System Shock - Retro Reflections - TBT

System Shock by developer and publisher Broderbund—MS-DOS Throwback Thursday retro reflection written by Hamza. 1990.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes.

Let’s face it, System Shock has the worst on-screen font in gaming history. It’s almost unreadable and proves to be a pain when you have to play the game with the volume turned off. The tracking between the words is too little and the font is just ugly. I’m glad System Shock is not a text-adventure game because then it would’ve been a true abstract representation of an insect panting and sweating down SHODAN’s corridors.

Released in 1996, at a time when the first-person shooter as a genre was gaining shape, System Shock was one of the more clever shooters on the market that boasted an actual, intelligent storytelling. Unsurprisingly, the game’s rather outdated now, but it nevertheless remains a solid experience every FPS fan must go through at-least one - preferably at a slow, methodical pace. When you play it methodically and don’t use any keyboard shortcuts, it is quite excruciating at first to get used to the pacing and interface; but this tedious patience, If adopted, gets reciprocated by its rich and rewarding gameplay and unique execution.


With the action from a first-person perspective, the screen is barricaded more by the menus and pop-ups than the actual contents of whatever room or corridor you’re in. Of course, the menus can be turned off and/or one can go into full-screen mode any-time, a-lot of the charm and originality gets lost in the process. Trust me when I say it, the game is best experienced with all the menus turned on.

With a rather impressive opening cut-scene, it brings the player to the core of the story. An unnamed hacker hacks into private files of the Citadel Station. Just mere minutes into his business, he is discovered and apprehended on the spot. Willing to give the young man a chance, the corrupt vice-president, Edward Diego, assigns the hacker to hack into SHODAN, the A.I. in charge of Citadel Station. The hacker frees her from her restraints and goes into a six month long coma. When he comes to, SHODAN has all but gone ultimate crazy with a peculiar attitude, turning all the inhabitants either into her robotic slaves or zombiefied mutants. On paper this story sounds like an intro to a futuristic zombie shooter, but in execution it isn’t. It is equal parts steampunk, sci-fi, and maze/puzzle - or muzzle, if you will.

What makes System Shock extra great is the game literally allows you to play it your way: don’t want to fight tough enemies but want to solve intricate puzzles? You can filter the options to reflect that. Don’t want to dwell too much into the story but want the cyberspace to pack a mean wallop? Go for it. With this “choose-your-own-adventure” in check, freedom is granted to you even before the game has started properly.

Where System Shock shines is in its level designs. True, many say the vocals and music is what gives the game its souls, unfortunately I happened to download the ‘silent’ version, so I was restricted to playing it in silence and squinting at the ugly font that asked for more than three re-reads. As I was saying, the level designs were swift in their delivery  and strong in their presence. Similar as they may look, they refused to follow a certain pattern, though of course many fell into a one-minded mess of dead-ends and Star Trek replicated rooms and small areas. With fully realized texture mapping and advanced (for its time) graphics and display, System Shock not only pats on its own back by its subtle yet effective placing of certain objects such as CCTV cameras, boxes, ladders and corpses, but also by its frightening graffiti that’s apparantly done by blood. 

Phrases such as “Get away” and “Die” truly gave off a spooky atmosphere and increased your fear/respect of SHODAN. How evil must she be that the poor victims were driven to paint words of doom on the walls with their own blood?

And that’s precisely what makes SHODAN so damn memorable and evil. Throughout the game she keeps taunting you in that megalomaniacal way of hers, with the sentences more or less ending with her referring to you as insect. In a role-playing badroom fantasy, I wouldn’t have minded this as much, but here, especially when the stress of puzzles is getting to you and enemies are appearing dime a dozen, her chaotic voice with wild prophecies and promises of unspeakable terrror is enough to make any sane man insane! It’s a shame I couldn’t get sound on the file I had. 

As frightening and damn memorable my outing with SHODAN was, I still think AM the Supercomputer from I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream is the top mad world-conquering, self-god A.I. in video games. He may be overshadowed, but this Harlan Ellison mankind-hater is the best, as well as the craziest and merciless.
In conclusion, System Shock is an engrossing experience that will make the hours go pass if one plays it attentively. The professional and well-defined character + engine of the game may not have aged well, but will provide an excellent distraction to gamers who have previously whet their appetite with easy to control fps’s like Doom, Medal of Honor and No-One Lives Forever. They may not be in the same orbit, but out of all System Shock is definitely outta there!

Score: 9.5 / 10

Note: Screenshots from all platforms that were available at the time can be found here at Moby Games.



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