On March 20th, 1992, SEGA “second party” developer Camelot released Shining Force on the SEGA MegaDrive. While the game was a sequel to their previous title, Shining in the Darkness, it represented a huge departure in terms of gameplay. Where Darkness was a first person dungeon crawler, Force took an isometric perspective and introduced turn-based, tactical combat with grid-based movement. It was a bold move given that Darkness was a moderately successful title. More so when you consider that there were very few games at the time that could define themselves as a strategy RPG. They couldn’t claim to be the first in the genre (Nintendo’s Fire Emblem was already around at this stage, which also wasn’t first) but Designer Hiroyuki Takahashi and the team at Camelot did bring some unique elements to the table that have helped the game be remembered as an icon of early 90s gaming.
Fortunately for me, going back to experience these elements first hand couldn’t be easier. SEGA’s MegaDrive & Genesis classics suite, available through Steam, makes for an excellent way to go back and play Shining Force today. Going back to a 25 year-old game can be a daunting prospect, nostalgia tempered by the worry that my tolerance for cumbersome mechanics may have diminished—spoiled by slick modern UI’s. I have to be honest and admit that Shining Force isn’t immune to this effect. The cumbersome, directionally sensitive, menu based system that governs every action feels unwieldy; managing character’s inventories is a pain; and the overly compressed soundtrack has all the charm of a dial-up modem. None of this, however, prevented me from becoming addicted to building my Shining Force once again. What started as a short experiment to refresh myself on the game mechanics and how it plays today soon became many hours of game time. To my mind, that’s a glowing recommendation for the core mechanics of the game.
The first thing that really stands out about Shining Force is its approach to battles. Not only did they introduce never-before-seen mechanics like terrain modifiers and range, allowing for more tactical grid-based encounters, they also pioneered the impressive (for the time) attack animations like the one seen above. For those who never played the game, battles take place on a squared grid from an isometric perspective, but when you call an attack, the perspective shifts to show attacker and target playing out the action. That was crazily impressive in ’92; today, it still makes battles a lot more enjoyable to play through than many of the game’s then peers.
It’s not surprising that this is the game’s standout aspect. When Takahashi was interviewed years later about the Shining Force series as a whole, he said of the first of the Force trilogy:
My basic stance as far as RPG development is concerned, is to produce worthwhile and enjoyable battles. Shining Force was the first embodiment of that philosophy. I felt that the primitive battles in games such as Wizardry and Dragon Quest were enjoyable, but we introduced the notion of ‘distance and range’ to form Shining Force’s tactical battles.
This didn’t come without it’s technical challenges. Limited by the cartridge medium, the developer only had 4 MB of ROM to work with and has said himself that the battle screens were so memory intensive it made the entire game difficult to pull off. This only makes it more impressive that there’s actually much more to the game than its combat.
What really makes the game a joy to go back and play through is the distinct sense that this fantasy RPG isn’t taking itself too seriously. There are some heavy moments, some losses, as you would expect from a “save the world from evil” story, but overall it keeps things fun for the player. From the odd characters that range from fantasy-friendly Centaur knights and Elven archers all the way to a laser-wielding cyborg and flying octopus mage, to amusing dialogue and hidden funnies like book titles or a poster on a wall, Shining Force is never afraid to throw a curve-ball your way. It makes it clear that the focus was far more on what would be fun for the player, rather than what would be “thematically appropriate.” In this regard, the game shares more in common with the zany modern strategy RPGs of Disgaea than something like Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy: Tactics.
Whether you judge a game by its technical achievement, its lasting legacy, originality, story, or simply whether it’s fun to play, Shining Force still ticks the boxes 25 years on. If you’re a strategy RPG fan who was too young the first time around (like me) or if you missed one of SEGA’s many re-releases of the game (Smash Pack 1 on Dreamcast, Smash Pack 2 on PC, through Nintendo’s virtual console, or latterly the version that currently sits in my Steam library via the MegaDrive & Genesis classics), then you owe it to yourself to try this charming game, even just once, both as an example of how a mechanically sound game can be timeless and as a lesson in just how convenient even the worst UI options are these days.