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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Mickey Mania – SNES, Sega Genesis, Sega CD

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Mickey Mania is described in the DSMV as the compulsive need to encourage Disney to make crap by handing them your money. Or in George Lucas’ case, Star Wars.

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…This is so disturbing, even Mickey’s life meter is trying to hitch a ride out of town.

My job here isn’t an easy one. As I don’t expect you all rush to ebay (as much as one can “rush” to a website) to find copies of these games, and that you’re not seriously mulling over whether or not to play these and need an expert’s opinion to tip you over the edge one way or the other, the only  possible reason you’d read this blog is that I make the posts mildly entertaining. Even considering I’ve dropped the challenge where I don’t use any form of the verb “to be” (go back and check entries from my first two years of posting), I have to find just the right games to make fun of. If a game is too good, it may be hard to find flaws in it, but if it’s too bad, I have to worry about properly expressing the comedic aspects, which aren’t as easy as just showing where a game misses the point worse than Burger King’s attempt at green ketchup (not to mention my concern with too many manatee jokes). But then I find those Goldilocks games, the “just right” combination  of playable and pointless that makes them stringently bland…and I have to find a way to make them at least interesting enough to talk about.  Enter Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse, a perfect blend of half-assed and carefully-developed, released to commemorate a birthday that no one cared about by revisiting short films that no one had seen.

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…I don’t think Disney has ever done anything as disturbing as this.

People love celebrating milestones, but when they do, they usually choose nice round numbers: 10 years, 25 years, 50, 75 and 100 all make the cut. But for whatever reason, Disney thought Mickey’s 65th birthday was a big deal. I wonder if most beloved cartoon characters fade into obscurity around their 63rd or 64th year (Poor Jeoffrey, the Peccary). When Disney came up with the idea of commemorating their contribution to the order of rodentia with a video game, they only had six months to hit their deadline. Fortunately, they decided to take a little more time to make the game playable, but not enough to actually give it anything unique or innovative. They thought the game would be carried by having actual Disney animators! work on the design, missing the point of a game in that special way that my mother misses the point when she asks why I still play Super Nintendo games when technology has improved so far over the last twenty years, then goes to the closet to pull out Scrabble and Monopoly.

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Mickey Kong

So Mickey’s 66th birthday present plays as an okay platformer, if not a consistent one. In general, Mickey jumps through levels avoiding enemies, most of which he can defeat by jumping on their heads. He also collects marbles, which he can throw at enemies. Beyond that, each stage seems to have been put together by designers taken from different parts of the Small World, selected in the manner of 18th century slave ships, where they are chained to their work with no common language to talk to the designer next to them. Three of the levels have bosses–although apparently in non-North American releases, more stages have these. Most stages allow use of marbles, but Mickey loses them every so often (much like the designers). Almost all the stages scroll from the side, but one rotates around a tower while another features Mickey charging straight at the player like an angry moose (as he is, in turn, chased by an angry moose). Mickey apparently is looking for various avatars of himself in some weird, meta-identity crisis, but a few of these avatars make no appearance within the stages themselves.

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Why does this look obscene?

Probably the worst oversight of the design, though, is that they based each of the six stages (seven for non-SNES releases) on classic Mickey cartoons except for one on classic Mickey cartoons that pre-date 1950. Only The Prince and the Pauper stage was based off a cartoon in players’ living memories; the rest are even older than my father. This wouldn’t be such an issue today, but they weren’t commonly played cartoons, and Disney had the audacity to release this game almost a decade before the invention of youtube, so none of these levels had any meaning for me.

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Rather than walking on the ground, you can walk on a barrel.

But they were designed beautifully. The game is nice to look at and puts in key details that–unbeknownst to players–come straight out the games. The Steamboat Willie stage even includes a gradual shift from monochrome to color (A curious choice, to say the least, since only the final stage is based off a cartoon animated in color. Perhaps they just wanted to show up The Wizard of Oz. Take that, filmmakers from 60 years ago!). The game is pleasant to look at and not too difficult, so you can get through most of it in a single sitting, even if it has all the replay value of a chicken sandwich. And the inconsistencies actually make it interesting, as you’re not stuck simply jumping on heads for two hours like a cute, child-friendly sadistic serial killer.

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Congratulations on giving us money for this game you finished in an hour! Now give us more money!