12 Of The Greatest Cyberpunk Games
With a new Deus Ex game in the works, the video game industry has started to turn its attention back to the long ignored cyberpunk setting, which briefly had immense popularity in the mid 90s before fading away. Based on the influential literary genre of the same name, which popped up in the late 80s and early 90s, these games usually featured evil corporations, dystopian hyper-techno futures, crazy AIs, mirror-shades, and amnesiac heroes. There were a huge number of really mediocre ones, but a handful really stand out as being absolutely stellar.
12. Syndicate and Syndicate Wars
This duo of isometric strategy games turned the usual cyberpunk story on its head. No longer were you the loner against the evil corporation, attempting to expose their corruption and save your own skin. Nope, in Syndicate, youre the bad guy. Youre the evil megacorp, and its your job to kill off members of rival corps, convert people to your side (though force if necessary), rescue allies, destroy buildings, and research new weapons to further your goals. Every level put you in charge of a small four-cyborg death squad, which you had to strategically use to meet your goals. Vicious, bloody, and absolutely amoral, the games didnt care at all if you killed civilians, blew up buildings, or made any pretense at morality as long as you did your job.
I think Im one of the few people out there who has actually played this game, which is a shame, because its pretty good for the genre. Its a full motion video puzzler, a genre that popped up briefly in the mid-90s as people figured out how to use CDs for games. A tentpole title for the poorly received CD-i, you played as a small-time hacker with a virus planted in your head, and you have to get it out within two hours of gametime, or else your brain turns to goop. Thats right, you only have two hours of in-game time. Im guessing they just couldnt cram anymore video footage into the disc. Thankfully, you can save at any point in the game, because some of the tasks are fiendishly hard. It had the frustration of the old SCUMM point-and-clicks, plus brainbending traditional style puzzles. Its a sadly forgotten game that has a rather bizarre ending to it, too.
Before Hideo Kajima made Metal Gear Solid, he was best known in the USA for his work on the incredibly grown-up Snatcher. Available on a full eight different platforms, it was released a number of different times between 1988 and 1996. Cribbing liberally from Terminator and Blade Runner, youre Gillian Seed, an amnesiac helping hunt down robots that are indistinguishable from humans. As with most of Kojimas work, its incredibly thematically dense, and if you dont pay exacting attention to every little piece of information that you come across, it can come back later and bite you in the ass. You remember how manuals used to have a couple of blank pages in the back for notes? This one required at least a notepad. It also deserves significant respect for dealing with violence, sexuality, and brutality in a mature fashion.
One of the more recent games on this list, Uplink was originally released for the PC and Linux in 2001, ported to Mac in 2003, and then released on Steam in 2006. It has the rather unique perspective of casting you as a hacker. Not your character, you. The game starts with a login screen. There are no NPCs to speak of, no characters to go talk to. You pick up missions by logging into a BBS, you buy software from a website to load onto your computer, and attempt to hack into computers. The missions start small: changing someones college grade, then putting someone in jail for fraud, breaking into a companys server to steal secrets. There is an overarching plotline that you can follow, which has two possible endings, but its the unscripted events that were the most fun. Far and away the coolest thing was something that never came up in the missions: hacking a bank. Very, very hard to do right, and if you made even the tiniest error, left behind the smallest trace, or didnt move with lightning speed, your ass was grass. But if you did it? You had enough money to buy the sweetest goddamn computer in the game. Supported for years past its release thanks to a stellar mod community, its an incredibly good game.
8. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
Surprisingly for a sci-fi writer, Harlan Ellison hates much of technology, including computers. Even so, he managed to shelve his dislike of the devices just long enough to help publisher Cyberdreams produce an adventure around one of his darker and more screwed up short stories I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. If the idea of getting tortured for all eternity by an evil AI doesnt give you the heebie-jeebies, then I dont know whats wrong with you. Luckily, when the game came out, they tweaked it enough that you actually can get a good ending, though the eternal regeneration and torment is still an option. Unlike most other cyberpunk games, Mouth is set in a more post-apocalyptic setting, but the dealings with computers and their roles is markedly cyberpunkish.
For 1995, this game was utterly bleeding edge, and required a mammoth computer: 8MB of RAM, and a 33MHz 486 processor. Damn man, how am I going to afford that? It had incredibly 3D graphics and texture maps, which were rare indeed at that time. As with most cyberpunk games, youre amnesiac oh man, is that a recurring theme, or what? but this time you wake up as a horrifically mutated cyborg death machine in the mad-scientist laboratory of a psychopathic cult where everyones been killed by aliens. Yeah, its a bit bloody bonkers, it is. One really cool twist they threw in was that your identity changes depending on how you play the game, and your choices alter what your back story was. How come more games dont try that?
6. Flashback: The Quest For Identity
Again with the freaking amnesiacs! This time theres an alien plot to destroy the earth using shapechanging invaders taking the place of politicians. I remember playing this game a few times when I was really young, and the thing that stands out to me (apart from the super-sweet rotoscoped graphics) is just how damn hard it was. The spiritual lovechild of Prince of Persia and Another World, it could be utterly unforgiving, especially in combat. Not particularly fast paced by modern standards, it really didnt take much at all for your character to bite the dust. Its one of those games that just keeps getting republished and ported to the point where it was released on 14 platforms, including for iOS and Symbian. That should give you an idea of just how popular of a title it was. Man, looking at it again, the old vector art intros were amazing, Im so sad that the later re-issues went with horrifically dated CG instead.
5. Beneath a Steel Sky
Beneath a Steel Sky has a number of very big points in its favor. Its one of the few cyberpunk games to use humor well throughout; its art is by the incomparable Dave Gibbons; and rather than a clich location like New York or Tokyo, its set in Australia. Its also an incredibly in-depth point-and-click adventure, which is now in the public domain, easy to obtain, and playable on most smartphones. And you know what? This time you actually have your memories! Though youre an orphan, so that doesnt really count for much, as unsurprisingly your genealogy has great bearings on the plot. Set against the traditional cyberpunk tropes of warring megacorps and a repressed society, the moments of levity throughout the game are fantastic usually in the form of your robotic sidekick whose personality you can place in many different bodies, including a vacuum cleaner at one point.
4. System Shock 1&2
Im lumping these two magnificent games together, because they do the best thing that sequels can do: add on to the best of the original, and cut some of the worst. System Shock had the incredible benefit of being one of the best written FPSs of all time (remember, same team as BioShock) and gave us one of the worlds greatest villains the psychopathic AI Shodan. Her broken taunts and cries as you attempt to navigate the deadly mazes of a space-station, defeating her minions are absolutely perfectly terrifying. The mechanics of these games were particularly deep for their mid-90s origin both in terms of gameplay and the hardware behind it. True 3D environments with the ability to lean, crouch, and look in all directions. A huge variety of guns, but limited amount of storage space. Patches that gave you big bonuses to combat, but with weird side effects, too. It was insanely well regarded, and viewed as a major game changer for the genre, massively improving much of the way FPSs functioned, and integrating extremely tight writing in a way rarely seen at that point.
3=. Shadowrun (GEN/SNES)
The two console Shadowrun games have almost nothing to do with each other, yet both are extremely good, and deserve to come in at the same place in this list. If youve played both the SNES and Genesis versions of this fantasy-cyberpunk game, youll definitely have a favorite because theyre very different beasts. The SNES one is based roughly off the novel Never Deal with a Dragon which has an amnesiac hacker main character (surprise!), uses an isometric view, has some truly evil puzzled (including those horrible ones where if you dont pick up something obscure in one of the early levels, youre screwed), and the very real threat of death around every corner. Just about every screen of the game was packed with assassins on your trail. The Genesis version, on the other hand, was a sort-of top-down sandbox game, running missions for various characters and NPCs, with squad-based combat and multiple character classes, a non-linear plot that you can more or less ignore as you play. A cyberpunk GTA, sort-of. Both are wonderful, wonderful games; both can be very hard; but theyre completely un-alike.
1. Deus Ex
No surprises here! The original Deus Ex remains the gold standard not just for all cyberpunk games, but for any game at all that pretends to give you options about how to play. There are so many different ways that DE can be played through that it would take a lifetime to try them all. With thousands of character builds, different ways to finish each level, ways to kill people (or not). Pretty much ever single part of the game can be approached in multiple ways, giving the game a depth that has yet to be matched by anything. Whats truly unfortunate is just how badly the sequel sucked. With a new prequel game in the works, our hopes are low that the 2011 version will hold even the smallest of candles to the incomparable greatness that was the original.