Games are often left unfinished. Sometimes they’re too difficult, too vast, or too repetitive to see all the way through to the closing credits. To The Bitter End is The Gameological Society’s look at those endings that are worth fighting for—or at least worth reading about.
The guy on the cover of the 1992 Sega Genesis game Shining Force is hardly a prototypical rough-and-ready adventurer. He looks like he might have been pilfered straight from the pages of a drugstore romance novel—Tamed By The Barbarian, say. Nonetheless, here he stands, battling some Jason And The Argonauts extras on a misty plateau. But why is he wearing a green, form-fitting summer frock? I’m not really knocking its statement as a bold fashion choice so much as I am questioning the outfit as a practical consideration. The skeletal attackers, despite not having any pants or skin or brains, at least had the foresight to bring shields to a knife fight. But this dude is out there battling the undead with little more than a well-turned calf.
There’s a keep far off in the distance. If Fabio over here (okay, his name is really Max) is going to reach it, he’s going to need some help. As luck would have it, Shining Force isn’t short on allies for our sweaty, vulnerable hero. While he starts out as a tender yet masculine army of one, with time he builds a force of as many as 30, each with a different story and genomic jigsaw puzzle. Among them are centaurs, ninjas, behelmeted hamsters, werewolves, elves, samurai, dragons, stern-looking bird people, and a weird egg-squid creature. Together, they comprise the Shining Force, and they’re all there to help Max-Fabio fulfill his sexy destiny.
It’s an eclectic post-racial, post-fantasy mix. As the game begins, Max is training to become a great warrior, but he’s still a novice. Soon enough, shit goes down—something about an evil dragon and the end of the world—and Max must shed his humble beginnings, take up the mantle of wavy-haired, steely-eyed savior, and lead the Shining Force to victory.
Keeping in the vein of trashy romance novels, Shining Force hooks you in and rides you until blissful exhaustion. Back in 1992 or ’93, I stayed up for a nearly 24-hour stretch on my first playthrough. (After this binge, I passed out on a south Jersey beach and was nearly eaten by seagulls, but that’s a story for another time.)
Each chapter introduces new allies and more difficult battles. One level has the Shining Force battling its way across a land bridge as lizard men blast them with a giant death ray. (Just imagine if Native Americans—or Native Pangeans? I leave that call to you, anthropologist readers—had to face similar obstacles while crossing the frozen Bering Strait. All they had to worry about was the occasional polar bear, glacial crevasse or dinosaur.)
For all the game’s idiosyncratic strangeness—a crazy fantasy/sci-fi jambalaya of elves allied with ninjas, and robots fighting with dragons—Shining Force mostly sticks to the fantasy formula. But it departs from the usual script in its use of multiple primary antagonists. In most fantasy fiction, the reader is left with no doubt as to the identity of the main bad guy. Sure, The Lord Of The Rings’ Sauron had lieutenants like Saruman and the Witch King Of Angmar, but you always knew who was in charge.
The boss hierarchy in Shining Force is a more ambiguous thing. Nominally, Dark Dragon is the top dog, but throughout your quest, it’s unclear just who is controlling who and to what ends. It almost resembles a modern international terrorist organization. If Dark Dragon—not yet awakened from his scripturally mandated dragon slumber—has the name recognition and battlefield impotence of a house-confined, porn-wealthy Bin Laden, then DD’s litany of “No. 2s” are the boots on the ground, and they represent the clear and present danger to civilized society.
In the absence of unmanned drones to counter this threat—although they do have a couple of bird-men and an old man in a helicopter contraption—the Shining Force must eliminate these operational masterminds one by one, the old-fashioned way. With so many right-hand men at large, though, the climax of the game turns into a march through the kudzu of Dark Dragon’s org chart.
The first fake last boss is Kane Of Runefaust. He wears a scary mask and has relentlessly harried the Force from the very beginning. (Not only does he vaguely resemble Darth Vader, but he also killed your aged centaur mentor at the start of the game.) He has all the trappings of a quality arch-nemesis. Beside looking super unpleasant and inspiring visceral revenge fantasies, it turns out that he’s also Max’s brother. Well, that settles the question of which one is the evil twin.
Kane, though, doesn’t even crack the top three in the Dark Dragon organization. Kane’s boss, Emperor Ramladu (Dark Dragon’s No. 2’s No. 2), best fits the mold of a traditional corrupted pawn. Ramladu, with his army of mythological beasts and ancient cache of quadruped kill-bots, was once a good man. Long ago, his hellhounds and murderous automatons were surely meant for good, but he has since been subverted by his fears and ambition and greed. If the Ringwraith ghouls from Lord Of The Rings had a poker night, Ramladu would be a regular.
Ramladu’s superior, Darksol, is a true No. 2, a bootlicking subordinate as dangerous as an evil mastermind could ever want. He’s sort of a cross between Lear’s fool, that weird bald magic guy from Game Of Thrones, and Adolf Eichmann. Unlike Kane, who liked to get his hands dirty, Darksol’s true genius lies in delegation. Eventually, though, he runs out of human shields to throw into the meat grinder. Does Darksol mourn his legions of dead henchmen and slain No. 2s? Not a chance. He’s busy administering some kind of black mass to awaken Dark Dragon (the No. 1 No. 2). The ceremony isn’t working properly. There is a notable lack of wailing sacrificial virgins, which I assumed were an important part of the process, but I’m no expert.
With his dying breath, Darksol succeeds in awakening Dark Dragon. And when Dark Dragon is eventually defeated (seriously, how many boss battles does a game need?), the creature yells something about the powers of darkness sustaining him, the suggestion being that he can’t die by conventional means.
After all, how do you kill an idea? Or, I guess, a three-headed demon dragon? A new army of No. 2s will rise to take the place of the fallen No. 2s, ad infinitum, and Darksol’s organization will continue to live even with the head(s) cut off. This knowledge didn’t diminish the satisfaction of dumping a certain terrorist leader’s bullet-ridden corpse in the middle of the ocean, and neither does it feel like less of an accomplishment when Dark Dragon sinks beneath the waves.