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Retro Review: “Shining” series, and a trip down RPG memory lane

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As I’ve alluded to in previous articles, I’m a big fan of role playing games (RPG’s).  From Final Fantasy on NES to Skyrim on whatever next-gen platform of your choice, Japanese or Western, I’ve tried my hand at most every RPG.  I even like to revisit some of the best of the bunch, in fact I’m actually going back through Chrono Trigger as we speak.  My only requirements are a good story for motivation and decent battle system.  But gaming has drastically changed over the years, and many RPG gems have been left collecting dust as we’ve forgotten the dungeon crawlers of yesteryear.  One such game worth revisiting is Shining in the Darkness, an RPG originally released in 1991 on the Sega Genesis system (and now virtual console). As one of the first RPG’s released on the Sega Genesis/Master System,  Shining in the Darkness upgraded the dungeon crawling experience in many ways, improving on the formula made successful by games like the 8-bit Dragon Warrior.   You might say it began with the game Wizardry in 1981, inspiring the aforementioned Dragon Warrior and all the crawlers to follow.  Game play videos of Wizardry and Shining in the Darkness display similar game play themes and mechanics; dead ends, treasure chests, random enemy encounters, and battle options.  That said, Wizardry may have been even more complex:

Improving on the formula established in Wizardy, Shining in the Darkness is basically just a dungeon crawler.  Though a bit simpler by today’s standards, it wasn’t unheard of to draw a map of the dungeon you were in while playing to insure you didn’t retrace your steps too often.  The basic story for Shining in the Darkness places your character on the path to rescue a princess who’s been abducted…which is pretty much the most common gaming trope ever. There are three destinations on your map: the labyrinth, town and castle.  At the castle you get to meet the king and his court, and it is here that quests are assigned and the plot is explained.  It’s at the castle you learn of the villain’s plan (you meet him briefly) and hear of the king’s plight to save his daughter.  Located in town are all sorts of character archetypes with something to say, they will even add to the story if you speak to them whenever you revisit. In town you can purchase and upgrade your equipment, and after a bit of dungeon mastery, you’ll be able to add other party members.  Ultimately, your party consists of main character (you), a healer (Milo) and a mage (Pyra).

Shining in the Darkness was the first game in the “Shining” series of games released later on the Sega Genesis, including the successful Shining Force I and IIShining Force took little more than the graphical style of Shining in the Darkness, instead going for turn-based strategy in lieu of the dungeon crawling.  The Shining Force games used a team aspect, allowing for more strategic placement of your units while using RPG elements like different classes and stat upgrades.  Strategy came into play when you were forced to pick and choose who to take into battle with you and when.  Unlike other RPGs where experience is shared, Shining Force is a turn-based RPG that forced the player to strategically involve your characters in the battle.  If you were unable to engage one of the party members in the fight somehow (casting a spell or otherwise) they gained no experience or levels after that battle.  In Shining Force, everyone you convince to join your party has their own background and personality, adding another layer to what is otherwise a fairly linear and simple story.  Choosing a group to go into battle was crucial as well, as you can’t take all the characters you find along the way. Choose wisely!

Shining Force also possesses an exploration mode that occurs outside of battle. This game play is essentially a Japanese-style traditional RPG, along the lines of Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior, though without dungeons and only a handful of puzzles to solve. In this mode, the player’s army is represented by Max, who is able to walk around, interact with people, find treasure, buy equipment and items, outfit the army, and choose which of the army’s members will be used in battle.  Perhaps not the game-changers Chrono Trigger or the Final Fantasy series would later be, Shining Force I and II were great fun with a number of memorable moments all the same.

Over the years RPG’s have evolved, and some of the best of these games have combined elements of all our favorite genres. From the dystopian world of Fallout to the fantastical beauty of Elder Scrolls, from the depths of Diablo’s dungeons to the universe of Mass Effect, it’s a great time for the RPG fan.  But if free on a Saturday, and you are looking for a light challenge (little under 8 hours of game play), Shining in the Darkness may be worth another look.

Stacy dabbles in the dark side of the force and uses science to teach students to be Batman. When not speaking science he is scouring the internet for information that will probably spoil his favorite movie before it comes out. Little happens in the respective worlds of Star Wars or Batman that he is not aware of. And Han shot first.