By request: Shining Force

By request of rick02

Ah, Shining Force. Truly one of gaming’s greatest examples of the maxim, “You don’t love what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

Shining Force was a key component of Sega’s quest to go blow-for-blow with Nintendo — and one of the better ones in their arsenal, in fact. You had the Phantasy Star to Dragon Quest, the Alex Kidd to Mario, the Kenseiden to Ninja Gaiden, the Vampire to Castlevania, the Streets of Rage to Final Fight, the Golden Axe Warrior to Zelda, the Zillion to Metroid. This is not to diminish Sega’s lineup throughout the 8- and 16-bit eras; they offered plenty Nintendo didn’t, like Out Run and Space Harrier and Toe Jam and Earl. But for every notable franchise to appear on a Nintendo system, Sega had a sassy retort.

Shining Force, of course, was a direct and inspired answer to Fire Emblem. A little funnier than Fire Emblem, a little faster-paced. But the core concepts were similar: You moved a small army around a map, each of whom would engage with the foe if they ended up in adjacent squares. While positioning played out through a top-down perspective on a grid, actual battles played out as dramatic sequences in which bold character sprites seen from heroic angles would take mighty swings at their opponent. Yes, as in Fire Emblem.

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In fairness, Fire Emblem’s art was never this metal.

But there was more to Shining Force than that — or at least to Shining, the umbrella franchise that encompassed Shining Force and all its kin. I admit I never cared much for the Shining games, because something about developer Camelot really grates on my nerves. Their sprite work, their banal dialogue, I dunno. I just can’t get into it. But I can admire the heck out of Camelot for the fact that they were the first, to my knowledge, to take an RPG of one variety and spin it into another. Shining began with a dungeon crawler called Shining in the Darkness, but the follow-up title was Shining Force, a tactical/strategy RPG. That’s no biggie these days, but Torneko’s Big Adventure and Final Fantasy Tactics were both years away! Camelot led the way.

(Footnote: Origin could possibly clamor for the claim to innovation here; Wikipedia lists both Ultima Underworld and Shining Force as having debuted in March 1992. Clearly, exploring alternate branches of role-playing was an idea whose time had come.)

Shining Force soon became the “main” Shining through-line, even though it wasn’t where the franchise had begun. The game saw one sequel on Genesis, two Game Gear titles, a Sega CD remake of the portable releases, and an annoyingly amibitious Saturn outing. I say “annoyingly” because Shining Force III was released in three chapters, but the slow time-to-localization of RPGs and the quick time-to-death of the Saturn in the U.S. meant Americans only ever saw Shining Force III Scenario 1 as one of the final Saturn releases before Bernie Stolar cut the console loose and cleverly let Sega fans languish without a single release (except the hopelessly delayed Magic Knight Rayearth) for more than a year before Dreamcast’s launch. That one chapter of SFIII has the double benefit of being so expensive on the aftermarket that it would make your bank account shut itself down in despair and a localization awkward enough to stand as a cautionary tale for future localization teams.

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The Internet needs a little more diversity in its Shining Force screenshot selection. 

Sadly, Shining lost its mojo after Shining Force III. Maybe it’s because Camelot wandered off to make Golden Sun and Mario Tennis games, or maybe the lack of direction trickled down from on high at Sega as the company fractured at the end of the millennium. In any case, the Shining name struggled onward, but in an increasingly unpleasant fashion. It started out OK! Grasshopper Manufacture took over and created some pretty decent little Game Boy Advance Diablo-likes, the Shining Soul games. Then there were a bunch of remakes.

And then… the dark times.

Actually, from what I’ve played of them, the latter-day Shining games weren’t especially bad. They were just sort of generic… and they featured character designs by Akiba-nerd-baiting illustrator Tony Taka in a naked (sometimes literally) bid to sell character goods. Alas, the venerable Shining series was reduced to bland prostitution, the games becoming secondary to the scantily clad merchandise. I’ve heard 2009’s Shining Force Feather, one of the rare games to fall into the Shining Force mold, was pretty solid… but of course, Sega never bothered localizing it, or any of the games after 2007’s Shining Force EXA.

Still, Shining gets the last laugh. It might be easy to write it off as a Fire-Emblem-come-lately, but in the end it’s the real innovator. Fire Emblem has finally gone all-in on Tony Taka-style anime boobies with its most recent release, Fates. Though I suspect that’s what you call a pyrrhic victory.