Shining Force is a staple in the strategy RPG canon, and while it was not the first strategy RPG, it was many U.S. gamers’ first taste of the genre. While Nintendo had released two editions of its seminal and genre-defining Fire Emblem series by the time the first Shining Force game appeared on consoles, Fire Emblem remained stranded in Japan for more than a decade while Shining Force actually appeared in U.S. stores a day before it was released in Japan.
At first blush, Shining Force appears very similar to any number of traditional 16-bit RPGs in the Dragon Quest fashion. The hero wanders around his bright and cartoony medieval town, chatting with soldiers, townsfolk and centaurs. There is a church to raise the dead and an item shop from which to purchase healing herbs. If one were unaware that Shining Force was a strategy RPG rather than a standard role-playing game, very little would seem askew in the hero’s hometown of Guardiana apart from possibly picking up a few too many party members.
It is not until the first battle when Shining Force shows its quality and demonstrates how it diverges from the likes of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Rather than lining up and taking orderly swings until one side or the other is defeated, the opposing forces in Shining Force move like chess pieces across the battlefield, employing tactics related to formation and distance. Durable melee fighters can take the front lines while more fragile archers, mages and other long range units can snipe at enemies from a distance.
The battlefields are arranged in a flat grid, with obstacles and terrain affecting movement. Characters take their turns one at a time and the player is free to move them around to consider various positions before settling on their final placement. It is a much more active approach to combat than many other strategy RPGs take. In fact, the whole experience feels much more hands-on than the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics or Ogre Battle. Rather than navigating a series of menus and directing via a cursor, the player takes direct charge of the units.
While making an action in battle, a short animation will play featuring large sprites of the units attacking, casting spells or using items. The animations tend to be short and jerky, but help to illustrate the characters better than their squat overworld representations.
In fact, much care has been taken to help characterize the units in the Shining Force. Dialogue boxes display animated portraits as you talk to important characters. When not in battle, each unit can be spoken to inside of headquarters. Even if their development can be a little on the thin side, these are definitely more than faceless soldiers to be directed around the battlefield.
Shining Force is neither the first in its series (that would be 1991’s Shining in the Darkness) nor the first strategy RPG. It is, however, a solid example of both, and the game remains entirely playable today. It’s a bright spot in the Genesis’ early RPG catalog that is well worth tracking down.
Article by Aaron Littleton
GameSpite Journal 12: Shining Force