Welcome to my first JRPG! Brought up on the mighty Amiga 500 – a format where “role-playing” meant endless pages of stats for traits of no discernible purpose, obtuse everythings, and a frankly unhealthy need to constantly draw inspiration from Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, and Dungeon Master – seeing Shining Force II in Mega Drive magazines was something of a shock for me back in 1994: Look at those enormous sprites – and all that colour too! Wait, are you seriously saying everyone on your team has unique portraits when they speak? Portraits that blink and move their lips in time with the words in the dialogue box?! And you’re telling me there’s a proper story running through the entire game instead of a single screen’s worth or pre- and post-adventure excuses laid out in plain text? This really was something of a turning point for me and it was Shining Force II, not six-button Street Fighter II (with playable bosses!) or Sonic the Hedgehog or anything else that really cemented not only my undying love for the genre but console gaming itself as something special and different that was obviously more than just a game a home computer could have done already but had found itself stuck on an expensive cartridge instead.
There’s no real need for me to spend much time telling you how good the game is, plenty of well-deserved positive reviews for Team Sonic’s SRPG already exist both online and in print if you care to have a quick look in all the usual places. All I can really add to that preexisting praise is say if you’d like a “starter” Japanese SRPG, or if you’d simply like to play something a little less intense than a lot of the popular alternatives, then either of the Mega Drive Shining Force games, the Mega CD compilation, or the Game Gear trilogy if you can get them, are well worth spending some quality time with (the GBA remake of the original is surprisingly ehhh, though – I’d avoid that).
So! Shining Force II’s relatively straightforward and still very good – great, job done! See you next week! … [cough] Coming back to the game now I can see there are a few things I didn’t really appreciate back when I was playing and replaying it almost constantly (hey, RPGs were a rare and expensive breed back then!) and I’d even go so far to say that don’t get as much recognition as they deserve now, as the series seems to struggle to get out of the “The other Mega Drive RPGs you might have heard of that aren’t Phantasy Star and always show up on that one compilation Sega keep porting to every format under the sun” summary it’s been lumbered with. So rather than reheat some old review-like waffle about the game as a whole I thought it’d be better to focus on the parts that really stood out for me in 2019.
Obviously the game’s a treat for the eyeballs but there’s more to notice in these unmistakable battle scenes than measuring the raw amount of screen the sprites cover – so many things that would be left as a number on the character’s stat sheet in a lesser game are shown here – if you change someone’s weapon, anything from a rod to a sword to a giant axe, you can see that change reflected in battle! If you or the enemy block or dodge an incoming attack, you see the move acted out before you using a unique pose. Missile weapons fly across the battlefield to their targets. Healing fairies flutter over the heads of injured allies. Promoted characters aren’t just a palette swap of their previous self, they’re completely redrawn with their own idle and attack animations! Clearly these things are only broadly true – weapons run on themed recolours of older gear (much like modern MMOs), and not everyone who fights by your side has their own sprite sheet, but the overall effect is astonishing – games don’t necessarily offer this sort of visual feedback now, so it’s incredible to think anyone even tried to get this right twenty-five years ago! These aren’t just fancy embellishments for the sake of it giving pixel artists extra work either: Seeing Kazin rain down fireballs on his opponents or Peter effortlessly whirlwind yet another enemy to death goes a long way to giving the characters some personality of their own without having to have over a dozen people vocalise their opinion every time something interesting happens in the story just to make them more fleshed out than “A green archer” or “A centaur”.
The world outside those glorious battles has just as much attention lavished on it, the dinky people and relative simplicity of the town and overworld maps still containing plenty of inspired little touches that add a lot more than you’d expect for things that have at most three frames of animation. Take the enemy rats in the “Desktop Kingdom” (roughly speaking a brief fantasy journey into Honey, I Shrunk the Kids territory) for example: You can find a neatly stacked horde of coins in the back of their lair (accessed through a hole the rats have themselves chewed in the skirting board), stolen from the scattered currency you can see the mansion’s owner appears to have absent-mindedly dropped on the floor outside. Just having towns and other areas you can walk around at all is a bit special really – they tend to be one of the first things to go in this genre, and those that do remain are usually a static background behind a bunch of otherwise indistinguishable equipment/unit menus anyway – but not in Shining Force II. The lively villages, dark caves (there’s a great lantern-like effect that restricts your view in these), and beautiful shrines here are filled with secret items, optional party members, and a whole host of memorable NPCs – mischievous kids, cowardly mayors, ineffectual guards, ruin-exploring archeologists – at every turn. These places are worth investigating in their own right, they’re not just as shop/church screens you have to make the unwanted effort of trudging between. It all comes together to leave you with the impression that the world’s a little more in-depth and alive than it would otherwise – as are the tiny sprites that inhabit it. Here’s an early example of just how expressive they can be that you might enjoy: When the lead’s tutor/tactician (and part-time court adviser) Sir Astral is hurriedly thinking of an excuse to cover for his pupils bursting into the castle uninvited after lying through their teeth and using him as their alibi at the gate he actually turns away from the minister asking what the heck these children are doing in the King’s private chamber and pauses for a moment before giving his reply – like a good puppet theatre show your mind can’t help but fill in the gaps and you just know what Astral’s expression is even though his sprite’s so small he barely has eyes, never mind the detail capable of showing the face of an aged wizard desperately fishing for a reasonable response that won’t land him or his unruly students in a lot of trouble.
Graphics can only take an RPG so far though, so it’s about time we looked at the other thing I wasn’t expecting – a well-written story in a game that stars a sword-wielding teenager off to save a princess from an ancient evil. There are extra lines here and there if you’ve gone out of your way to recruit secret characters, some hidden or alternative scenes if you go exploring, and one of the first things our brave lead can do is gulp down his mum’s soapy wash basin water like the gigantic moron he not-so-secretly is. They may not amount to plot-changing morality choices by any stretch of the imagination, but seeing the game make the effort to recognise your achievements is enough encouragement to see you checking barrels and poking around caves for hidden extras all game. Brief enemy and later powerful recruit Lemon shows a wonderful Steiner-like internal conflict between loyalty to his king and country and doing what he knows to be the right thing, even with just a handful of lines to his name. Or how about Sir Astral, a man who looks every inch your standard-issue wise old fantasy wizard, is someone looking forward to going out on a dangerous and lengthy adventure, thinks nothing of personally tackling demons head-on, and if there’s a fight brewing he’s first in line to encourage your Force to draw their weapons and get on with dispatching the enemy. He could have been a bookish stay-at-home nerd or a reserved “I’m far too intelligent to approve of violence” type but instead he’s a fireball-flinging badass who hears about the revival of an all-powerful demon out to plunge the land into darkness and thinks “Yeah, we can take him on” and I love him for it.
Those are all guys though so here’s a trickier question: How does Shining Force II handle its women?
Well… things don’t look too good at the start: Sarah, the lead’s childhood friend, is a pretty elf with blue hair and in a twist that shocks absolutely nobody she’s the group’s first healer. Spare me. But wait! She’s also the one who kicks off the whole adventure, the one who suggests disobeying their teacher and sneaking in to the castle in the first place. Refusing to be abandoned for the sake of giving the guys more screen time you’ll also find her physically shoving a known thief around, vomiting on a boat trip, and openly laughing when her friends mess up. In short – she’s brilliant and she stays brilliant too. The next lady to join your Shining Force is another over-used fantasy lady trope – an archer. Only May’s properly dressed for battle without a boob-window in sight, is half horse, an entirely offensive addition to the team, and in her introduction she’s bemoaning how everyone around her’s a coward. The game’s not perfect in this regard – the women you meet do tend to either cast spells or fire arrows – but it’s still great to see a game where women can be annoyed, bored, cheeky, unapologetically evil, or goddesses revered for their wisdom and power instead sticking so closely to the typical “fast but weak” “shy healer” or “walking cleavage” pigeonholes.
Shining Force II isn’t Matsuno-style deep by any stretch of the imagination and even on the hardest difficulty setting casual Fire Emblem fans will struggle to raise a sweat – but as far as I’m concerned that’s all part of the appeal: You come to see if the sort of game boasting those enormous battle sprites is just another Sword of Sodan then find yourself staying for the endearing world and all that’s in it. It’s a very easy game to play, and even easier one to love, and a title that still has a place alongside the more serious and tactical examples of its genre.