In this post, I’d like to show some love to a special Square RPG game that doesn’t always get the appreciation it deserves, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest! What? No, not that crap. Review something good. Something, Sega. The Sega Genesis doesn’t tend to get much love, which is a real shame! The console isn’t usually the first thing people think of when talking about RPGs. But it’s actually a very competent system! I also haven’t given much love to Strategy RPGs either, which is another problem.
In ages long forgotten, Sega first party developer Sonic! Software Planning (who, despite the name, never actually software planned any Sonic titles) teamed up with Climax Entertainment to produce an almost Saturday morning cartoon take on the Wizardry school of Dungeon crawling RPGs. Shining in the Darkness was a success. They immediately followed it up with the similarly styled tactical RPG, Shining Force.
Thus the concept of the Shining series was born; a slew of RPGs with different mechanics united by a single universe and cohesive art style. However, the project fell apart during the production of the action RPG, Shining Rogue in which Climax essentially grabbed their developmental ball and went home. Shining Rogue was rebranded LandStalker and Sonic! Software Planning took complete creative control of the Shining series with Shining Force 2 and onwards.
Later they’d change their name to Camelot Software and develop five more Shining RPGs for the Sega Saturn before they ditched Sega for Nintendo and became “that company who makes those Mario sports games and oh. GoldenSun.” And Climax? They too left Sega to develop the Stalker series before disbanding and rebranding as Matrix Software and developing the best darn Zelda clone in existence, Alundra.
The Shining series died with the Saturn. I’m sure I read that Shining Force Resonance Refrain is coming out soon. In Shining Force, you take on the role of Max, a dashing heroic type who happens to be gifted in the use of a sword.
Unfortunately, the time comes when Max is forced to use it. While sent out on a mission to prevent Kain from opening the Shining Path, his home-town Guardian comes under siege! In order to prevent the resurrection of the ancient evil “Dark Dragon,” Max embarks on a journey with his posse to build an army, and defeat Dark Sol! What’s interesting about Shining Force that isn’t immediately apparent when you start it up, is that the game doesn’t take place in a typical fantasy setting.
With all of this talk of shining paths, dark dragons, swords and such, you could be forgiven for mistaking this as a typical medieval fantasy. In fact, at first, there’s very little to contradict this. There are centaurs out there, and skeletons and castles, and many tropes that feel right at home in a CS Lewis-inspired fantasy. But gradually you start to see these little oddities around.
Castles with rooms full of pipes, the occasional odd piece of technology, and then eventually entire rooms full of computer mainframes and terminals and robots, cyborg skeletons and eventually bright green laser-looking swords! It’s an odd yet charming mix of fantasy and science fantasy that feels very unique and welcome in a genre that seldom sees this sort of playfulness in its setting!
That said, the events within the plot don’t exude that same level of creativity. The overall story of the game feels very basic, at least on the Sega Genesis version that we received. I’ve heard that quite a bit of the actual plot of the game was lost in translation. The translation and story are expanded upon in the GameBoy Advance version of the game, and there are also some whole new scenarios added to that version, but I didn’t really get a chance to take a look at that release.
And despite the return of the series’ first character artist, Yoshitaka Tamaki, the character portraits lost a lot of their original charm. But the one thing I think the remake did very well was fleshing out the back stories of Max and his assorted companions. It’s definitely worth a play through for the expanded storyline. And seasoned Shining Force vets may appreciate the bonus character and collector card additions.
But otherwise, the game mechanics are pretty much the same between the two versions. They all play pretty similarly. Move your units around a grid, swap blows and magic with the enemy army. Win (hopefully), and watch a cutscene before restocking supplies at the nearest town menu.
Then do it all again like 30 more times. Cue credits. But Shining Force is different. Sure you still have the grid, and the blows, and the cut scenes, but that town menu? It’s a town. Like, a full town, filled with NPCs, and shops, and treasure chests, and Easter eggs! Basically, Shining Force is Fire Emblem meets Dragon Warrior, and it’s glorious. I mean I could understand wanting to expedite the chase to the next battle if the exploration was tedious.
But Shining Force makes the intermission just as much, if not more fun than the combat. There are loads of funny NPCs to talk with, and secrets to find, and skits to watch. It’s like going to the carnival before setting off for war – only without all the death because anyone actually slain in battle can be resurrected at the nearest church for the low-low price of 10 gold per experience level.
In fact, unlike other, much harder SRPGs Shining Force encogameurages grinding. Retreating characters keep all earned XP, and the patient player who holds off on promoting character classes until later levels are richly rewarded with the largest possible stat gains. Shining force, at least on the Sega Genesis, is pretty easy on the eyes. I really like the battle animations of each of the characters!
One of the really cool things is during these animations you can even tell if a character has a weapon equipped or not! Sure the animations are usually only a couple of frames, but these big beautiful pixel art attack scenes feel so satisfying and don’t really slow up the progress of battle all too much. Outside of battle, the character sprites are big, simple, and beautiful, compared to Final Fantasy games of the time.
The graphics have aged very well! Yoshitaka Tamaki’s character designs shine through strongly here and in those character portraits. Composer Masahiko Yoshimura lends his considerable talents to Shining Force, bringing to the table some of the best battle music that I’ve heard in ages! A lot of people don’t give the Sega Genesis the credit it deserves, and I used to be one of them not too long ago.
But Yoshimura’s compositions are proof that the Genesis is quite the capable machine if the composer has the skills and talent to really let it roar! One of the reasons that I love Shining Force so much (besides the whole Narnia meets Star Wars thing) is that it’s so accommodating to different play styles. You could completely steamroll the Runefaust army with your overpowered behemoths if you take the time to pump up your squad, or stick to a strict no-grind sanction and eek out an exhilarating win by the skin of your teeth.
This theme of absolute player control is reinforced even within roster building. By end game, you’ll have acquired 30 characters from which to build a small force of 12, and of those you have your pick from mages, healers, melee fighters, flyers, and ranged attackers.
The combinations are- well there’s a lot of possible armies you could build from those options. And then on top of that, there are unique weapons, stat boosting consumables, and special rings you can use to really put that personal touch on your MVPs. And even if you decided to play through the adventure, multiple times, reusing, say the same crew of gorgeous equine gladiators, your experience will never be the same twice.
Stat gains are randomized to a point; level ups can be as disappointing as no stats gains whatsoever or as thrilling as a surge of power that suddenly transforms your dedicated healer into the hardest hitting mother f***. With its pick-up and play mechanics, and lack of permadeath, Shining Force has been a really great gateway into the Strategy RPG genre for me. And it was also a great way to dust off that Sega Genesis that I’ve been ignoring for far too long! With such awesome visual and music, I’m surprised it didn’t catch my eye sooner!