Shining Force

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Grade: A+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 5th

Publisher: Sega
Year: 1993
Genre: Werewolf Strategy

Shining Force offers lessons in efficiency that modern games really ought to take heed of. I played Assassin’s Creed 3 recently, and from the time when you first put the game in, it takes roughly four hours of sitting through cinematics and playing through tutorials before you can start the “real” portion of the game. Do you know how long it took to get to my first battle in Shining Force? Ten minutes. And that game has a both a plot and characters that I care a hell of a lot more about than AC3. There’s something to be said for the old storytelling adage of “show, don’t tell”… and also for the tried-and-true game designing advice of “Maybe don’t just assume that your player is an idiot who’s never played a video game before.”Shining Force gets that.

Shining Force061For the uninitiated, Shining Force is a hybrid of a traditional role playing game and turn-based strategy, one of the first of it’s kind to appear on consoles. The blending of these two genres was an absolutely brilliant move. Unlike a typical RPG, going into battle isn’t a frustrating grind that makes you want to throw the controller out the window. And unlike a typical turn-based strategy game, where the focus is usually pretty immediate, the RPG elements in Shining Force force you to think long-term. The key to being successful in the game isn’t only to win the current battle, but to do so in a way that maximizes experience for all your units and ensures that your entire force will be well-prepared for the following battles as well. So while it’s tempting to just have your strongest, most mobile units run roughshod over your enemies, such a strategy will ultimately make you weaker in the long run.

As I mentioned earlier, Shining Force doesn’t waste any time getting down to business. The game begins with a neighboring nation invading your land and attempting to open an ancient seal that your king has sworn to protect at all costs. And by “all costs”, he means sending out his least experienced fighters to Shining Force013 (2)defend it. The king explains this insane decision by saying he doesn’t want to start a panic (I guess you’re so rarely thought about in your own hometown that nobody notices when you march off to battle), but a more rational explanation is that perhaps, like you, the king is trying to level up his least effective soldiers against some low-level enemies. Given that your character looks like he’s about 12 years old and wears a miniskirt into battle, it’s not surprising that the King views your group much the same way you would some novelty character who barely do any damage to his enemies. Sure, an invading force is attempting to open up a gate that’s holding back some ancient evil power. But it’s also an invading force that, for whatever reason, is made up almost entirely of mentally deficient goblins. When else this band of child soldiers going to have a chance to gain some levels?

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Oh my, he’s dead? Well, I can revive him – as in, return the spark of life to his corpse and bring him back from the grave, allowing him resume all the joys of this world and be reunited with his loved ones once more. To perform this incredible miracle costs, eh, I don’t know –  does less than one percent of your money seem fair? You know, to come back from the dead?

This strategy turns out to be unintentionally brilliant, however, as the toughest enemies can’t be bothered to fight you until you become more powerful. It’s not that they’re too honorable to slaughter a bunch of rookies (they are the bad guys after all), it’s just that there’s no glory in it. These are officers within an organized military force – admittedly, it’s an evil organized military Shining Force019force on a quest to resurrect an ancient evil and destroy the world for no real reason in particular other than it apparently seems like a good time to them, but it’s a military force nonetheless. And the next time a round of promotions is coming, they need to have something impressive on their resume. Nobody ever got made a 5-star general for winning a battle against 6 or 7 soldiers with no combat experience; and that’s the kind of “victory” that sticks with you. No matter how many other great achievements they might have, everyone else in their army is always going to be thinking “Well, here’s our go-to guy if we ever get attacked by another orphanage.”

So no, if you’re an officer in an evil army, saying “I defeated a small, inexperienced, and poorly armed enemy force” isn’t going to impress anyone, even if they do appreciate your cruelty. But you know what would turn some heads? Being able to tell your superior officers “Yeah, it was a small and inexperienced enemy that we defeated. But our own main force was made up of some wild fruit bats that I convinced to attack them, and a couple of dwarves that honestly were so stupid I’m kind of surprised they knew which end of the axe to hold.” Now suddenly you do look like a genius commander. Resourceful, too!

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Demon Castle, eh? I wonder what’s there?

For the most part, the battles in Shining Force are pretty well done. The enemy AI isn’t brilliant (a favorite tactic of mine is to simply park a high HP unit in a crowded area with a bunch of healing items, and let him tie up several enemies at once), but it is effective enough in a brute force kind of way to make the game challenging. The maps are well designed, so that terrain and mobility plays a huge role in how each skirmish plays out. In order to keep things from getting too predictable, every attack has a slight chance to miss or landing a critical hit for extra damage, and some enemies can give your troops status ailments, such as poison or sleep. What’s interesting about the sleep effect is that the game simply informs you that your character fell asleep in a way that makes it sound completely unrelated to the attack. You almost start to wonder if your character simply dozed off in the middle of the fight because after a few epic battles with skeletons and zombies, he found fighting bats to be unexciting. This would actually make a lot of sense if Sonic was on your team.

Come to think of it, it’s sort of surprising that you don’t get Sonic, because the game isn’t stingy about giving you awesome characters. Want a werewolf on your team? You get one. A dragon? Yeah. A robot with a laser cannon? In a fantasy game with castles, and knights, and magic? Sure, why not?

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Hey, you know what? Let’s give this guy a magical flying octopus, too.

That might sound a little silly, but it’s actually one of the things I love most about Shining Force. Not the fact that you can have both a bazooka-wielding centaur and a ninja on your team, although, yes, obviously that’s fantastic. I just mean that I love the mentality that goes behind it. It’s as if every single time the people making the game had to decide between “do what makes sense, story-wise” or “let the player do something awesome”, they went with the second option. It’s not that the game doesn’t take itself seriously, it’s just that SF is not so rigid in this regard that won’t do something a little crazy for the sake of having fun. More games should be like that.

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Really, “make your game like Shining Force” ought to be the first thing they teach you in game design.

The sheer number of characters also adds a lot of replay value to the game. You can find as many as 30 party members, but only 12 can be taken into battle, meaning that many troops could be sitting on the sidelines for most of their time in the game. Each new party member represents a difficult choice between sticking with an established character that you’ve leveled up and grown attached to, or a new one with exciting new abilities. This encourages multiple playthroughs, so you can see how different characters turn out and experiment with different setups. Some of the best characters late in the game start out as total weaklings (that laser-armed robot I mentioned earlier is closer in battle prowess to supermarket scanner than a Terminator when you first get him), and it’s pretty interesting to go back and see if some of those guys who seemed like they had a lot of potential Shining Force017but you didn’t want to make room for the first time will pan out. Some of them don’t amount to much – at high levels, the birdmen Balbory and Amon are highly mobile flying weaklings whose most effective tactic usually involves going deep behind enemy lines and getting enemy mages to waste MP on them, and Arthur is an underpowered knight that if you stick with long enough becomes an average knight with the bonus ability of casting low level spells that you won’t want to use anymore. But others, like Domingo – a flying spellcaster who for some reason seems to attract every enemy to him like as if he’s coated in chocolate – can quickly turn into your best characters if you give them a chance.

Since this is both a strategy game and an RPG, there’s more to Shining Force than just battles. The non-combat portions of the game have you wandering across the landscape, visiting various villages and robbing them blind like a gang of roving bandits. In the classic RPG tradition, people have apparently grown so accustomed to being robbed by armed soldiers that they no longer even protest when you walk right into their houses and start helping yourself to whatever items they happen to have in treasure chests. More often than not, meeting with their leaders seems like a pretense for robbing the castle blind, so when you finally get Lando-ed by one of the kings, it’s kind of hard to blame him.

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Lyle lowers his bazooka and takes aim at the vicious Ramlady.

Of course, this crime spree is limited to property, as your character is too polite to even say a mean word to another person. If an old man is the only thing standing between you and the ship you need to save the world, well, too bad for the world. Sure, you could just knock him out of the way and take it, but we’re a criminal/hero with a moral code. Or maybe some kind of crippling social disorder that prevents us from asking more than once. Either way, we’re just going to go along with it, hope an evil circus comes to town and starts kidnapping people, and then we get the ship as a reward for rescuing them. That happens a lot, right?

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At least I hope that’s why we’re about to murder a clown.

In terms of a historical legacy, it’s hard to know exactly how much credit to give to Shining Force. It didn’t invent the strategy/RPG, as Fire Emblem and Warsong had come before, though Shining Force was the first to really succeed outside of Japan. But its success definitely had a huge influence on the genre it helped create, and its quality set a good example for later games to follow, providing sort of a blueprint for other SRPGs to follow later on. Without SF, great games like Vandal Hearts, Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea probably still would have been made, but they may not have made it to North America as quickly, if at all. And they were certainly better for being able to see what Shining Force did well.

Availability: Have I mentioned lately that if you haven’t done so already, you really ought to pick up a copy of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection? Because you really should! The collection not only includes both Shining Force and its sequel, but also an impressive number of other games from this Top 50 list, including the two previous entries (Sonic the Hedgehog, the Streets of Rage series), and the game that will be next on this list. Anyway, if you have an Xbox 360 or a PS3, that’s your best bet. Wii owners can pick up Shining Force from the virtual console, or it can be played on the computer you’re reading this page on right now. Unless you’re reading this on your smartphone, in which case you can probably play it on that, too. What I’m saying is that your options for playing Shining Force aren’t exactly limited.

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Seven seconds until you get a surprise! I hope it’s cake and not a blast from that death ray!

But let’s say you’re some sort of a Genesis purist, or a collector, or a time traveller from 1993 who can only brings things back to his own time if they already existed back then. Well, then you’re screwed, sorry. Ok, maybe not screwed (certainly not when compared to trying to buy a copy of Shining Force 2), but this game is both hard to find and expensive. As great as Shining Force was, word didn’t get out right away, and by the time people were tuned into it, it was sort of too late. So prepare to get gouged – expect to pay at least $20 for a copy, and probably over $30 if you want it to have a box and be in nice shape. In a vacuum, I’d be tempted to say that’s still worth it, but seriously, just get a copy of the Ultimate Genesis Collection already, sheesh.

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Streets of Rage Series

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Grades:

Streets of Rage (1991) A
Streets of Rage 2 (1992) A
Streets of Rage 3 (1994) B-

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 6th
Publisher: Sega
Years: 1991-94 (see above for specific years)
Genre: Criminal Justice

Note: Of all the games in this series, these are the editor’s personal favorites:
Brad – Streets of Rage
Stryker – Streets of Rage 2

The excellence of the Streets of Rage series doesn’t really require a lot of explanation. It has classic beat-’em up gameplay and a familiar storyline. You choose a character, walk around, punch criminals and awesomeness ensues:

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Attention game designers: No matter what you’re working on, it needs to be more like this.

In fact, much like a gorgeous sunset or an artistic masterpiece, mere words cannot truly convey the power and beauty of the Streets of Rage series. Which is why we grabbed a bunch of screenshots, and brought in our old friends Bitterly Indifferent and Chris Delp to help us discuss them.

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Brad: The Sinister Mr. X warms his hands by the comforting glow of Rage City.

Stryker: Axel is friends with a pro wrestler because video game, that’s why.

B. Indifferent:  Or maybe Mr. X is doing air quotes around this intro sequence? That’d be a whole new level of villainy, mocking Axel and Blaze as they set out to “help” their faithful “companion,” joined by Axel’s friend Max, a “wrestler.”

Chris: All that exposition and still know explanation of why Dolph Lundgren has painted himself purple.

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Brad: This picture illustrates everything you need to know about why Streets of Rage 2 is great. Guys are leaping off of motorcycles to attack us on a bridge, and we’re going to crack them in the face with a lead pipe. The next time somebody’s going on about how moved they were by the story and artistic stylings of some indie game you’ve never heard of, ask them how many parts the game had like this. The answer is always going to be “not enough”.

B. Indifferent: I really feel like we lost something as a society when our video games moved away from bare pecs and tiger stripe sweatpants.

Chris: Come on B, you can bring back the Zubaz.  I believe in you.

B. Indifferent: I’d be all over it, but that judge was disappointingly specific in his restraining order.

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Brad: One of my favorite things in the entire Streets of Rage series is the part where you fight former New York Jets great Mark Gastineau for a turkey.

B. Indifferent: Quite a crowd for this event – I see Buddha, his twin brother Buddha sitting a few seats over, and then one row up you’ve got a pair of guys wearing a dog’s ribcage for a hat.

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Brad: Streets of Rage 2 represents the point where the circles representing “Rollerblades” and “Breakdancing” overlap on the world’s least plausible Venn diagram.

Stryker: Why did this totally-not-Disney-World theme park place one “Do! Base Ball!” poster directly on top of another one? I  thought maybe the one they covered up had some kind of spelling or grammatical mistake but, you know, it’s a poster that says “Do! Base Ball!”.

B. Indifferent: I think it’s the work of some enterprising young vandal who was stepping up his game: now that he’s mastered folding dollar bills to read “tits,” he’s trying to make posters say “BALLSE”

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Brad: Man, the final season of Flava of Love was way more fucked up than I remember.

B. Indifferent: Look, Flava Flav is very particular about how he likes his glazed apples prepared. And he doesn’t like to share them with people. Is that really so wrong?

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Brad: Here’s the first boss of Streets of Rage, because apparently all the crime in this area is controlled by a boomerang wielding Aussie. Also, this is about the fourth time we’ve gone by the “Pine Pot”, so either Adam’s lost and going in circles, or else this stage takes place within a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

B. Indifferent: Pine Pot was an ambitious franchise that tried to use the Starbucks approach by opening a store every 100 yards. Back in the day, they were known for their signature product: a bloody trashcan full of children’s birthday party balloons.

Chris: Perhaps the streets of rage are in Colorado.  Mr. X is just pissed that the government has legalized all of his product to run him and his drug dealing buddies out of business.  That explains why the streets are clear of any bystanders.  The whole town is stuck in a continuous loop around the Arby’s drive thru.

Stryker: The worst part of using a boomerang as a weapon has to be those awkward 30 seconds where you just stand there with hand out, waiting for it to come back.

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Brad: Whoa! Vin Diesel is so enthusiastic about crime that he’s leaping out of the sewers to attack you with a pipe!

B. Indifferent: I only wish I could get that enthusiastic about crime. It’s all I can do to lean out the window and flip off a cop.

Chris: So we were bludgeoning Aussies outside the Pine Pot but now fifteen minutes later we are brawling charismatic street racers that knock off 18 wheelers with neon lit cars.  Has every form of criminal in human history converged on this poor city?

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Brad: Tired of the failures of traditional crime-fighting methods, the police try a new approach, enlisting 2 officers to drive around in a cool sports car while firing a t-shirt cannon at crowds of street thugs in an attempt to turn them from their law-breaking ways.

Stryker: I’ve seen cop shows where the cops have to guide the suspect into the back of the squad car so he doesn’t hit his head on the door and sue them for brutality. Could you imagine trying to stuff a perp into the back of this two-door, though? “Ok, watch your head, and now put your first foot here… well ok, maybe if I move the seat up some more… no, wait, what if you kind of crouch first… ok, you know what, I’m just going to let you off with a warning. You’d better stop stabbing people from now on.”

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Brad: It’s a little hard to make out here, but Adam is armed with the most fearsome weapon in Streets of Rage – the pepper shaker! No, seriously, this is a game where you run around beating the daylights out of street thugs, and the best weapon in the game makes your enemies sneeze uncontrollably. Danny Cooksey is about to learn why you don’t bring a knife to a shaker fight.

B. Indifferent: The best thing to bring to a shaker fight is a lathe. Once they start making furniture and comparing notes on abstinence it’s only a matter of time before everyone dies of boredom.

Chris: And we are sure Adam’s not about to take a drag off a lollipop?  No wait, that makes more sense than saving the city armed with nothing but a ripped shirt and a pepper shaker.

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Chris: This level always makes me want to reach for the horizontal hold knob.  These particle effects are truly a sight to behold.

Brad: I was going to explain that this Alien-themed level takes place within an amusement park, so it’s not as though Streets of Rage has completely gone off of the rails here. Then I remembered that still makes this is a level where you break into a theme park and start beating the shit out out of everyone, so I guess that’s kind of relative.

Stryker: Is Axel going to simply punch the crime out of them? Or is he actually beating them to death, and each time one blinks a few times and disappears, they are literally blinking out of existence? Is the only thing preventing Rage City from being littered with the bodies of slain thugs the Genesis’ inability to render it without crippling slowdown?

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Brad: Ok, I get it, Max is a pro wrestler. Would he really be wearing his ring attire for this, though? I feel like it would be pretty weird to walk down the street and see Randy Savage bashing people in the head, but it would be even weirder if he was doing it while wearing his neon green cowboy hat and fringe-lined vest.

B. Indifferent: It’s aspirational. You don’t dress like the crime-fighting street vigilante you are, you dress like the vigilante you want to be. It adds another level of pathos to this story about a broken city full of people who had to give up on their dreams of mastering ballet, designing haute couture, and selling erotic novelties.

Stryker: Instead of making wrestling games, companies should have just made beat ‘em ups starring pro wrestlers. Acclaim published countless terrible WWF games during the 90s, and I gotta think a game where you just walked around as The Honky Tonk Man and beat up criminals would have been way more fun.

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Brad: You know when things in your city have gotten bad? When they start stacking tires on the beach.

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Brad: Adam calls for backup, only to discover why police departments shouldn’t order uniforms for their female officers off of the internet.

Chris: I think I’ve seen the movie adaptation of this.  Adam and Horatio Sanz are pretending to be gay so they can hook up with palette swap whip woman number three.  Mildly offensive non-hilarity ensues.

Stryker: Streets of Rage shows us that every woman in the world is some kind of whip-wielding psychobitch in a faux-nazi uniform, but one good crack in the jaw is all that it takes for them to drop on their knees and beg for your mercy. You can draw your own conclusions, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the guys who made this game probably didn’t get a lot of dates in high school.

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Brad: See, this is why arcades are out of business. People just don’t want to pay three gold bars to play one game of Bare Knuckle when the console version only costs around five or six gold bars.

B. Indifferent: I don’t care if the console version costs twenty gold bars, it’s a small price to pay to avoid the sweaty pervert in the green half-trenchcoat. As an added bonus, you don’t have to breathe air that reeks of cigarette smoke and failure.

Chris: I’ll need more random air hockey pucks flying off tables and at my head to complete that 90’s arcade brawl experience I remember so well.

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Brad: Having failed to secure enough new sponsors for the upcoming baseball season, the team starts advertising the general concept of “audio”.

B. Indifferent: They should fire their business development manager. If all their athletes are shaped like that guy in the air, it would be a slam dunk to get sponsorship from Bob’s Big Boy, Michelin Tires, or Sea World.

Chris:  The form on this belly flop is nothing short of masterful!  It looks like he’s cleared five feet, legs tucked, arms out.  We are looking at very high marks from the Texas judge depending on the divot he leaves.

Availability: For modern console owners, all three games are included in the excellent Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for Xbox 360 and Ps3. This is a collection that we’ve recommended many times before on this site, and I’ll do so again here. They can also be downloaded as a collection for $10, or Wii owners can download them individually (and you can save some money by skipping the less than great SoR 3). Those of you looking to buy Genesis versions shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding copies of the first two games – they’re not as easy to track down as some of the other games we’ve discussed here, but are still fairly common. If all else fails, copies can be found online for about $5. Streets of Rage 3 is much rarer and more expensive. Honestly, that was Stryker and I’s least favorite of the series, and it wasn’t even close, so unless you’re a collector or completionist of some kind, you can probably pass on it and just enjoy the first two.

A very special thanks goes out to Bitterly Indifferent and Chris Delp for all their contributions and advice on this article.