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Exploring the Virtual Realms of Shadowrun and Spaceflight

15 November 2008

Since August, I’ve had computer problems. No, I didn’t download a virus – my power suppy unit failed and I couldn’t keep my computer on for any extended length of time. It’s with a friend right now, getting fixed, but in the interim, I’ve been using my ancient dinosaur 2GB spare computer, which means I can’t download a whole lot of anything.

I posted a blog back in July about a Sega emulator called Fusion. (You can read that here.) Well, at 2.37MB, the program was small enough to fit on this painfully puny hard drive, and, since old Sega Genesis games take up only a few KB’s, I could download a couple.

Shadowrun) takes place about 50 years from now in a gritty cyberpunk future similar to the Sprawl of WILLIAM GIBSON‘S Neuromancer, only this is Seattle, not the East Coast. As Joshua, your goal is to find out who killed your brother, Michael, and why. Simple enough, but personally, I found the core story to be secondary to the absolutely fascinating gameplay. Basically, to do anything, you have to build up a bank account and a reputation. To do this, you go on “shadowruns,” which range from easy courier and bodyguard jobs to infiltrating the offices of a megacorporation in order to free a defecting employee or lift a package that’s hidden away in some vault. Your success in these matters depends on the combined levels of various skills, and each skill is upgraded one point at a time, so it’s not all that easy.

Then there’s cybercombat, which is almost an entire game unto itself. Essentially, this is hacking into a computer system to find information, either to complete a shadowrun or to sell to somebody who’ll buy it. Each component (“node”) of the various computer systems is protected by ICE, which can either be attacked, decepted or bypassed completely. Some ICE is more dangerous than others, with Black Ice and Tar Paper being the toughest.

Like I said, I found the shadowruns and cybercombat so compelling that I completely ignored the storyline for a long time. It was only when everything got really easy that I decided to finish the game.

Apparently, Shadowrun was based on an extremely complicated Dungeons & Dragons-style role playing game, and it incorporates many of the fantastical elements found in RPG’s, i.e., magic, trolls, orks, elves, etc. However, from what I’ve read, this video game bares little resemblence to the original pen & paper RPG. (I’ve never played the original, so I wouldn’t know.)

Starflight on the other hand, is a completely other-worldly experience. The year is 4620 and mankind has expanded into deep space. As a new spaceship captain, your job is to hire and train a crew, discover, explore and log new planets for colonization, and figure out what’s making stars explode prematurely. With “269 star systems and roughly 800 planets” (according to the Starflight Resource Pages) and seven different alien races, your work is cut out for you. While mining planets for money to upgrade your ship and ATV (All Terrain Vehicle – how you move around on a planet), you must deal diplomatically with the various aliens in order to gather information that will uncover the mystery of the destructive solar flares. Obviously, this is a very involved, difficult game. I finally beat it for the first time the other day, and I owned the original Sega Genesis cartridge from the early ‘90s!

Starflight was based on a computer game originally developed by Electronic Arts in 1986. From what I understand, there are very few differences between the original version and the Genesis version. (I haven’t played the original, so I can’t comment.)

With today’s video games being so extremely complex, requiring the use of numerous buttons and fingers, I was impressed by the engaging depth of these two games, which were programmed in 16-bit for four buttons (A, B, C and Start) and a directional pad. Perhaps today’s programmers should take note.