Among English speakers, Shining Force was the most well-known SRPG series throughout the 1990s. This was mostly due to being in the right place at the right time: several other SRPGs did receive official English releases throughout the 90s, but none of them were so prolific as Shining Force. During this decade, Shining Force 1, Shining Force Gaiden 2, Shining Force 2, Shining Force CD, and Shining Force 3’s first disc were all officially localized in English. Shining in the Darkness, Shining Wisdom, and Shining: The Holy Ark saw official English releases as well. 

Compare this to other SRPG series at the time. None of Fire Emblem’s 5 games received an English release. Only 1/5 of Langrisser’s games (and several re-releases) received an English release. None of the 3 Little Master games received an English release. None of the 3 Front Mission games (+2 gaiden games) received an English release. None of the 3 Arc the Lad games received an English release until 2002. None of the million Farland Story games ever received an English release.

You get the idea.

Four words that kicked off a legend…

Among English speakers, Shining Force wins the distinction of Best SRPG Series from the 1990s by default – simply out of virtue of none others existing aside from maybe Vandal Hearts, which only had 2 games to its credit. And although Shining Force is undeniably a great series of (mostly) great games, this shocking reality cements a suspicion I’ve had for a long while: that we English speakers have been given the short end of the stick when it comes to SRPGs. 

At least these days, we have an abundance of stellar fan translations for old games, in addition to terrific indie SRPGs coming out. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that SRPGs began to take off in the English-speaking world. I credit Fire Emblem 7 and Disgaea for popularizing the SRPG genre. (There does exist one additional game from 1997 that could be given credit with popularizing the genre, but that one continues to have a disastrous effect on the genre, so I won’t mention it here, nor will I give it credit for “helping” the genre.)

Anyway, Shining Force 1. As you might know, Shining Force 1 was my first SRPG and will forever remain one of the most precious entries in my collection. However, I nonetheless need to remain objective and impartial, so let’s first start off talking about its problems. The more I examine Shining Force 1, the more I realize that it really doesn’t hold up very well as a strategy game. There are many reasons for this. 

Throughout Shining Force 1, the only real challenge comes from low hit rates against certain monsters, namely Chimeras and Bats. Against Chimeras, I took a tally and ended up with a hitrate of less than 50%. This is simply inexcusable; the only real way to reliably deal with them is with Anri. Making matters worse is the possibility for enemies to double attack you and critical attack you. Of course, this is completely luck-based, too.

Elsewhere, the map design in Shining Force 1 is not great. I wouldn’t say it’s bad overall, but with two exceptions, there’s nothing that stands out about any of the game’s 30 battles. Most battles fall into the same pitfalls: 1) too much space between your units and the enemy units, 2) horrendous AI which stays in place and otherwise does moronic shit, and 3) too many situations which vastly favor fliers, particularly in the final three chapters of the game.

Having terrain is cool, but what’s the point of covering the ENTIRE map with it? All it does is centralize the metagame around fliers.

Then there’s the turn system. To Shining Force 1’s credit, it was the first SRPG to handle turns differently from the familiar phase-based system of Fire Emblem. But the turn system was very poorly-conceived in Shining Force due to its massive reliance upon luck. Turn order is based upon a combination of the agility stat and… dumb luck. Yes, really. There’s no way to accurately predict which unit will move first. Sometimes characters will get two turns. Sometimes characters with low agility will move first. The system had potential, but it’s too unpredictable to lend itself to any degree of strategy.

The Quick Ring can even be used to exploit a bug which can give your characters two actions per turn. On that note, so many items in Shining Force 1 are overpowered. The Power Ring is obtained way too early and can cast Boost, offering a temporary +15 attack bonus to a character. The Evil Ring can cast Bolt 3, one of the best spells in the game. Healing Seeds arguably invalidate the need to bring healers. The Chaos Breaker can give Balbaroy +40 attack and access to infinite Freeze 3s. Cursed items (aside from the Black Ring and Dark Sword) confer no meaningful penalties, so they end up being must-haves.

Behold: the second-best unit in the game. Arguably the best. Bear in mind that 99 is the maximum attack in the game. He can reach 89 if I cast Boost on him. And these are his stats after I promoted him at level 10, the earliest possible time.

All of this stuff – low hitrates against certain enemies, random double attacks and criticals, the mediocre map design, the badly-implemented turn system, and overpowered items – hold back Shining Force 1 from being a very good strategy game. I don’t enjoy pointing this out because I’m a big fan of the game, but it’s true: Shining Force 1 is too luck-based and doesn’t present you with enough meaningful challenges in its battles. In addition to this, Shining Force 1 features quite a few weird imperfections. 

The way Shining Force 1 handles experience is one of its signature frustrations. Let’s say you have 99 experience points. You just need 1 experience point to level up. Now, let’s say you get 48 experience points. You would think that 99 + 48 = 147, resulting in a level up and 47 extra experience points. But no: you level up, but those extra 47 experience points have now disappeared, like your life savings after a bad divorce settlement. It’s a bizarre design choice, especially since this wasn’t a problem in Shining in the Darkness.

Inventory management was also a new problem to Shining Force 1. If you find an item but your inventory is full, that item won’t be passed to the next character in your party. The shop interface is also kind of confusing because of two famous words:

It’s possible there are additional problems with Shining Force 1 that I’m overlooking, but even all this is enough to give anyone pause and wonder, “what’s so great about Shining Force 1?” 

The first thing I’d say in the game’s defense is that it’s an excellent newcomer-friendly SRPG. It was, like Little Master, among the first SRPGs to not include permadeath. Couple this with the ability to replay battles (also like Little Master), and you have a SRPG which is extremely forgiving to newbies who haven’t mastered its systems. Players are presented the opportunity to grind their units, but this is by no means a necessity.

Indeed, for this most recent playthrough, I was able to complete the entire game while only replaying 2 battles.

I credit this guy with getting me through those final three chapters. Kokichi, Balbaroy, Amon, and Domingo are all you really need for the endgame.

Of course, any review of Shining Force 1 would be remiss without mentioning its exploration. This is the second thing I’d say in the game’s defense. By the time Shining Force 1 rolled around, only two other SRPGs had featured any degree of exploration – Fire Emblem Gaiden and Crystal Warriors – and in both of those games, exploration was so limited that it may as well not exist. Shining Force 1 was the only SRPG at the time which blended SRPG battles with an almost Dragon Quest-like degree of exploration.

In the overworld and town segments, there’s quite a bit that you can do. You can discover secrets, locate hidden items, and even stumble across secret characters like Gong, Domingo, and Musashi. You can also get a better feel for Shining Force 1’s world by talking with NPCs and getting a kick out of the game’s sometimes-twisted sense of humor:

something something soylent green

Shining Force 1 deserves a lot of credit for pioneering this fusion and introducing exploration into SRPGs. I’m sure I’m not the only one who views exploration as a vital facet of Shining Force. It’s why I consider the Gaiden games and Shining Force CD to be inferior to the mainline entries: battles in Shining Force weren’t anything noteworthy – at least, not until Shining Force 3 – so making a Shining Force game comprised only of battles was a misguided effort to begin with.

Here’s the third, and biggest thing I can say in defense of Shining Force 1: that it features an immensely charming and memorable atmosphere. Even a cursory look at the graphics can give you a good idea of what I mean. Shining Force was, without question, the best-looking SRPG up to its point in time. 

See this battle? This is peak Shining Force 1. It’s among the prettiest battles in the game and also one of the few battles that offers anything approximating strategic challenges.

Shining Force 1’s atmosphere excelled in other ways, too. With regards to its setting, Shining Force 1 features a wide variety of locations, such as medieval castles, a demonic circus, a creepy church, a cliffside quarry, the island nation of Waral, the undersea Metapha, the imposing Tower of the Ancients, Mishaela’s demon castle, and all those sci-fi locations throughout the final two chapters. When put together, they form an experience which is distinctly Shining Force.

Characters are memorable, too. You can recruit elven mages and archers, dwarven warriors, centaurs, a half-giant, Jogurt, a “Kyantol” (half deer/half human, or something like that), a furry Foxy Lady, two birdmen, an armadillo knight, a wolfman, a samurai, a ninja, and Domingo. Characters and locations aren’t given a great deal of development and detail, but this is arguably unnecessary. There’s just enough substance there, so you can get creative and allow your imagination fill in the blanks. 

Jogurt is love

One key element which really defines Shining Force 1’s atmosphere is the framing device of Simone, the reading girl. She appears at the start of your game, whenever you load the game, whenever you save the game and are about to turn off your Genesis, and when you finally beat the game. Shining Force 1 is framed as a fantastical fairytale which Simone is reading with you. Because of this important piece of information, it’s very easy for me to forgive the game for having a fairly one-dimensional plot and fairly one-dimensional characters. 

When you read Aesop’s fables or other children’s literature, do you expect richly-detailed characters with complex backstories? Of course not. That’s precisely the beauty of Shining Force 1’s framing device – and indeed, of the other Shining games and how they used similar framing devices to tell their stories. 

Because of the whole Simone thing, alongside all those other atmospheric elements I listed, Shining Force 1 appeals to your emotions and touches your sensibilities in such a way that it makes you feel like a kid all over again. What I find interesting, personally speaking, is that when I was a kid, I used to view Simone as a motherly/older sister figure who’d read the story to me alongside my parents; but these days, I view her as a cute daughter figure to whom I’m reading the story. There’s something profound to be said about the way our perception of games changes as we age.

Is Shining Force 1 a great strategy game? No. Fire Emblem 1, despite being the first SRPG ever made, utterly outclasses Shining Force 1 in every way in the gameplay department. I hate to admit this, but Shining Force 1’s gameplay was behind the times, as far as SRPGs go.

Yet, that’s completely fine, because its strengths lie elsewhere. It’s okay for not every SRPG to be a masterwork of fine strategy. Well… I do wish we had more challenging SRPGs, because the genre is way too easy, generally speaking, but I nonetheless believe it’s acceptable for a SRPG to feature mediocre gameplay, so long as it compensates sufficiently in other ways. 

Shining Force 1 may not be a great strategy game, but it’s not bad either. Importantly, it’s easy and it’s accessible, making it an outstanding recommendation for SRPG newcomers. It’s got plenty of atmospheric charm, making it a solid recommendation even for SRPG veterans. 

Here are my final thoughts: Shining Force 1 remains a great game, and I still love it. It’s a great SRPG for everyone to check out… yet, it should never be anyone’s end destination. Shining Force 1 barely scratched the surface of what the SRPG genre could be. It barely scratched the surface of what Shining Force could be. 

Shining Force 1 established a solid foundation, but it wouldn’t be until 1998 that the series would finally realize its true potential with the tripartite magnum opus which was Shining Force 3.

General Information
Year: 1992
Console: Genesis
Developers: Camelot Software Planning
You can get it on Steam here:
Or on the Sega Genesis Classics collection:
Or by paying for a Nintendo Switch Online membership.

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Lila Corpsegrave
1 month ago

I think this review perfectly encapsulates why I really WANT to love Shining Force 1, but just simply can’t. I come to SRPGs for Strategy Gameplay and my crippling math addiction first, and all else second.

Maybe I’ll enjoy SF3 if that’s actually strong in the SRPG gameplay, but I still have to get through SF2 first.

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