It shouldn’t have been this complicated. From the outside looking in, Shining Force throughout the Nineties represented everything that was great about Sega: a ‘big’ Sega property and a unique calling card for the Mega Drive and Saturn, it delivered some of the finest deep tactical role-playing of the decade. Yet while the series’ course through to Shining Force III led mesmerised players to a vast Holy Land of blissful RPG perfection, Sega’s treatment of the games and their second-party developer, Camelot, only went from bad to rotten.
Prior to collaborating with Sega on the development of 1991’s preparatory dungeon-crawler Shining In The Darkness, Hiroyuki Takahashi had been in employment at Enix, working on the Dragon Quest series of games and in particular making a significant contribution to the production of Dragon Quest IV. After that, he left Square Enix, went independent, formed his own company and soon began work on Shining In The Darkness. As Takahashi clarifies, “I was never an employee of Sega, but from Darkness on I worked as game designer and team leader on the Shining Force series. My younger brother Shugo wasn’t a Sega employee, either.”
If it sounds like Takahashi’s keen to distance himself from Sega it’s because he is. There’s a whole litany of hurt to relate, but for a start consider this: for each of the three Shining Mega Drive games, Sega gave Takahashi’s team the bare minimum funding offered to out-of-house developers. Shining In The Darkness was a success, but apparently not enough to merit a raise for the development of Shining Force; and although Shining Force was a hit, there was still no raise forthcoming when it came time for a sequel to be built. There is more, but in the interests of chronology let’s return to the story of the series’ conception.
Shining Force was launched in March 1992. “At that time, the games industry’s way of thinking about role-playing games put the emphasis squarely on telling an interesting story,” Takahashi laments. “That was apparently the purpose of role-playing games – just to tell a good story. However, I’ve always believed that engaging battles are the most crucial factor in an RPG. Even today, you see many role-playing games that are designed according to a philosophy where battles are just a bonus and the story is the main thing. I could never accept that and I wouldn’t go along with it. RPG players spend such a great amount of their time in battle that there’s no way a battle system should be treated merely as something that’s tacked onto a good story.”
As it transpires, a relatively obscure Japanese PC game called Silver Ghost, released by Kure Software Koubou in 1988, exerted an influence on the design of Shining Force. “Prior to Silver Ghost,” Takahashi explains, “I didn’t like tactical simulation games at all – they gave players too much time to think… their tempo was all over the place. But Silver Ghost was different: it was a simulation action type of game where you had to direct, oversee and command multiple characters; it was the title that convinced me simulation games didn’t have to be crap.”