Okay, In the process of getting my next book published. And getting the 5000Ã‚Â£/8000$ my job owes me. And trying to figure out why my US Gamecube + UK scart cable is still playing in B&W instead of Colour. Damn England.
This article has involved a massive amount of research on my part and I hope it shows. I received a lot of acclaim for my last column and have decided to give you guys more things like that. A lot more research and scrutiny, but at the cost of my usual speed of churning stuff out. But hey, if it’s what you guys want…
Before I start, I’d like to thank Working Designs, Sega, Infogrames, and Camelot for their help. Most all, I’d like to thank Moogie from Shining Force Central for having the best SF web site on the net.
There were two ways to go about this article. I could have either gone in the order the games were published, or the order in which the games occur. I opted for the order they were made and published simply because I wanted to avoid the timeline debates you find with geeky acne-ridden virgins hanging out in Phantasy Star fan fiction sites or at Gamefaqs. But for the overly pedantic (read; ANAL) readers I have acquired, I’ll have a time line at the bottom of this.
So what is Shining Force? A lot of casual gamers and people only used to consoles after the Saturn won’t know what I’m talking about, but in it’s 16 bit heyday Shining Force was as big, if not bigger, than Final Fantasy. I remember FF3 (FF6 for you purists) vs. SF2 debates when I was a Freshman in high School. People debating on if there was ever a team that didn’t use Zylo and Balbaroy, or if there was ever a cooler character than the undead manic-depressive vampire named Mr. Lemon. It has most of the typical Fantasy RPG elements: Plucky young hero saves the world from a great and horrible evil with the help of his friends. Things like that. Although most of the plots are considered cliche now, at the time they were revolutionary with plot twists, intrigue, and even comedy abundant in the tales.
But the game play is what can’t be beat. Not only was Shining Force the first tactics based game, but it’s still the best. Ogre Tactics lets you have 8 people on the field at once? Final Fantasy tactics? A pathetic 5. Sakura Taisen? Depends on the battle scenario. But Shining Force, even back in the days of 16 bit nostalgia? A whopping 12! Some battles would have a total of 40 characters on the screen at once. Truly, this was the game for strategy masters. With a range of characters from werewolves and centaur to phoenix and even Penguins, Shining Force had it all. In Shining Force 2, they even has GAMERA, the giant flying turtle who is the friend to all children. (Someone please say I want a coke’ so I know there are other MST3K fans out there.)
Shining Force also introduced the concept of hidden playable characters into the world of RPGS, even way back with the original Shining in the Darkness. In every game there is at least 2-4 hidden characters you can have join your team. And they’re all generally very good. Except Yogurt. And the Penguins.
So now let’s get into Mr. Peabody’s wayback machine and head to the year 1991, when Color Me Badd, Hi-Five, and C&C music factory were all kings of the US music charts, Murphy Brown and Cheers were still on TV and Rodney King asked us to all get along. But most importantly? It was the year the very first Shining Game was released to the public.
SHINING IN THE DARKNESS
System: Sega Genesis
Now, let me state, Shining In the Darkness, is one of the “odd” Shining Games, even though it was the first. You see, SITD isn’t a tactics game. It is a first person Dungeon crawl ala the Original Eye of the Beholder. However, unlike that aforementioned game, in Shining In the Darkness, you didn’t have to eat food every five minutes in order to stay alive, could leave the bloody dungeon and had maps that were easy to put on graph paper. And it was cute and funny instead of dark and taking itself too seriously.
Shining in the Darkness is pretty typical of the Shining games. You’re a young hero/knight. Evil bad guy by the name of Dark Sol comes and kidnaps the Princess. You and your two friends (usually an Elf Mage and a Hobbit Cleric) traverse through underground dungeons in order to find the Princess, your father who disappeared at the same time, and finally take out Dark Sol himself. Then peace is restored, birdies will sing and life is pretty funky again.
That’s SitD in a nutshell, but there’s a lot more to the game than that. From the graphics and menu style that’s still around in the Shining Series’ latter day descendant in Golden Sun and Shining Soul, to setting in stone a lot of characters and plot devices that would be seen in the later games. The game is turn based, and plays to the typical RPG devices we’ve all come to know and love. There are puzzles to solve, monsters to kill, and a lot of dungeon to remember.
For true Shining Force fans, it may surprise you to know that even though this game is the first made, it actually is one of the last games to take place chronologically. And even more confusing, as unless you know Japanese or go to thoroughly pedantic SF sites, you’ll be confused as Dark Sol appears in not just SitD, but is the main’ bad guy in Shining Force 1. But in fact the Dark Sol in both games are two different characters, Dark Sol in Darkness is the Son (aka Mephisto/Melvyl) of the one appearing in Shining Force. Think of it like Star wars where episodes 4-6 came out before 1-3.
To be honest, other than this being the first Shining game, most people will be put off by this. FPV RPG’s seem to be decidedly unpopular compared to tactic, overhead turn based, and action RPG’s. The game is decidedly dated by todays super next-gen’ games, but for it’s day it was a lot of fun and quite hard, even if it was linear.
SHINING FORCE 1
Release: Summer 1993
System: Sega Genesis
And here’s where the magic happens. Now I know we all have a running joke of me being hardcore’ when I’m really just a retro-gamer, but Shining Force 1 is one of the handful of games I probably fall into crazed lunatic fanatic’ over. The game came out the summer of 1993. And I played it for 72 hours straight, beating the game twice in a row without sleeping. I was obsessed. Crazy drooling obsessed. Breaking up with my girlfriend because I decided the game was more fun than her obsessed. (And even in retrospect I still find that decision to be the right one). Shining Force is a game so incredible I still whip it out, and have the PC, Genesis and Dreamcast versions sitting at home waiting to be loved again. But to be honest, I’d love to see a Shining Force collection for the GBA or next gen system. I would never play another game.
What is incredible is you have a team of 25+ characters to use. Most of those characters evolve to a new class after level 10, dramatically changing their stats, appearance and attacks. It’s a forty-hour plus game with unlimited replay due to the many different types of characters you have at your disposal. There are two hidden characters, a Ninja and a Samurai, along with nearly a dozen optional characters that you have to recruit. I loved it. The graphics were the best on the Genesis for it’s day. Having up to forty characters (yours and the computers) on the screen at once all running around in tactics style combat was just amazing. It saddens me no game has tried to match what a tiny 16 bit game could do. There hasn’t been a game since that even tries to do half of what the Shining series could, and until someone tries, my Sega Genesis (With optional Cd-Rom attachment and crappy 32X gathering dust) will be hooked up and ready to play.
The plot is both standard and unique for an RPG. You start as Max, a young knight who is the chosen’ by the head of the guard, a wise and noble centaur. The evil army of Runefaust tries to both take over the world and revive a Demon God, known as Dark Dragon. The game progresses with some interesting plot developments. The king and Head of the guard are killed, but instead of whining, both their daughters join the team and come along to kick some major booty. Princess Anri will usually become one of the most powerful members of your party with some very powerful magic.
The game allows you classes from Pegasus Knights to paladins to Archers to Swordsmasters to werewolves and birdmen. Again, no other series has had as many playable races, classes or characters in a Role Playing Game. You actually have a nice sized army at the end. The only downside is you can’t really change your classes as you can in other tactics games. You stay the same class throughout the game until you hit level ten, then you get promoted/evolve to a new super class. What I love is that when you get promoted, your stats fall a tiny bit. Why? Because you’re starting over in a class you’re unskilled in. I love that and it makes the game more difficult.
As you progress in the game, which is broken into 8 chapters, you learn the head of Runefaust is not the king of Runefaust, but a demonic wizard named Darksol is in charge. Again this is the father of the Darksol in Shining in the Darkness.
The game goes on, you kill baddie after baddie, and then in the final battle, you end up killing Darksol, only to learn his death is the sacrifice needed to revive the Dark Dragon. This is one of if not the, first two part boss battle in Video Game history. No time to change troops, prepare or anything. You’re just forced into the battle against a three-headed monster. Sadly, this battle is one of the easiest in last battle histories, but that may be just because I’ve played this game far more than anyone should. Although I don’t remember this battle ever giving me trouble. The battle I had the hardest time with when I first got the game was either against general Elliott, because it’s a wide open field with no cover and you are heavily outnumbered and outpowered, or the battle in chapter 8 with those damn Chimera and Blue Dragons. SF fans know what I mean… This is also the first RPG to have an unhappy ending, or at least a “not as happy as it could be” ending. Unless of course you allow the ending to happened, credits to play through and wait for a few minutes to catch the ending epilogue. Finally, this is the first game to have a special end scene
Chronologically, this is the FIRST game in the series, and everything relates back to it. Sadly, without Shining Force Final Conflict, which is in Japanese only, you lose a lot of how SitD and SF interconnect. What’s nice about the shining games, is that although they were not made in chronological order, the designers (Sega and Camelot) made sure to fill in plot holes and loose ends as the new games came out and that their order fit in some sort of logical and cohesive pattern.
Here’s a little cheese/trick to get through the game easily. In most RPG’s cleric/healers absolutely suck and you only have them on the team for healing reasons, right? Well in the Shining Series it’s different. You see, for every 100XP a character gets, they gain a level. And the game prevents cheese/running around redoing battles until you are a super level until you can plow through the game by a very sneaky means. It checks your level compared to that of the opponent and gives you relative experience. Killing an enemy at level 1 might give you 50 XP, but the same enemy at level 5 will net you only a pathetic 1 XP. But clerics have a way around this. Any spell they cast, whether it benefits anyone or not gives them 10XP. If you have them cast a spell every time it is their turn no matter what, they’ll be shooting up in levels in no time. And the same holds for Monks, which are warrior/cleric hybrids. Usually by the end of the game your cleric will be oh say….TWENTY levels higher than your normal guys. And it’s not really cheating. But it is cheese. So only do it after you’ve beaten the game a few times, okay?
Shining Force Gaiden
Release: December 25th, 1992 (Japan Only)
System: Sega Game Gear<
And yes, ladies and gentlemen, we have a phenom! Shining Force was so popular, Sega rushed out a sequel for the Sega Game gear 9 months after the first one was released in Japan. Now I won’t discuss whether it was planned and that Sega knew Shining Force would make Final Fantasy look shamefully bad, or if the game was haphazardly thrown together in an attempt to save the Game Gear from destruction thanks to their new ultra popular series. Either way the Game Gear still died, but the Game gear Shining Games are super popular and sought after. Although this one didn’t make it to US shores, SF Gaiden 2 did, and even better both were released in English and with a massive graphical and sound upgrade on Shining Force CD for the Sega-CD system. You’ll note aside from SF 1 and 2 Sega only seemed to release Shining games for dying systems and long after they would have been any help to resurrect the system’s popularity. When we get to SF 3, you’ll hear a mouthful from me on that little subject. But for now, I’ll be content to talk about this game.
SF Gaiden takes place 20 years after the first SF. Anri is Queen and everyone except the main character has spawned some children thanks to good sweet lovin’. And even though she was powerful enough to take down Darksol in 3 hits on her own with freeze 4 in SF 1, Menopause seems to have weakened her a great deal. Or at least addled her brain, for when sinister looking denizens of the country of Cypress waddle in bearing a present, she doesn’t at all judge the book by its cover, opens the box, and we have a magically comatose queen of Guardiana.
So the kids of the original team you start with in SF 1, plus your main character named Nick set off to attack cypress with only Luke (horribly renamed Lug) from the original team to take on an unknown country powerful enough to wipe out Anri without a fight. Because of course, everyone sends untrained immature newbies into combat like that…
With a neat plot twist not repeated until Castlevania:SOTN, the first battle has your characters maxed out with super powerful items and weapons. Until an evil mage sets your boat on fire, and you end up swimming to shore, losing all your nifty and powerful items and thus start from scratch with wooden planks and sharp pointed sticks. At least you’d be able to defend against someone armed with fresh fruit, right? The game goes on and you gain new allies, items and powers, and can be promoted to higher classes as in the first SF. But partways through the game, you learn that the main character is actually the Prince of Cypress, meaning there is internal intrigue amongst your party. Is Nick a spy? Is he a traitor to his country? Well, of course not, because the current ruler of his country has deposed his father and worships evil demons. Evil demons are big in Shining Force, as is their worship. It’s like Anton Le Vay’s dream planet. The end of the game pits you against the demonic mage Woldol who has used mind control and evil magic to gain control of cypress and you must defeat not only Wodol but..Evil Monster. That’s right folks. Evil Monster. Truly, a name that shall live in infamy. Once you’ve beaten evil monster, you get another of the famous two part end boss battles as Woldol turns into…a giant poison spitting scorpion. Woldol is killed, but not before turning Nick’s right arm into stone.
Woldol dies, Anri wakes up, and Nick becomes king of Cypress and the two countries of Cypress and Guardiana have a peaceful and happy existence together. The End.
Now the Game Gear games, along with SF 3 version 1 are my least favorite in the series. SF3 version 1 because the plot is just horrid and the US translation is missing a bunch of stuff. But the game gear games just seemed rushed with mistakes in a lot of names. How they could mess up the names of characters they just released less than a year ago makes no sense to me and smacks of laziness. The graphics and sound take a dramatic turn for the worse, as it’s now an 8 bit game instead of a 16 bit. What bothers me most is that the game is JUST battles. Nothing else. In between battles you can buy stuff, and occasionally have a cut scene, but that’s it. No exploring, no real hidden stuff to find. And a game with just battles gets old really fast. Sure most role playing games are linear, but at least they try and give an illusion of letting you have some freedom. Not so with Shining Force Gaiden.
Still, the game’s battles are a lot of fun, and the end battles are far tougher than in SF1. And we can’t forget it’s portable. However, since you had to import this game and be able to read Japanese, you were rather screwed if you were European or American. Best of all, the game gives me my favorite SF character name wise: Apis. I’ve heard him called everything from “Ape-Shit”to “Ape-Piss.”
What’s really sad is once again SF interfered with my love life during my formative teenage years. In those crazy teenage melodramas, I’d broken up with another girl (different from the one mentioned in the SF story) but not for Shining Force reasons. And her best friend decided I was fair prey. And of course she decides to reveal this to me while I’m beating Wodol’s scorpion form. And because I’m trying to translate in my head and got way too overconfident for this battle thanks to SF1, I ended up totally tuning out her advances and she got the idea I was shunning her. So a month later she ended up with my best friend. I swear, I’ll be able to give you a Shining Force vs Alex’s relationships’ story for every game save that Shining in the Darkness game.
So, in this first part of the five part series you’ve gotten to see the original game that started it all, the game that made the Shining Series a temporary household name and still one of the most loved VG series of all times, and finally a Japanese exclusive to make to have that little island all the more. (But trust me, when it comes to island hating, save your venom for the UK and their damned socialist bureaucracy.) I’ll see you later this week with the second Gaiden game, the best game in the entire series (at least one that you can get in English) and the Sega CD attempt at Shining Force, which actually proves synergy isn’t just some stupid buzzword used by office people who want to sound impressive. Please note we have another TWELVE games to cover, and it’s gonna be a long and enjoyable ride. Like my eventual plane fight home to America when it comes. See you then!