Amusement Vision’s remake of the classic Strategy RPG, ported from Sega Genesis to Game Boy Advance, demonstrated the capability the GBA platform had to re-visit classic titles from many different sources. It’s an odd alliance when Sega titles are published on a Nintendo system, but it’s even more wacky when the US publisher comes straight out of right field: Atlus! You can generally count on these guys to pick up the slack; where other publishers see nothing, Atlus sees opportunity. So, with their help, the GBA remake of Shining Force (now with the added subtitle “Resurrection of the Dark Dragon”) was released in the US even before it made its way to Europe and Japan.
“Resurrection of the Dark Dragon” wasn’t a straight port of the original Shining Force. A few significant changes were made, most of them making the game a little more accessible (read: easier) for those new to the Shining franchise. Let’s talk about these changes, by category.
How can I say this? Music, when put into the GBA sound system, has a way of being diminished. In the past, I’ve used the word “tinny” to describe the synth that is produced on the GBA. In this case, however, I found a better word: “dinky.” Everything sounds like, “diiink! dink dink!” The music is surprisingly clear, not vague, and not sounding like it’s coming out of a tin can; but the synth is yucky. It actually sounded a wee bit better on the Genesis back in the day.
The quality of the original compositions, by Naofumi Tsuruyama and Takuya Hanaoka, are alright, and they certainly fit the game well. But that didn’t stop me from turning down the volume from time to time when it started giving me a headache.
AV took some time to facelift the sprites and backgrounds. When in super-deformed top-down-view mode, the improvement from the Genesis version to GBA is noticeable. But, things get even better during the short battle cutscenes. The artwork on the characters is sleeker, smoother, and… well, “shiny.” Having played the Genesis version, I immediately saw the difference, and I was pleased.
Sure, more could have been done to make the game look even better, even on the GBA back in 2004. But the fact that they took time to update the graphics at all is a real treat, which is why I was so pleased with Amusement Vision’s work.
Max, the protagonist, washes ashore near Guardiana, the capital of the Western continent “Rune.” The poor guy lost his memory, but he’s a beast with a sword, and he has some abilities the likes of which no one had ever seen before. Max bears witness to the violent murder of Rune’s King at the hands of a new enemy, the forces of Runefaust (the Eastern continent), who had once been peaceful and friendly. It seems that the King of Runefaust and his cohorts have set their sights on opening some ancient sealed gate, out of which will come a Dark Dragon whose only desire is to rip the races of men and beastmen to shreds. Discontent with this situation, Max bands together with a few locals on a quest to figure out what’s really going on and, ultimately, stop the revival of this Dark Dragon.
Max and crew explore the Western continent and eventually find a route to the Eastern continent to settle things on the enemy’s turf. Along the way, the people see that the party is indeed heroic, and they are dubbed the “Shining Force.” Lots of other folks (some mandatory, some optional) hop on the bandwagon that is the Shining Force. Huzzah!
New to the remake is the sub-story of Narsha, the bewildered and disillusioned daughter to the king of Runefaust, who himself seems to be manipulated by a man named Darksol. Narsha, along with a creepy bug-ninja named Zuika and a card-wielding beast named Mawlock, do their best to sneak out of Runefaust and meet up with that strange band of warriors, the “Shining Force,” that they’ve heard so much about. Having these characters join in the fun makes the game that much more worthwhile.
Other than the Narsha subplot, not much is new to the story. And, if you want character development, the only way to really get it is to occasionally speak to your teammates back at headquarters. Each one has a different story (or list of stories) to tell you, and progress is made in these stories by leveling up the characters in battle. In other words, you only get to know the people that fight alongside you. It’s too bad there’s a limit to the number of party members that can enter any given battle (that number, for the record, is twelve).
The story is bland, especially in today’s standard of high-quality storytelling RPGs, but the few twists that exist make the game feel more grand in scope than what the premise reveals. It may be more for the classic gameplay, but even the story of Shining Force stands the test of time, though it doesn’t exactly “shine” while doing so.
When the game was originally released in the early ’90s, Shining Force essentially ripped the gameplay mechanics of Nintendo’s “Fire Emblem” and made their own game. The grid-based, tactical combat that makes up most of today’s Strategy RPGs is so common that no one bothers to ask who invented it (and if someone does ask, others usually answer, wrongly, that Shining Force paved the way.) I don’t even need to explain the basics of combat, or even town exploration: the screenshots tell the story.
Character growth, on the other hand, could use a little explanation. Each character comes as a preset class. This class determines what weapon(s) the character can wield, and whether or not they’ll be using magic. Once a character reaches level 10, they may choose to be “promoted” to an advanced class. This can only be done once, and doing so resets their level to 1. Generally, the “right” choice seems to be upgrading, but there are advantages to remaining with the original class for a few characters, if only to allow some diversity in the party (there are more characters than there are classes, so take that as a hint).
The new feature, Mawlock’s “card” system, initially seems like a gimmick, but it is actually a useful addition to the game. Mawlock can equip up to four cards (collected through various means: most are character cards, though there are some enemy cards to be collected as well). Mawlock can use each of the four cards once per battle, and the cards can be used in one of four ways. I won’t give you the low-down on all of them, but I’ll tell you about my favorite action: “Move.” When choosing this option, the character on the card gets a second action per turn, so long as that character is on the field at the time. Can this feature be abused? You bet! My personal strategy was to keep four key players (a centaur-knight, an archer, a bird-warrior, and a generic infantry fighter) on my team and have Mawlock equip their cards. Give all four of them “Move,” and they can clear the field in an instant. The rest of the party, for me, became a support crew, while these four became strong enough that, by the end, they could take on the last boss without trying, and certainly without anyone else on the team.
The game is not particularly difficult, nor is it particularly long. There are challenges for those who want to attempt them (namely, the “clear bonus” objectives for each mission), but level-grinding by repeating a mission over and over is an easy way out for unskilled players. This game is definitely a classic and it plays like a classic.
But classic that it may be, there are some things that simply need an update after years of innovation and improvement in the genre. Menu navigation in Shining Force was (and is) absolute torture, particularly when managing one’s equipment. Want to equip a weapon? Well, you may have to get it from someone else (as characters each have their own four-slot inventory), or it could be in the item box. After you’ve located the item, you can put it in your inventory and equip it from there. But if your equipment slots are full (say, one weapon and three rings), then the trade-off cannot occur and things have to be managed the long and inefficient way. Blah. Now imagine doing that for each and every character after every other mission. You see where I’m going with this?
The button configuration also could have used a bit of improvement, and I would’ve appreciated some sort of “fast forward” or “skip” for the battle animations. But, I guess I can’t have everything I want. In turn, this game can’t get an ideal score, but falls in that vague realm of “average.” Well, at least in terms of control.
If you avoided Sega as a younger gamer and thus missed your shot at Shining Force, now’s your chance. If you’ve already played and beaten Shining Force, why not give it another go-around? It’s still a fun game, and the few additions and improvements will give you a fresh perspective on this classic title. It’s certainly not the best Strategy RPG in the world, but it did help to define the genre in its early years, and for that, we must give it props. If you’re looking for another classic to add to your handheld collection, be sure to keep this one in mind.