Shining in the Darkness – Sega Genesis

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Lecherous slugs. Hermaphrodites, if the cursor is any indication.

Sequels are a strange phenomenon, and opinions of them tend to be so emotionally charged that people fire out accidental kamehameha waves if you bring them up. Movies like Batman and Robin, Jaws 4, Cabin Fever 2, and anything from Saw…let’s say 3 onward…are generally experiences slightly less favorable to ringworm, what with characters as interesting as your local H&R Block staff and plots that make C-Span look like a Quentin Tarrantino masterpiece. However, mention video game sequels, such as Mega Man 2, Final Fantasy VI, Resident Evil 4 and Silent Hill 2, and fans will melt down their own gold fillings to make a trophy for the game designers. I’ve played two of the Shining Force games before, and while I haven’t launched into auto-dentistry practices yet, I can get excited enough by them to pry the lid off the series and dig around for game #1. So today I’ll write about Shining in the Darkness, the crawly, grindy RPG for the Sega Genesis that somehow metamorphosed into a brilliant tactical game by the next instalment, like a maggot transforming into a unicorn.

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I’ll tell you what I’m not selling…cocaine. I think you’ve had enough.

Shining tells the story of a young boy chosen by mystical forces to be the hero. When his father accepts a job as the winter caretaker of a secluded hotel, the boy must use his supernatural psychic powers….wait, no, that’s not right. It’s just a collection of cliches. Evil wizard, kidnapped princess, chosen hero, incompetent king who would rather send lone adolescents into a major combat area than his army of seasoned veteran knights. The game doesn’t really tell a story so much as tries to justify dropping you into a pit of monsters and sealing off the exit as quickly as possible. The titular “shining in the darkness” is probably nothing more than the radioactive glow of cramming so many unstable tropes together in one game. Even Wikipedia discusses the story condescendingly: In a 2009 interview, Hiroyuki Takahashi (credited for “writing” and producing the game) recalled… ; The overly-simplistic storyline presents more of an imitation attempt at fantasy narratives, similar to a third-grader trying to write his own novel, or Terry Brooks writing The Sword of Shannara.”

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I prefer to think of this less as an abusive scene where a hero is punished for saving the world, and more in the lines of, “Hey, this is getting good…”

But in a way, the simplistic design makes the game appealing. One town for shopping, one castle for major story events, and one dungeon, where you’ll spend the bulk of the game committing the standard, tireless acts of murder so common to the role-playing genre—you know, like Call of Duty, but with sentient crabs instead of Middle-Easterners. The dungeon takes the form of a labyrinth, and between Phantasy Star, Brandish, and Shining in the Darkness, I’ve spent so much time in labyrinths lately that I’m thinking about putting on a frizzy blond wig, shoving a codpiece down my tights and spouting David Bowie songs. You navigate the maze from a first-person perspective, which in these older games can sometimes feel like trying to follow a set of Google Maps directions with a plastic Viewmaster duct taped to your face, but the layout is actually designed well enough that you don’t usually end up treading a path around the same circular hallway for thirty minutes before you even realize you’re not making any progress. In fact, if you explore with a mindset of consistently following either the left or the right wall, you’ll generally find that maps only slow you down. [Note: Maps will not slow you down…unless, of course, you find the ones on www.gamefaqs.com that only have 70% of the notable locations marked. My recommendation? Play the game the old fashioned way…with a book of graph paper and a pencil.]

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In Soviet Thornwood, egg cooks you.

The game carries a certain nostalgic charm, a description which unfortunately carries with it the implication that the player will wave his sword in front of him until so many monsters have died that the decomposing gases trapped at the bottom ignite the large mountain of bodies you’ve accumulated. I know I criticize almost every older RPG for mass murder, monster holocaust, or some other variation on attempts to purge the biodiversity from their game worlds until even the Tea Party would get bored with the racial purity, but it does tend to detract from any enjoyable gameplay in a lot of otherwise great games. In Shining in the Darkness, the enemy encounter rate is so high that it feels more like a Japanese subway car than a gladiatorial dungeon, but the game loses a lot of its sexiness when you start murdering monsters who are just trying to look for a place to sit on their way to work. Unfortunately, you need to kill every living being you stumble across (except for, you know…the princess. But you also don’t have to rescue her, either.) if you want to progress enough to beat the game.

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You’re lost and wounded, deep underground with no civilized life form around for miles? Hmm…that’s awfully nice armor you’re wearing…

While fun for the first half of the game, Shining in the Darkness really starts to lose its appeal once you’ve finished your test of merit to enter the upper floors of the labyrinth. At that point, the game turns into an endurance test, pushing your patience at grinding. With each successive attempt, you make just enough progress to grease the way for the next attempt to thrust deeper. The monsters become just a little more complacent, and you can go faster and faster each time, but you have to spend a good long time working on penetration in order to…I’m sorry. I got distracted. But the game tends to lose scope of why it’s fun to play by that point. It becomes clear that nearly every enemy you face dies at the slightest glare from the hero, or passes out with a double-tap from your two assistants. Meanwhile, the enemies slowly wear you down like a swarm of earthworms wrapped in sandpaper.

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Malligator deals 41 points of damage, then strikes a pose to show off his bitchin’ hair.

At the beginning, Shining in the darkness comes across as a fun, nostalgic dungeon adventure, elegant in its simplicity. By the end, it turns into more of a Netflix marathon as you mindlessly follow walls through what must be Woodstock for monsters, until your hero with the peripheral vision of a rat with its head stuck in a toilet paper tube has enough HP to withstand the magic attack that the boss spams at you. But, of course, once you’ve invested that much time into a game, you keep going with the faith that the game will pay off like the Nigerian Prince you know it to be.

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Shining Force II – Sega Genesis

You cannot pass!

You cannot pass!

Last year around this time I decided to indulge in a bucket list game of mine: Shining Force. Given the choice between all the options released for the Sega Genesis, I randomly decided to begin with the first title that bore the name, all the while hearing over and over from sources online that the sequel blew that game out of the water. So in the mood for an old-school RPG, I pulled out Shining Force II and prepared for it to impress me with…a game almost completely indistinguishable from the first. Don’t misunderstand me, the first Shining Force more than justifies the cost of a Sega Genesis. But I had hoped that the improvements touted across the internet might include a story not ground from the same petrified chunk of mammoth shit, or a menu system a little cleaner than a congressman’s after-hours activities. Sadly, the game fails to deliver on both counts.

Davey Jones?

Davey Jones?

Shining Force II centers around tactical role-playing. As the leader of the force, the hero, dubbed “Bowie” in all media except for the game itself, commands a cast of characters with rudimentary job classes, mostly determined by species. Centaurs come equipped with all the important parts of the horse, so they make good cavalry. Dwarves make good, stout, infantry, while elves tend to work best with ranged weapons. Still, so as the king can cite examples in opposition to passing any civil rights legislation, you’ll occasionally get magic-using elves or humans, a centaur with a bow, or some other such crossover. For the most part, classes only determine what type of weapon the character will use, or in the case of magic-users, their spells and MP. The game’s primary difference involves a cast of hidden characters, each with special requirements to fulfill before they’ll join you. Furthermore, while all your characters should receive a promotion at level 20, you can promote some (apparently) to alternative classes. On both counts, I can’t say for sure whether or not I unlocked any of these, since even the main story often fails to clarify the steps you need to take to advance.

But we don't have the courtesy to do this during battle, of course.

But we don’t have the courtesy to do this during battle, of course.

The story begins with a careless thief (but one with a good heart!) unsealing an ancient Devil on Granseal island. This demon unleashes his hosts upon the world. They possess one king, try to kill another, suck the princess into an alternate dimension, and somehow embed two jewels into Bowie’s neck. Shaking off this pretty intense body modification as no more than modest bling, Bowie sails with the other survivors to the continent in order to found a new Granseal. He meets a phoenix named Peter who somehow becomes an important character, they travel around, do…stuff…and somehow they find the Peruvian Nazca drawings in this fantasy world otherwise unrelated to Earth, fly back to the island, and face off against a host of devils, demons, cliches, and WTFs.

Ah, yes, a translation to rival the works of Hemmingway, Milton, and Chaucer

Ah, yes, a translation to rival the works of Hemmingway, Milton, and Chaucer

Much like the previous game, the plot serves as an engine (albeit a badly tuned engine with a few pistons not firing and the “check” light constantly blinking on the dash) to get players from one battle to the other as fast as possible. While many games of this era can defend themselves with the “poorly translated” argument, Shining Force II has a special kind of bad writing that you only see when both the writer and the translator habitually abuse strong narcotics. The kind of writing that, while not overtly suggestive, makes dialog such as “They took my jewels” and “Don’t touch it! I’ll shake you off” sound like they lifted it right out of Leisure Suit Larry. One of the primary cliches–I mean, antagonist with a heart of gold who joins you after a major epiphany–suffers from one of the worst mistransliterations I have ever seen; rather than squaring off against the valiant Baron Ramon, the game expects you to take seriously repeated encounters with a villain named Lemon. However, I think I’ll grant my coveted Drunken Developer award to the end of the game where they can only break the curse on the sleeping princess with yet another cliche, and the characters hold a meeting to choose which one can deliver the true love’s kiss. While I never doubted for an instant that Bowie would get all the action here, they actually disappointed me by suggesting your healer–the blue-haired, sparkly-eyed elven priestess–could have possibly broken the curse, and then didn’t follow through on that.

Honestly, until that point, I didn’t think any of the characters had an inkling of personality behind them. They join your party out of the blue and fade into obscurity almost as quickly. To save space (presumably) on the cartridge, battle menus display character classes as four-letter abbreviations, such as RNGR, PGNT, RDBN, and SDMN, which I can only assume stand for Ringer, Pageant, Robber Barron and Sadomasochist, respectively.

Squid!!

Squid!!

 

The battle system helps this game stand on its own. Battles occur on the map, but like the first game they switch to an isometric animated environment whenever a character acts. Like any other tactics game, characters have a certain distance they can move per turn, each attack has its own range and effect areas, and different attacks seem to affect enemies differently. The limited number of attacks and the inability to customize characters make it a very rudimentary strategy game, but it plays well and forces you to think about your actions (even at one point dropping you onto a chess board and making you fight the pieces). Unlike the first game, you can freely explore the map and return to areas previously visited. Rather than having a set number of battles, they’ve introduced random encounters, which always seem to follow the same presets–kind of a nice gesture, I guess, but since you retain any experience when you die, it really makes level grinding unnecessary unless you really need some quick cash.

The system for awarding exp, though, leaves a lot to the imagination. The amount you earn after each attack seems about 10% dependent on whether the attack connected or missed, 10% on whether it defeated the enemy, and 80% on whether the game feels like giving you only 1 exp. Also on my list of criticisms, I’d like to add that I enjoyed the opportunity to explore the map (on account of having that option in every RPG released since the 1980s.), but the game didn’t always clarify where to go or what to do. At all. I felt good when I got a cannon and read that it could destroy rocks while also remembering a rock from halfway back to the beginning of the game that blocked my path. However, when I got there: nothing. Only by looking up a walkthrough did I learn it wanted me to backtrack to New Granseal and talk to a random guy outside the weapon shop in order to get ammunition. And while the game should take the blame for not giving me so much as a hint, I end up looking like a dumbass who tried to shoot a gun with no bullets.

Should I mock the mass of amalgamated hair, or the softball stuffed down her dress?

Should I mock the mass of amalgamated hair, or the softball stuffed down her dress?

But I have to look really hard for those flaws; while I appreciate a strong story, I can look past that to see the strong gameplay. I can’t comment on the music since I turned the sound off and played the game while watching seasons 3-5 of Dexter–all the while, of course, not missing out on storyline for Shining Force. Looking back at last year’s entry on the original game, I did the same thing with the sound. Losing track of how many times I compared the two games, I can say confidently that Shining Force II really stands out as an excellent jewel (hehe) of a game; I just disagree with the assessment that it surpasses the first.

Shining Force – Sega Genesis, Game Boy Advance

When you wish upon a copyright infringement lawsuit...

When you wish upon a copyright infringement lawsuit…

Let’s have a quick word about how to increase endgame difficulty.  You want the game to feel more challenging near the end.  That way it works toward a climax, following a natural plot arc.  Some games do this better than others.  For instance, some bosses fight with status attacks.  Others will introduce bosses as random enemy encounters.  Valkyrie Profile II demanded I use the level 64 character they introduce for the final battle when even the easy enemies can vaporize all my level 90 characters like a meteor entering the earth’s atmosphere. Still, most games will bump up the level or stats of endgame enemies to give them a slight edge over the player.

However, raising the enemies’ evade rates doesn’t accomplish this as much as the Shining Force developers seemed to think it did.  Watching characters swipe the air like an epileptic in a dance club feels less exciting than, say, going outside and slashing bushes with foam pool noodles or watering your lawn with a water pistol.  This contributes to slowing the pace of a tactics game in which most battles start with bottlenecking your characters or putting them so far from the enemies that, if they worked together, they could measure the speed of light.

...have we met?

…have we met?

Not that they would do that, mind you, because like many mill-ground fantasy stories, Shining Force weighs itself down with themes like “Light is good” and “Dark is bad.”  The game opens with the formulaic war-between-two-countries-with-a-supernatural-threat-looming-vaguely-on-the-horizon.  The rival military general shows up looking like he dumped a life-size Wooly Willy set over his head and kills the king.  On his deathbed, the King gives you the order to form the Shining Force and defeat the darkness.  Light good.  Dark bad.  The enemy leader calls himself Darksol and he plans to resurrect the ancient Dark Dragon (who is neither dark, nor a dragon).

Would I be asking too much for a well-written fantasy story that doesn’t draw morally unconflicted characters in a black-and-white scenario?  I thought about rewriting that last sentence to get around using the phrase “black-and-white.”  Why do we have to associate black and white with evil and good?  I don’t know about anyone else, but I find a bit of darkness rather pleasant when I’m trying to sleep, or sneak up on a ninja or get dressed in a room full of people.  A little more subtle conflict might make a more interesting story.  In fact, for most of the game I turned off the music (which didn’t prevent it from echoing in my head like The Master’s drums) and listened to a Jim Butcher audiobook in order to get a good fantasy story. The bulk of the plot just involves moving from one excuse to start a battle to the next.  In fact, at one point, after fighting a hoard of monsters outside of a town, the man at the gate casually remarks, “Sorry about that.  We thought you were someone else,” at which point I just tip my hat, wish him good morning, and waltz on by as though I’m not headed to a priest to resurrect my comrades murdered as a casualty of mistaken identity.

Shining Force-000001While it seems like they wrote the story in as much time as it took to look up a formula and transcribe it into the game, Shining Force does have strong points.  The game centers on battles–and when I say “centers,” it also rights, lefts, ups and downs on it too.  Don’t expect side quests or even random enemy encounters–all battles are programmed and static–but the strategy aspect makes up for the minimalist approach to this RPG.  I enjoyed FF Tactics more than many of Final Fantasy’s main-series installments, and Shining Force feels like a somewhat simplified version of Tactics.  Battles take place on a grid map, characters have different classes that affect their stats and the range of attacks, and while they can’t switch between them like FFT’s job system allowed, they can receive a “promotion” to a slightly better class once they reach level 10.

I can also praise the game for allowing the player to keep any exp they earned in battles they lost.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken an unexpected turn for the worst, then realized “I haven’t saved in an hour!”  Those moments make me acutely aware that time only moves in one direction, and that I’ve wasted hours careening toward death in front of the TV with nothing to show for it.  Shining Force, however, lets you stay at your new level, making the next round a little easier.  Although they probably included this to let players level-up in a game with no random encounters, I’d appreciate seeing this feature more often in RPGs.

New menu box . . . every time. . . can't stand it...but at least inventory management isn't as bad as in Skyrim.

New menu box . . . every time. . . can’t stand it…but at least inventory management isn’t as bad as in Skyrim.

While I appreciate the fast pace after playing some interminably slow Zelda games, I do have a complaint about the menu system, in which the player flips through single options box-by-box, resurrecting characters one at a time, transferring single items from character to character, purchasing and equipping items one-by-one, and needing to open a new menu and flip through all the options each time.  With Final Fantasy V already on the shelves for a full year, you’d think some of the programmers would figure out, “Wow! RPG menus don’t have to be complete shit!”

Like Final Fantasy Tactics, characters level up upon completing actions in battle, which again I mostly support.  However it leads to a common problem of healers never leveling up because they don’t act as much as any of the other characters.  Another option to gain experience might help.  At least in FF Tactics I could bounce rocks off my comrades’ heads until I had enough MP and JP to learn support spells.  Shining Force doesn’t give even that much.  I went into the final battle without effective cure spells because my healer was less than half the level of some of my other characters.

But don’t let the flaws get in the way of enjoying the game.  I made it through in about a week and a half, never feeling like the pacing dropped much, and only encountering minor frustration at whiffle battling enemies with high evade rates.  I finished the game feeling I enjoyed it very much, and look forward to the sequel.  Which I won’t play right away. Maybe some shorter games first.

Until this point in the game, they called him "Kane"

Until this point in the game, they called him “Kane”

A few notes before I leave, Shining Force has also been published for the Game Boy Advance, although it has a new subtitle, “Rise of the Dark Dragon.”  While I didn’t play that version, word on the net says they improved the translation massively and may have resolved some of the plot vacancies I mentioned earlier.