself as the "mature" alternative, Sega had managed to steal a bit of Nintendo's thunder, and Mortal Kombat was just over the horizon. Apparently recognizing this, Nintendo's grip on third-party developers loosened ever so slightly. In the end, developer Beam Software opted to tone down some of the content, featuring "iced tea" at bars and removing some of the innuendo from the conversations with the fox-like shapeshifter Kitsune. Despite the changes, the spirit of the original tabletop game remained largely intact.
The darker subject matter ultimately helped Shadowrun earn a cult following among older gamers starving for mature content on home consoles. In particular, it really benefited from its sharp script, which looked even better when compared to the unintentionally hilarious localizations that dominated Final Fantasy IV and its ilk. It was loaded with bizarre but memorable moments that were perfectly in keeping with the setting, from Jake's first step into the Matrix to the discovery that his girlfriend has been replaced by a magical octopus, which fans still discuss to this day.
"Shadowrun was one of those which left a strong impression. I remember the panicked button mashing while fighting that first ork in the alley," says Riedel, who picked up the game a few years later. "I also remember the pressure to find a street doc who could deactivate the cranial bomb. Most of all I remember the setting. Yes, the game was incredibly linear, but that allowed it to properly tell a story."
The adaptation also benefited from a strong protagonist in the amnesiac Jake Armitage, who helped introduce many fans to the property, and remains quite popular to this day.
"I'd love them to capture the essence of the character of Jake, because over time he's become kind of an ambassador for the property," Weisman tells Joystiq. "He has just the right mix of Raymond Chandler and cyberpunk."
For all those reasons, the SNES Shadowrun remains very popular with fans of the property, as does its (very different) Sega Genesis counterpart. But until recently, the series was largely dormant on both home consoles and PCs. According to Weisman, publishers were reluctant to touch a series that had little in the way of public recognition, and couldn't be published on Sony or Nintendo platforms due to Microsoft's involvement. Being such a hardcore series, it simply wasn't the work to many publishers.
For a time, it looked as if Shadowrun's videogame legacy would begin and end with the 16-bit era. But then Kickstarter came along, and the franchise was taken out of its body bag.
The moment word hit that Shadowrun Returns would be launching with a level editor, it was only a matter of time before fans came in to give the 16-bit originals a proper remake. A longtime fan of the tabletop RPG series, Riedel conceived of a remake using Shadowrun Returns' tools while the game was still being funded. It wasn't hard to find interest for the idea.
"The Kickstarter made it incredibly easy to put a team together since I already had access to a community eagerly looking to get involved with the game. Simply posting to the forums was enough to generate interest," Riedel recalls.
Discussions were ongoing by March 2013, when Riedel opened a thread on the Shadowrun forums entitled: "Recreating SNES Shadowrun." Later on, Riedel would write in his introduction in the project wiki: "On the Shadowrun forums no one seems to be taking the initiative to put together a SNES reboot so I see no reason it shouldn't be me," adding a smiling emoticon afterward.
Riedel's roots with the series run deep. A software engineer with a decade of experience, he's also a member of Catalyst's demo team, where he runs games designed to teach newcomers the rules of the tabletop series as an official representative of the developer. Riedel discovered the tabletop games through the SNES game, which he played for the first time in high school.
"I loved how the mix of science and magic was blended to form the setting. Once I finished the game, I sought out the novels, and by the time I read a few of them, it was inevitable that I would look for a tabletop group," Riedel recalls. "I gathered a group of my friends and the rest is history. Shadowrun has been my game of choice since."
In taking the lead on the SNES Shadowrun remake project, Riedel felt it was important to establish himself with the community and show that he was serious about completing the project. Given how many ambitious mods and total conversions had been started then totally abandoned over the years, Riedel knew that fans would be skeptical: "I knew that a lot of people wouldn't gamble on project this size, so I had to show that I was going to follow through. That, combined with my attention to all the comments the project received, meant that serious workers appeared to offer their help. I am grateful to all of them."
Starting in June 2013, he began posting regular updates on the project's progress, beginning with a preview of the original game's opening scene – Jake's revival after his apparent violent death on the streets of Seattle. Contributors including Thomas Smart, who is working on the project's art and mapping, joined Riedel. Others - like a developer who prefers only to be identified as "Tim" - is developing areas and scenarios such as the SNES game's massive Aneki Building.
Progress has been faster than expected: "[Thomas] actually turned out to be really fast at making maps and because of that we have most physical locations available, we just need to add the NPCs and logic. [Tim] is good at creating scenes allowing me to trust that his scenes will be correct and focus on my own work of balancing, bug fixing, and logic."
Of course, they've also hit their share of snags, Riedel says, mostly around NPC behavior: "I have had a lot of trouble with the prologue and have since back burnered it until more of the game proper is done. Some of the problems go away on their own as [Returns developer Harebrained Schemes] releases updates; others will be fixed in time. After all, no gaming project is ever truly done, there is always room for improvement and bug fixes."
The remake offers some intriguing opportunities to make good on the potential of the original game. Being on the PC should go a long way toward resolving some of the interface issues inherent to the SNES game. It's also an opportunity to address some of what Weisman refers to as "frustration points" from the original game like "the very first scene where you have to pick up the gun, which you can beat your head against for a very long time if you're not sure what you're doing."
"The SNES game had a lot of flaws, mostly related to the interface. Fortunately the nature of Shadowrun Returns allows us to fix that," Riedel tells Joystiq. "Our plan is to release a straight port initially, but then add options to make the game better. There will be options to enable or disable random spawning, use keywords or actual conversations (once we find a writer), have quests and tips so you no longer wander aimlessly when confused, and other improvements. They all will be configurable at the start of the game, as well as any time you find a bed to sleep in. This way we should be able to make almost everyone happy."
But along with addressing the original's flaws, Riedel hopes to retain Shadowrun's charm as well. He talks about wanting to get just the right picture for the mysterious Kitsune, who he says is his favorite character. And there are other things as well: "I also want to properly preserve the panicked feel as you try to deactivate your cortex bomb. It's an important part of the game; it draws you back in after the grinding of the caryards. I also really want to get the arena logic right and make the opponents behave correctly. Otherwise the arena will be really dull in a turn based game."
It's never easy revisiting a cult favorite, particularly one with such a fiercely loyal following as Shadowrun. Like any fan, Riedel is excited to pay homage to the original game, but he also has the opportunity to leave his mark by drawing in new fans who might have been turned off by the flaws of the original. In that sense, he is building upon the foundation that has made the original so memorable.
While Riedel and his team work to put the final touches on the SNES remake, Weisman and Harebrained Schemes are looking to the future.
At the moment, they're working on an expansion set in Berlin called Dragonfall, which is slated for release sometime in January - roughly the same time as the SNES remake. Riedel admits that his team is behind schedule, but he hopes that his version will be fully playable by the end of January, saying that the team will work as fast as they can without sacrificing quality. If Riedel is able to meet his self-imposed deadline, then Shadowrun fans will soon have two rather expansive campaign modules to keep them busy.
Weisman is eager to try it out: "I'm very anxious to play the version of the game that the audience is making in the new editor because one of the features that we didn't have back in the day is the ability to manage a team with all the different skills. With the SNES version, we kind of created a hybrid character with a set of skills that kind of broke the established continuity because he was one guy. But now you have a whole party, so it gives you more depth of diversity of skills across magic, cybertech, shamanistic, and so on. So it's been exciting to see how they adapt that depth of skillsets to that plotline."
In the past, Weisman has expressed interest in remaking the SNES game himself, but now he says he's leaving that to the fans: "We decided that it wasn't really the right thing for us to do. One, because the fans latched onto it right away, which makes sense. Two, because we couldn't track down where the actual rights for that story live, which fans don't have to worry about, but we do. So we decided that it made sense to leave it to the audience while we push on with original stories."
Such projects are emblematic of Shadowrun's new and comfortable niche in the independent gaming space. The series had remained dormant for years, in part because of licensing issues, and part because its natural hardcore appeal scared away publishers. Now, however, the series is free to reach out directly to core fans like Riedel, and they're free to give back to the game they love. It's the video game niche that the series has been seeking all along.
"The hallmark of the indie space is the much tighter connection between the fans and the creative team," Weisman says. "That's something that the property has always had at its essence, and that's something we've tried to take to heart in the way we've communicated with the audience while empowering them with the editor."
This new sense of empowerment has allowed the community to create their own adventures, much as they do with the actual tabletop RPG. But it's also given voice to fans like Riedel, who are now free to revisit and build upon Shadowrun's 16-bit legacy for a new generation.
The new sense momentum has left Riedel feeling optimistic: "I am quite pleased with Shadowrun Returns and would recommend it to anyone who is open to indie games. It's not going to have all the features that a mainstream release has, but it has a true community and actively involved developers who constantly work to make the game better. The response that [Harebrained Schemes] gives to bugs, complaints and suggestions is amazing. I have confidence that they will fix the biggest complaint, the save feature, by the time Berlin is ready."
"[Shadowrun Returns] is something that the Shadowrun community has needed for many years and I think it will continue to get better with time," he concludes. "Even if the company scrapped all future plans, the community would continue to make some amazing modules."
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.