Grand Theft Auto 3 was the biggest video game of the last decade, by far, introducing open-world adventure games to consoles, a genre that now rivals shooters and sports games for market dominance. A huge map, decentralized narrative, and myriad of interlocking quests and objectives that happen in a flexible order all became hallmarks of the "new" genre, along with the ability to shape the morality and reputation of your character. And most importantly, all of the quests and stories are completely optional. A lot of people play Grand Theft Auto for hours, days even, without completing a single objective beyond driving around, blowing stuff up and laughing. I know I have.
Shadowrun is the premiere sci-fi tabletop RPG game. In twenty years, it's spawned hundreds of books, as well as four video games. One of these, the eponymous 1994 Sega Genesis edition, is of particular importance to the discussion of open-world games. That's because going by the criteria above, it was probably the first one.
The game places one in the role of Joshua, a young human in a mid-21st-century world where magic, metahuman races like elves and dwarves, and high technology coexist. Joshua's older brother, a type of futuristic mercenary called a shadowrunner, has just been killed on a high-profile mission. Joshua knows that his brother was last seen at Stoker's Coffin Motel in the Redmond Barrens neighborhood of Seattle, so he heads there to investigate.
From there, the game pretty much lets the player do as they please. Once they complete the initial quest, they are free to roam about Seattle, a huge in-game city for the time. There are hundreds of different missions or 'shadowruns' to complete, party members to hire, types of equipment to procure, people to meet, and organizations to join, all at the player's leisure. The plot is there if you want it, but completely optional. The fact that it only emerges when you dig for it really works in the context of the player trying to solve a mystery. One could play for dozens of hours and through the magic of old-school RPG mechanics, turn Joshua in to an unkillable badass without progressing much beyond the first story mission and have a good time doing it.
The gameplay itself is like Grand Theft Auto meets an old-school RPG, and it feels a bit dated. The perspective is top-down and the graphics are as dark as all Genesis games look. They could only show 56 colors at once, after all. Where the presentation really shines is how the game creates atmosphere within the technical constraints of the Genesis. Without fancy graphics to provide detailed setting and interesting random events, the designers at BlueSky Software turned to flavor text. This game has more and better flavor text than almost any other. Text windows will pop up randomly while you walk around informing you of random situations happening on the street like muggings or spies taking pictures of you. The many bars and shops in the game are mostly palate-swaps, but the flavor text accompanying each one gives them flavor. The game looks good for the time, and this much reading might be off-putting for some people, but it will absorb you if you let it.
Combat is real-time, but governed by a litany of weapon and character stats, like in Diablo or Fallout 3. It does not play very well, though—your party's movements slow to a crawl when enemies are nearby, making combat consist largely of standing in front of an enemy and mashing the A button, hoping that you'll hurt them faster than they'll hurt you.
Fortunately, games have (to a large extent) moved beyond that sort of simplistic combat and text-based embellishment. Graphics are much prettier, setting can be imparted by visually appealing in-game action rather than flavor text, and combat can be free-flowing and complex. But in 1994, Shadowrun was absolutely groundbreaking, so far ahead of its time that there wasn't another open-world console game for seven years.
What a shame that it isn't remembered alongside Sonic and Phantasy Star as the immortal classics of Sega's glory days. Carts of it run for around $30 used, if any Genesis owners out there don't already have a copy—go get it.
- When the music starts playing during the game's title screen, quickly hit ABBACAB before the words 'Press START' flash onscreen. Once in-game, go to the Pocket Secretary section of the Pause menu. Scroll all the way to the bottom and keep going. Your cursor should wind up on an empty spot at the bottom of the menu. Select this empty spot to access a secret menu with a variety of cheats to choose from, including 250,000 Nuyen (in-game currency), a complete list of contacts, or all the game's spells, among others. You can only select one, but the cheat can be entered any time you start the game, so if you want more than one cheat, simply save, reset the console, enter the cheat again, and reload your game.