Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 5th
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.
For 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 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?
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 force 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!
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?
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.
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 but 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.
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?
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.
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.