February 8, 2012 by rkelle4
When I was a kid, I dreamed of nothing more than pulling a magical sword from a stone, of rescuing a damsel in distress from the clutches of an evil, fire-breathing dragon, or to wipe out hordes of enemies with winds conjured by my wizards staff that was made of nothing but wood from my backyard. When I was four I did these things in my own imagination, but when I was nine I did these things inside of the diegetic universe of Shining Force II.
For me, Shining Force II is not just a video game. Unlike the games that I was accustomed to, such as Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog, Shining force II was the largest narrative-driven game that I had ever played. It had all the things that my imagination contained, and more! When my mom first bought my sister the game, I assumed it was a tawdry excuse for a Mario knockoff, and I didn’t even know that an adventure other than that type could even occur in a game. Luckily for me my sister was quick to dismiss it for that reason alone, and the fact that there were no magical mushrooms or rings was a put off to her. So, the game sat on our shelves for three years, (I was six at the time my thirteen year old sister got the game) gathering dust next to our old consoles, which had to be shelved for a shinier, and more powerful, Nintendo 64. Little did I know that when I pulled out, and dusted off, my old Genesis and popped in my sister’s hand-me-down Shining Force II cartridge (after blowing it a few times because it froze a little after the SEGA logo screen) that my life would be changed forever.
The narrative in Shining Force II is the real powerhouse, and it is a great example of why narrative in videogames creates a more powerful experience than game play. Sure game play is what makes a game, well, a game, but without a compelling story, how do we interact with the game emotionally? Without a story, why do we, as players, care about what happens to the player character? The answer, at least for me, is that we don’t.
Shining Force II delivers in this regard. It is packed with the archetypal adventure that young nine-year-old Riakeem thirsted for. Sure, games like Tetris and Pac Man are fun, but no one ever looks back on those games and claims to have grown as a person. After playing Shining Force II I was a better person. I felt different. I was a hero.
In the Narrative Chapter of Understanding Video Games the authors write that “this is a video game, so nothing will happen unless you act,” which is true for every game. This is something derived from a video game story that you cannot get from a novel or film. It’s what makes playing Shining Force II a world of different from reading a novel about it. I wanted to immerse myself in an interesting tale of sword and sorcery, and Shining Force II is a perfect medium to do so.
The best part about Shining Force II’s narrative is that it is a classics hero’s journey. The player character, Bowie, is a young squire who is thrust into an adventure when a thief steals two magical jewels that were sealing a great devil beneath the earth. The player controls the reluctant to-be-hero Bowie as he is guided by his magical helper and crosses a threshold into a world where fighting monsters becomes a palpable experience for him and for the player. Like reading a book, you care when one of your teammates dies. You care when Bowie is captured, or when he learns a new way to defeat Zeon (the awakening devil).
The last part of the journey is the reward, which in literary terms is defined as the gaining of the magical boon. One key difference between video games and novels is that when the hero obtains the boon, so do you, in a much stronger sense than in a novel. Yes, you feel this way when Frodo drops the ring into Mordor, but aside from being alongside him the entire way, you weren’t apart of his adventure. In Shining Force II, Bowie and gang can never obtain the boon without you, their amazing, credit-less, tactician that merely saves the day from behind the scenes. In Shining Force II, you are the real hero.
The story follows all of these tropes of a hero, and even throws in lessons on morality such as good versus evil, order versus chaos, and even coming of age, so that by the end of the game you have a stronger sense of agency than if you were to just organize falling blocks to get a Tetris.
The game play of Shining Force II isn’t completely lacking either. It is great. It follows archetypes in a similar way that its narrative does in terms of it being a tactical role playing game (TRPG). It’s not as complex as some of its contemporaries, such as Fire Emblem or Tactics Ogre, which makes it a really neat choice for younger players who are interested in this type of game. Growing up with this game creates a nostalgic component, but I don’t feel the same way about other games without a narrative. The reason for that is simple. No matter how amazing the game itself is, what makes games great forms of art as opposed to passing trends or the narratives. That is what drives the staying power.
I lost my original cartridge of Shining Force II in 2003, and I lived without the game for seven years. I found it on EBAY in 2009 and have re-played it seven times to make up for every year that I missed, plus once every year during the summer. Shining Force II is a really great game; narrative and game play.