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Neuromancer (Apple II) artwork

Neuromancer (Apple II) review

"It's too late to write a game about how wonderful the Internet might be. Few actually tried beforehand, but at least Interplay's Neuromancer did it right. Set in decaying, crime-ridden Chiba City in Japan, Neuromancer is part RPG, part adventure game and full of odd characters equally likely to give you information or insult you. It's got public terminals where you can read BBS email or even enter Cyberspace, a weird gridlike world where you can crack databases with the right softw..."

It's too late to write a game about how wonderful the Internet might be. Few actually tried beforehand, but at least Interplay's Neuromancer did it right. Set in decaying, crime-ridden Chiba City in Japan, Neuromancer is part RPG, part adventure game and full of odd characters equally likely to give you information or insult you. It's got public terminals where you can read BBS email or even enter Cyberspace, a weird gridlike world where you can crack databases with the right software.

Through this, some humans, some robots--nobody savory--vies for control of Cyberspace. Flame wars unfold on the bulletin boards--nothing epic, due to Apple disk space limits--with no wise man on a far desert isle assuring you of your destiny. Just find software and passwords so you can find even more software and passwords. While pumping others for info, you'll get thrown out of shops a lot, walking a fine line between successful bullying and lawbots taking you to a fully automated kangaroo court.

Well, you need money, too. It pays for time in cyberspace, a computer deck that stores more software, or skill chips or skill upgrades, which allow you to debug or identify software. Instead of defeating someone evil or doing actual work, you've got various ways to scam for it, from pawning body organs to using unmarked software to win a chess tournament to the siphoning from electronic bank accounts to claiming bankruptcy to outright identity fraud.

But money can't buy the software you need. That, you download. Your first goal is to cross-pollinate BBSes with passwords to upgrade Comlink 1.0 to 6.0. BBS locations generally require a linkcode, which is easy to find, and a password. Some BBSes have a guest password on their front page, and others additional passwords that reveal more.

With Comlink 6.0, you can start the game's second phase. You'll enter Cyberspace, a grid in first-person view. Various polyhedra dot the grid. They are Cyberspace representations of databases--some that you logged into from the real world, and some without a linkcode. To enter a database, you need software strong enough to defeat its ICE. Viruses do damage for several rounds, while others just give regular attacks or slow the ICE or restore your shields. Given that any program is less effective each time you use it in a fight, a good variety is needed for victory. In addition, some databases also have AI guardians, and you need to use skills like Logic, Sophistry and Philosophy to beat them in a duel of wits. Then you can loot the database for information and warez you couldn't get elsewhere.

This sounds complicated but gets formulated quickly. A readout screen gauges your opponent's strength, so you can guess the damage each software attack does, and for AIs, you just find the skill they're weak against and use it a bit more often. It becomes a matter of coming prepared and lobbing the next warez attack once the latest one hits. Fortunately, there are only thirteen AIs, so this never gets old, especially since some of them hide software used to kill rivals, and the programmers rigged stats so you always barely seem to win, unless an attack randomly damages critical warez.

Yet if the fights grow too similar, the databases behind them don't. There's a very real war between technology corporations, banks, government, think tanks, and rebels, each with their own weapons and plots, and the BBSes thankfully avoid jargon. Neuromancer's no more mercenary than early RPGs, but it fully admits you're just running around and looting. Everyone's a little sure they'll establish control of the net. They're as blustery as your earlier acquaintances in the pawnshop, Gentleman Loser bar, Cheap Hotel, or the bootleg software vendors. You get to feel above them in your quest to liberate Cyberspace, even as you adjust arrest warrants to deal with the guard-thug whose store is a front for cyber-cowboys.

Neuromancer doesn't just talk high-tech, though. It uses brown and yellow, unheard-of colors in the early Apple II days. The graphics put your average Sierra adventure to shame. It does sacrifice interacting with the scenery for a very rich world in the bulletin boards. It seemed profound twenty years ago, and its approaches to the issues of censorship, copyrights, corporate power and privacy are about what you could hope for in a game. Not that it's didactic; Pong monks, corrupt cops, lousy space shuttle customer service, and women who call Lawbots if you hit on them keep it light.

There's a lot here, but unfortunately Neuromancer pushed the Apple's processing power to the limits and gets slow at times. You have to wait a few seconds after entering a room to talk. You must push return then space to talk about what you want. The disk loads when you move between rooms. Cyberspace's first-person view takes forever. Combats are spent hanging on the "I" button to fire off software in close fights. Descriptive text scrolls slowly, too, since it's combined to the bottom right of the screen. Emulation minimizes nuisances here, but it can't lessen the drudgery of flipping through your software collection. It's not sorted logically, you can only see four of up to thirty carts at once, and combats can take over twenty turns. Ouch.

Overall, though, the programmers got Neuromancer right. It's never too hard, and it balances jokes and larger concerns well. It's not just set in the future for its own sake. It has held up well as a fun game and a relatively serious discussion of problems a world as connected as ours will always face. Look it up--after all, if you download Neuromancer abandonware, the creators can't possibly object on moral grounds.


aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (October 03, 2010)

Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.

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fleinn posted October 04, 2010:

What a nice review. I'm kind of wondering if not mentioning William Gibson's book at all was a hint about how much of the book is in the game, or if the game just doesn't have a story-line. That it only is "mercenary", like other similar rpgs, like you write..

But a good review.
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aschultz posted October 04, 2010:

Thanks very much for the feedback! I would have liked to add a line about the book. Basically, the worst part of the game for me was that it inspired me to read the book, which I completely did not understand and which I couldn't particularly relate to the game. I didn't have the patience.

With wikipedia etc., maybe I should give it another shot. I mean, it'd be dumb to expect a perfect correspondence, but the 'net has cleared up other books I was somewhat confused about (see: Douglas Adams's Mostly Harmless.)
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fleinn posted October 04, 2010:

:D Neuromancer could probably be called the beginning of cyberspace on it's own. The Flatline, the computer deck, information overload, all of that turned up in Neuromancer, in a direct way that Asimov didn't - I think - imagine. If you enjoyed the Matrix for at least a few things other than the action-scenes, or think Ghost in the Shell asks a few good questions - you really owe it to yourself to read Neuromancer. ..not a very long book either. You'll read it in a day.. and a few hours into the night :)

..sorry, off topic. I think I'm missing one sentence or something about why you're out there.. is it mentioned in the game..?
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aschultz posted October 04, 2010:

Well, it's a sort of soldier of fortune story. I think I [sh/c]ould have been more explicit about it. There's no "You must save the internet" mandate. Just a general feeling of being watched by Lawbots and knowing passwords to start.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted October 14, 2010:

You did a great job of making this game sound interesting and gritty. I feel like I have to find a way to play this one. Great review, Mr. Schultz!

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