- t 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.”
- Shining Force’s most obvious inheritance from Silver Ghost is the gochakyara (multiple character) system, whereby the chess-like command of units drove the series’ battle system and satisfied Takahashi’s desire for a truly engaging brand of tactical combat. Daring to mention Intelligent Systems’ (ostensibly) similarly structured Fire Emblem series only earns us a humorous retort: “The original Famicom Fire Emblem game? The tempo of that title was so bad that it wasn’t something I even wanted to play. Fire Emblem had zero influence on Shining Force.” Takahashi continues, “Rather, before participating in the Shining Project I was thinking, ‘I wonder if there’s any way we can take the battles from Dragon Quest and make them more fun?’ Shining Force’s battle system came about as a result of following that line of thinking to its logical conclusion” – evidently with a little help from Silver Ghost.
- Even with Shining In The Darkness completed, development of Shining Force was ambitious and consequently proved extremely difficult for Takahashi’s team to perfect. “From the battle system through to the combat screen, we entered development with the aim of making everything new, featuring only things that had never been seen in a game before. Shining In The Darkness was more successful than I had anticipated – in terms of sales and reviews – so I think I might have been overestimating my ability as a creator somewhat… In fact it was terribly difficult to produce Shining Force. For the battle screen and title screen we took inspiration from a certain other game, but what I didn’t realise until after we’d finished development was that that game had used half of its four megs of ROM on those two features alone. Of course, we didn’t copy the exact screen designs, but still… we created such memory-intensive battle screens that it was incredibly hard to pull it off. But hey, I remember feeling young and powerful back then.
- “My basic stance as far as RPG development is concerned, is to produce worthwhile and enjoyable battles. Shining Force was the first embodiment of that philosophy. I felt that the primitive battles in games such as Wizardry and Dragon Quest were enjoyable, but we introduced the notion of ‘distance and range’ to form Shining Force’s tactical battles. However, in order to produce and hone that battle system we had to go through an incredibly difficult period of experimentation with trial-and-error procedures… We overcame so many obstacles to develop that battle system, but it was a labour of love and we ended up deeply attached to it.”
- Unfortunately for Takahashi, while players and critics universally appreciated his team’s fine work on Shining Force, Sega’s bosses were less enthusiastic. In part this was a result of differences in attitude and approach between the Sega managers Takahashi had initially dealt with and those who succeeded them – new additions to the administration one by one transforming the company from a modest game-loving outfit to an austere profit-obsessed corporation. “From 1990 on,” Takahashi explains, “Sega gradually became a larger scale business. New managers were recruited and things started to change. When Sega’s managers were replaced, we came to be seen just as a small, unruly subsidiary that wanted things its own way, and because of that we were forced out of Sega’s main line of business. From that point on, I felt that Sega had ceased to be a true software-orientated company.”
- This sad state of affairs forced Takahashi to begin production of Shining Force II with a team that had been decimated and, effectively, rebuilt. Most of the original Shining Force staff were beginners who had potential but no prior experience. However, even though they now had a successful game in their back catalogue, Sega’s reluctance to increase the level of funding it granted for the development of this sequel meant that from an economic perspective there was little motivation to stick with the project.
- “We were in a really precarious situation at that point,” Takahashi admits, “because we knew that if we couldn’t produce another hit we would have no future. The number of staff we had working on the Shining Force series varied with each game until the Saturn era, during which time the team was pretty settled and didn’t change much. We carefully chose our staff from among many candidates, and after Shining Force II the core staff remained and grew stronger together. Shining Force II was an experimental title where we improved the story and enhanced the game’s ‘RPG-ness’.”
- Between 1992 and 1995, Takahashi also found time to oversee Camelot’s production of the Shining Force Gaiden series of Game Gear-based spin-offs. “We developed the Gaiden series as a simpler variation of Shining Force – one that could easily be played on a portable console. At the time, I believe that a lot of games for handhelds were developed without much thought. But we wanted to produce a portable title that would be a genuine system seller, something that was more than just a ‘not bad for a handheld game’ type of affair.” They succeeded in doing just that, and although the first Gaiden outing was initially restricted to a local Japanese release (a Sega publishing issue that would again hinder Camelot when it was time for the world to experience Shining Force III), it did eventually receive a translation as part of 1995’s Mega CD compilation Shining Force CD.
- While Takahashi’s aims at the outset of the Shining Force series’ development had been battle-orientated ambitions, the post-Shining Force II hardware migration from Mega Drive to Saturn – along with the maturing of Sega’s core audience – meant that change was now essential. Specifically, Takahashi was aware of the need to give more attention to Camelot’s storytelling, which had always been composed as an overarching, catch-all conceptualisation that included both the main Shining Force series and its different-name/same-bloodline close relatives. In the mid-Nineties there was a distinct shift in style: the early-period narrative can be traced right up to Camelot’s 1995 Saturn debut, Shining Wisdom, but the following year’s Shining The Holy Ark brought with it a revamped, more complex tone.
- “Until Wisdom, the idea had been simply to develop a story that would attract a broad range of users,” says Takahashi “From Holy Ark on, the story and game world were redesigned to focus on the Saturn players of the time. Japanese Saturn owners were generally in their late-teens or early-twenties. The age group had shifted away from children, so with these Saturn owners as the focus, we constructed a world where the concept was ‘fantasy that can be enjoyed by adults’. This new approach led to a darker, deeper world than we had been creating for the ‘all ages’ category prior to Holy Ark. We started to work on the plot of a story that would be appropriate in such a world.
- Things moved up another notch once Camelot turned its attention to the epic, triple-scenario Shining Force III. “We wanted Shining Force III to serve as proof to those users that we could do other types of story,” Takahashi remembers. “But on the other hand, we didn’t want to reject those fans who had never complained about the good-against-evil story lines. In that sense, in order to appease both sets of fans, Shining Force III ended up as a compilation of the results of lots of trial and error.” The resulting game still told a story of good versus evil but radically allowed you to play from the perspective of ‘evil’ on its second disc, revealing that the definitions between the two weren’t so clear cut.
- Relative to team size and resources, Camelot’s efforts with the Shining series had always been a little bit on the ambitious side, but the three-disc creation of Shining Force III was the team’s boldest experiment and remains the high point of a series that has very few lows. The game’s development was anything but simple: “We put everything we had into Shining Force III – it took so much time and so much of our money that no matter how many copies we sold, we would never have been able to make much money out it. I’m both a game creator and a business manager, and from the business perspective you could say that Shining Force III was a ridiculous challenge. It’s a miracle that the game was fully realised.”
- The passing of time means that Takahashi is now willing to speak frankly about his disappointments, even if he has no regrets. In the case of Shining Force III, that spells rejection, demotion and imposed limitations. “I can tell you this now: at the time of Shining Force III, Sega’s management was, I believe, in a state of complete chaos,” reveals Takahashi. “It’s probably hard for you to fathom, but what was once a major part of Sega’s market – namely the Shining series – was ejected from Sega’s ‘main line’ of games, and the money we received from Sega to produce Shining Force III was less than half what they would spend on the development of ‘main’ games.”
- The ultimate fallout from this situation meant that English speakers were only treated to the first of Shining Force III’s three parts. “Release abroad was terribly limited,” Takahashi reflects, “but that was just a consequence of it being treated so poorly by Sega in Japan. And it wasn’t just Shining Force III that was mistreated. For example, at one point Sega was refusing to even release Shining The Holy Ark. We had hoped that all three Shining Force III scenarios would be released internationally, but our hopes weren’t fulfilled. Regardless, we made Shining Force III in order to give something back to the fans who had supported the series up to that point. Of course it’s a shame that the game wasn’t a big hit, but even though it’s been more than ten years since the release of Shining Force III, people still love the game. And because of that, it’s a game that has made me genuinely happy.”
- And will the West ever get to experience that same happiness? It would have been remiss of us not to ask about the prospect of a Shining Force III remake/re-release, but Takahashi’s response isn’t one we wanted to hear: “Even though we produced all of the plans, graphics, did all of the programming, and produced all of the music for the Shining series, Sega maintains the rights. That’s why we can have no say in the matter.” A wry smile speaks volumes.
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