fire emblem may well have been one of the first and most famous tactical RPGs, despite the fact that there would be more than a decade between Japanese and international releases of the series. However, for those of us in the West who dreamed of aerial wargames in a fantasy setting, you could do worse than check out the equally good (and slightly more overlooked) Brilliant strength.
Debuting on Mega Drive/Genesis, the series was created by proprietary studio Sonic! Software Planning (which is often credited as Team Sonic – not at all confusing for Team Sonic), a company that later spun off from Sega and renamed Camelot. Yes, it’s true ; the same studio behind the Golden Sun series.
Back when my knowledge of role-playing games was extremely limited and I only played because of the attraction I felt for elves, centaur knights, and other fantasy tropes, Shining Force was basically my introduction to the RPG genre – and the idea of games being much longer than the fast-paced arcade thrills of Sonic or Streets of Rage that I was used to. Safe to say, however, after renting it from a local video store, it quickly left an impression on me.
Here is a game where you start as a humble swordsman who becomes the leader of a growing force of warriors. Compared to adventure games like Zelda, you weren’t particularly powerful, but you could command your companions through different battle grids, taking turns to surround the enemy and attack like a much more sophisticated chessboard. I remember initially leaving my leader (canonically named Max) behind and letting the others carry on as his attacks were weak and you would lose the battle if he died.
But then I realized I could make my strongest characters weaken enemies so he could rush to finish them off and gain the most XP, eventually becoming a stronger character. Yes, upgrade characters, promote their classes, improve their gear; It all seems pretty basic now, but this type of strategic play opened my eyes as I slowly learned more about what games could be.
While Shining Force was pretty much Sega’s answer to Fire Emblem, the two series were also quite different from each other in some key areas. Namely, Shining Force didn’t have the same ruthless permadeath as rival Nintendo. That, and battles also felt more like typical RPGs where characters’ turns were determined by their speed. Unlike Fire Emblem, you couldn’t move all of your characters at once before waiting for the enemy to take their turn – and so a countering opponent was the exception rather than the norm.
Shining Force also had a better presentation than Fire Emblem – at least at first. There’s the way the action would shift from top-down grids with fairly simple pixel sprites to more cinematic combat illustrations of your characters doing their attack, which were more dramatic to watch. Shining Force wasn’t just about battles either: you could also engage in other RPG games, like exploring towns on foot, talking to NPCs, and visiting shops to buy new gear and supplies. For a fairly rudimentary RPG, it had a lot of depth.
It wasn’t until the sequel – predictably called Shining Force 2 – that I would see this kind of game system again. The follow-up was simply a bigger and better sequel, with its protagonist going by the official name much cooler from Bowie (sorry, Max).
If you played Shining Force when the Mega Drive/Genesis library arrived as part of the Switch Online expansion pack (along with the original game part of the lineup at launch), you would have noticed that its pixel art 16-bit still held up very well compared to its dated predecessor, and also showcased a larger world where you can move freely between battles.
However – while I appreciate Shining Force and the not-too-dated vibe of Shining Force 2 – the real crowning achievement of the series was Shining Force 3. It wasn’t just a game, but an epic intertwined trilogy that was all quite different from everything else at the time. To, honestly, since. I guess it’s comparable to the various paths you can take in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, except it was a cohesive overall story rather than piecemeal guesswork.
Set during the threat of war between the Republic of Aspinia and the Empire of Destonia (both actually being manipulated by the religious cult of the Bulzome sect), the first scenario had you playing as Synbios; a young lord of Aspinia. In the second scenario, you play as Medion, a prince of Destonia. You’ll see the same plot from different angles, or you’ll get a glimpse of a battle that takes place next in the other storyline, or you can rescue a character who then becomes recruitable in the next one. It’s smart, and he knows it’s smart. In both storylines, you also meet a mysterious red-haired swordsman, called Julian, who actually appears as the true protagonist of the third storyline – and it’s that fiery-haired sound of fire that unites the other two forces in order to take the lead. above. real big bad. Not bad for a game released in 1998, right?
Then there are the battles themselves, which saw the series go 3D, but still using character sprites in an isometric perspective with a rotating camera. Action sequences would use polygons and full effects to show attacks and spells. While battles were all about defeating the enemy or beating the boss, the maps themselves were full of drama; whether you were fighting between oncoming trains on a railroad track or against another army on a rickety bridge, there was always an element of danger to keep you on your proverbial toes. You might even discover secret ruins, then send a few units to beat the thieves to the loot inside!
It wouldn’t be surprising if you had never heard of this epic trilogy before, as the West never actually got to experience Shining Force 3 as intended. Released in the summer of 1998, it was among the very last releases of the struggling Sega Saturn in Europe and the United States (by then the second scenario had already been released in Japan, with the third being released later that year) and so we never got the first part, with a last-minute edit trying to tidy up the cliffhanger at the end of Synbios’ campaign.
For many years, wanting to know what happened next had been something of a holy grail. Luckily, I also discovered a few years ago that there is a fan translation, which is still being revised and improved to this day by members of the Shining Force Central community. If you are ready to embark on the emulation, it is in fact possible to discover the whole trilogy translated into English. It’s a tricky business, but definitely worth your time.
Of course, I’d rather Sega just listen and give us an official localization and remaster of the entire Shining Force 3 trilogy, which I’d be more than happy to donate big bucks for. It’s hard to see that happening though, given that the Shining series has since pivoted to more action-oriented anime RPG fare such as the Shining Resonance Refrain. Original developer Camelot hasn’t been involved in RPGs for many years now either, and these days it’s best known for Mario Sports titles.
Nevertheless, I think there is still a soft spot for the Shining Force series. After all, the recently announced Mega Drive Mini 2 has confirmed that one of its titles will be Shining Force CD, an acclaimed remake of two Game Gear Shining Force titles.
We know that reviving and remastering the dormant IP is part of Sega’s business plan, and if it’s seen the success of Fire Emblem and Square Enix’s excellent Triangle strategy, it’s clear that it There’s still a good appetite for tactical RPGs. In the meantime, if you want Sega’s attention, then playing Mega Drive/Genesis Shining Force titles on the Switch isn’t a bad place to start.