To The Bitter End

Shining Force

Who’s No. 2?

Shining Force’s bad guys take a page out of a modern terrorist organization’s handbook.

By Drew Toal • April 24, 2013

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.

Shining Force

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.

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  • PaganPoet

    Drew, what I’m most interested in is the fact that you somehow have “Tamed by the Barbarian” on your reference radar. How long have you been sitting on that one, itching for any reason to bring it up?

    And, lo! I see @Cloks:disqus ’s avatarspiration in the second screen! I feel like buying a pet hamster and fitting the little fella with Medieval armor whenever I see it.

    • http://mathmanmustdie.blogspot.com/ Mr. Glitch

      Hey, who doesn’t? 

      Really glad you guys shined a little light on Shining Force. It seems to me that 16-bit RPGs on anything but the SNES have gotten short shrift from critics over the past 20+ years.

      • Nudeviking

        As a youth we had a Super Nintendo, so I had only cursory knowledge of Genesis RPGs, but a year or so back I drunkenly got this and a bunch of other Genesis games that had warriors and/or dragons in them on a Wii.
        Shining Force was hands down the best of the lot, since it was the only one that didn’t feel like a subpar Final Fantasy game.

        • aklab

          We were a SNES household as well. I’ve still never played a Shining Force or Phantasy Star game! 

    • Asinus

      I did not remember the cover of Shining Force looking like that, either. I was getting it conflated with the cover of Wild Arms or SF 2, I think. The one they ended up using doesn’t even really seem to match the spirit or aesthetic of the game, really. 

      • Citric

        Crusader of Centy remains one of my favorite Zelda knockoffs.

        • Asinus

          And here I thought someone wanted to talk to me! *sob*

  • http://twitter.com/kingink_ kingink

    Did you know that the ending of Shining Force had a subtle message of human – centaur love relationship? I always thought that was weird.

    • estta

      They continued it in Shining Force II where Chester had a thing for Sarah. How… progressive?

  • http://www.facebook.com/deejaytaufiq Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi

    When will the AV Club do an article on Metal Wolf Chaos?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEIi3X9NCMU

    • Citric

      I will often drag out “White House, more like FIGHT House!” whenever I accidentally find myself talking about US politics.

      • inamine

        “Because I’m president of the great United States of America!” is my go-to excuse for anything

    • The_Helmaroc_King

      When AMERICA!

    • http://twitter.com/roundthewheel Uncle Roundy

      ewww, you made me click on a Machinima video.

      • http://www.facebook.com/deejaytaufiq Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi

        Because fuck you, that’s why.

  • drunkconquistador

    Not the first, but the second Shining Force had its way with me those long years ago. It was the game I loaned out to the friend who moved away…when I discovered emulators a decade ago, it was my first download. I’ve often wondered if going to the beginning of the series would be worth the grind. Now I think it might be.

    • caspiancomic

       Man, I have the biggest crush on Shining Force II. I have very strong memories attached to it. Shining Force was one of my first Genesis games, and I loved it to pieces. One day, my old house was broken into and robbed- they took all the electronic equipment, the TVs, the computer, printers, game consoles, they even stole the four pack of Snickers we had in the fridge. The insurance covered most of it, and I got most of the games back, but when I went to the store to pick up a new copy of Shining Force, all they had was the sequel. I didn’t even know there was a sequel, but I scooped it up excitedly and slapped it in my brand new Genesis the second I got home.

      That first fight, against the Evil Gizmos? It was a slaughter. I got chewed up and spat out, on the first map, on the easiest difficulty, and was humiliated. I had beaten Shining Force, and I had been stopped dead in my tracks in the very first battle of Shining Force II. It wasn’t even close- it was a massacre. I was called down by my mother for lunch and had tears in my eyes I was so upset. I expressed a strong dislike for the game, and asked if we could return it and try to find the original. But, sometime during lunch (a cheese sandwich on a baguette, and yes I remember it that clearly), the gears started turning in my head. I sat there, chewing my crunchy bread and aged cheddar, running simulations and performing complex tactical calculations in my head, and resolved to take one more crack at those Gizmos before returning the game.

      Sure enough, I played smart, and fought hard, and gave them all a jolly good hiding. Jaha joined the Force, and it was time to step outside the Kingdom of Granseal for the very first time, and this time fight the Giant Rats and the Green Oozes… by the time my dad came to collect me to take me to the store, I was halfway to Sir Hawel’s house and totally and completely in love. To this day, it’s one of my most cherished video games.

      • Binsbein

        The Prism Flower battle in Shining Force II is one of my favorites in any SRPG.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      Oh, geez, man, all of the Camelot-made Shining games are “worth” it.  They’re some of the greatest tactics and role-playing games ever!  Force III is the kind of game that does. not. get. made. anymore, and video games are a sadder place for it.

      • drunkconquistador

        They are all firmly in my hear to one degree or another…all the same, can we all join in a prayer of thanks for a world where ‘have your fighter bring the enemy to one hit point so your healer can finish them off and get some battle XP’ is no longer the only valid balanced leveling strategy?

        I’m looking squarely at SARA PRST here, for reference.

        • caspiancomic

          Saraaaaaah! What’s funny about Sarah is thanks to the game’s unreliable stat growth and wimpy starting lineup, Sarah can be one of your strongest frontline fighters as late as the escape from Galam. Once you get a few levels under everyone’s belt she falls back into her squishy healer role, but for the first several battles she can actually hit harder than Chester.

        • djsubversive

          Egress and healing every turn helps. That was always my strategy – the second (and sometimes third) run through the battle is basically for the second-stringers to get their share and stay somewhat competitive with the beasts of battle that are Max, Guntz, Zylo, and somebody else that I’m probably forgetting. I want to say Pelle, for some reason. or Earnest.

    • SamPlays

      I had a massive affair with the Shining Force games. A lasting memory for me was laying out strategy while listening to The Fugees – for many, MANY hours on end. It was an odd mix but the music provided effective commentary and strategies:

      1) Never tangle with Haitian Sicilians 
      2) Mamacitas carry real heaters
      3) Two MCs can’t occupy the same space at the same time

  • Binsbein

    While Fire Emblem improved with age, the Shining series pretty much went off the goddamn cliff.

    • caspiancomic

       Ha! Yeah. I remember something like ten years ago the Shining series started coming back after having been dormant for a while, and I got really excited. But then they kept releasing garbage like Shining Tears, Shining Force Neo, and the extremely pretty but extremely boring Shining Force EXA (also: extremely stupid name), and eventually they just stopped releasing them outside Japan all together.

      This… seems to happen to a lot of my favourite franchises…

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      I think that the Takahashi brothers have effectively said, “Screw you,” to the post-Climax games and to them as canon.  That’s at least partly due to publisher mistreatment when they were originally made, as this retrospective on the series revealed.  http://www.gamestm.co.uk/uncategorised/behind-the-scenes-shining-force 

      It’s weird that their epic got slashed funding from the very beginning and, famously, got partially localized and then halted, but then Sega (run by different people, granted) proved more than willing to coast on their good name years later.

  • caspiancomic

    Shining Force on Gameological! Is it my birthday? This game is sort of set me down the path that would come to define my entire videogaming palate (Shining Force > Vandal Hearts > Suikoden > PS1 era JRPGs), so I have a lot of love for it, even if as those screenshots make clear it’s not exactly a looker these days. Still plays like a dream though, even if the second game in the series is a dramatic improvement.

    I also love the subtitle for this game. Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention. It always sounded to me like Shining Force: You Did Your Best And We’re Proud Of You Win Or Lose.

    • Destroy Him My Robots

      To be fair, the first screenshot seems to have contracted bad case of the 2xSaIs.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      *laughs*  That’s 1 of the rare occasions where a localized subtitle is less manageable than the original (…Of The Gods).  I also love the idea that “the gods” are just “great intentions,” like they’re your parents who love you but will be VERY disappointed if you move that character to that tile and get him killed.  And I like the Phantasy Star-style detailed graphics, myself, but there’s no fricking arguing with Masahiko Yoshimura’s music.  I think they had different composers for nearly every entry, but they’re all wonderful.

      Anyway, it’s weird that subsequent games undermine Drew’s nice analysis (Demon’s Castle Dracula/Castlevania does this well, too), since they successfully revive DARKSOL in Final Conflict, you fight his servants in other Shining games, and he’s the special boss at the end of the Force III trilogy’s premium disc, if I recall.  Such are the problems of having monsters and not monologue-obsessed humanoids as prime villains.

    • PaganPoet

      I don’t think the game looks half bad, to be honest. Compare it to, say, the stubby little sprites and simple environments of Final Fantasy V, which came out the same year.

      • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

        I never played Genesis much when it was current (apart from NHLPA ’93 at my cousin’s house and Sonic on store demo units). For that reason, Genesis graphics always look a little off to me.

    • http://blinkinglightsandbleepingnoises.blogspot.co.uk/ The Visible Man

       Shining Force: It’s The Taking Part That Counts

  • Enkidum

    This article is cool and all, but I know nothing about Shining Force other than what it taught me, and all I really want is to learn about the beach and the carnivorous seagulls.

  • DrFlimFlam

    Both games are lots of fun, and the first one is actually available on your mobile device (at least your iPhone) – I picked it up for $0.99 and fully intend to probably get to it real soon. Almost definitely.

    • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

      That’s been my attitude with a lot of 90s RPGs that I missed the first time around. I promise to play you some day, Xenogears.

      • neodocT

         Vagrant Story is just sitting there, taunting me…

        • DrFlimFlam

           Let it. What an unfriendly experience that game is.

  • duwease

    Good riddance to the days when porn-wealth was concentrated in the caves of the wealthy.

    Viva la internet, comrades!!

  • blue_lander

    I love this series, especially Shining Force CD and Shining Force III. Too bad they never released all the scenarios in the US. I never cared for the other Shining games except Shining Wisdom, although I haven’t tried any of the post-saturn entries in the series. It doesn’t sound like I’m missing anything.

  • Cloks

    Shining Force, eh? I may have heard of this game.

    I’d like to thank Sega here for protecting their titles less than Nintendo and allowing Genesis games to be dumped on the PC for a quick buck back in the late nineties, allowing a console-less kid like me to play this game and several others in my formative years (Sonic 2 and 3, Vectorman, Comix Zone, Kid Chameleon, Flicky).

    I think what I really love about this title other than certain characters and advancing your fighters just to see the sprites change was just how optional some parts of it were. I don’t know if it’s possible to play a major RPG in this generation and miss out on recruiting half of the characters simply by not exploring every nook and cranny of the game world but Shining Force made you work to build a party. From the very first battle there was the easily missed monk Gong who could only be found by leaving the battle – exactly the opposite of what any reasonable player would do – and wandering around the world map until you found an nondescript hut. Other characters you had to interact with multiple times such as Guntz, the armadillo Steam Knight or Yogurt, the one-hit KO’ing, easy-modo battle master. The best hidden character had to be Musashi who you never saw in the non-battle world; you read a sign and it simply stated as a fact that he had joined your party.

    I don’t know if it’s obvious, but I love this game. I may have to start it up again soon.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      I think optional parts were commonplace, but Sega, being even MORE of an arcade-centric entity than Konami or S.N.K., kept away from that sort of stuff.  It’s crazy that Camelot had such little money and still managed Ogre series-like amounts of optional goodies.

  • His_Space_Holiness

    When I bought the Sonic’s Genesis Collection a few years back, I expected to spend most of my time with the eponymous hedgehog and the Phantasy Star series, but lo and behold, Shining Force snuck up and stole my heart away. It was really the first turn-based strategy game I’d ever played (other than Civ 4, which is a completely different animal) and it was a revelation. I never could get into the real-time variety (fuck you, resource management!) but I absolutely loved this game and its sequel. I never much liked that if your main character died, you automatically failed the battle, but it was something I acclimated to. Unlike FF XIII, where it ultimately proved to be a dealbreaker. Shining Force really nailed the mix of difficulty and versitility that a strategy RPG needs.

    Also, for the record, that little squid guy is a GODDAMN CHAMPION.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1220273010 Sean Michael Bobic

    I too played this for an extended session when a buddy and I rented it on a whim from the local King Soopers. I remember we got to the bridge battle and gave up after several tries because we had neglected to level our guys up enough before hand. Then for Christmas that year I asked for a Genesis (since I played it on my friends) and Shining force so I could finally conquer the game. Good times.

  • ItsTheShadsy

    This reminds me of the Contra games, where each boss is promptly destroyed or eaten by an even larger boss. I know the structure for JRPGs tends to involve a series of multi-phase bosses, but the escalation here sounds ridiculous.

    • DrFlimFlam

      Look, you don’t just walk up to your local Wal-Mart and speak directly with even the District Manager. Chain of command.

  • the_calf_fiend

    this is the fucking best strategy rpg of all fucking time hands down. The imagination put into the character design, fantasy/technology mixup, and promotion and battle system is unmatched by anything since really. Super cool article. 

  • http://twitter.com/J_Y_Hopkins Jeremy Hopkins

    Ogre Battle—amirite?