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Our entertainment world is electronically driven these days. How did kids amuse themselves before video games—before TV, for that matter? They either read books, or even better yet, they played board games. Board games are the unsung highlights of our childhood. The physical, tactile presence of a board game made it engaging, and the best board games were an alluring mixture of strategy, chance, and eye-catching visuals.

Two board games stand out as my favorites. The first was Clue—the concept of murder was lurid and fascinating to my young mind. Was it Miss Scarlett in the Billiard Room with the Rope? Was it Mr. Green in the Library with the Lead Pipe? Should I take the secret passageway from the Kitchen to the Study? The deductive reasoning occupied hours of my time. My other favorite board game was Stratego—a militarized version of Steal the Flag, complete with landmines, scouts and spies.

So what did Stratego and Clue have in common that appealed to me as a child? It was the use of the board as a battleground, and the strategy that came with it. In Clue, it was important to move one’s token economically—to visit the greatest number of rooms in the smallest number of turns possible. One could even use a token to block the doorway of a room, and thus prevent other players from getting the clues in time. In Stratego, one could strategically place mines in odd locations, to bluff and misdirect an opponent away from the flag. In both games, use of space was essential to success, and the victory would go to whoever strategized most effectively.

Which brings us to Shining Force. Sega released this RPG in 1992, but it’s been re-released and repackaged on multiple consoles since—first on the GameBoy Advance in 2004, and again on the Wii Virtual Console in 2007. Most recently, it was released on iOS in 2010, and on Steam in 2011. How does this RPG, created over 20 years ago, continue to capture gamers’ imaginations? It has something to do with the game’s turn-based fighting mode—a gameplay style that combines the slow, alternating strategy of a board game, with the variety and flexibility of a video game.

Prior RPGs had turn-based gameplay, but never on the sheer scale that Shining Force attempted. Shining Force required you to control 12 party members per turn, and you chose these members from a pool of 30 warriors. These warriors had to be earned, however—you started out very modestly. There was just Max, the hero of the story (you always had to choose Max), and his childhood friends. There was Lowe, a priest/healer; Luke, a dwarf with an axe; Tao, a fire sorcerer; Hans, an elf with a bow and arrow; and Ken, a centaur knight.

As you proceeded in your quest, you encountered the remaining 24 characters, whom you could add to your party until you reached 12 members. There was Zylo, a powerful werewolf who could nimbly scale rough terrain. There was Bleu, a baby dragon who, if you took the time to upgrade him, would become a powerful member of your party. There was Balbaroy and Amon, two bird warriors who gave your party some much needed agility. And of course, there was a variety of centaurs, elves, and dwarves, who you could use to either bolster or replace your original six members.

The most fun part of the game was not the battles themselves—it was the preparation for those battles. The ideal party of 12 had a mix of characters. You needed a couple of sorcerers and healers to cast from behind the defense lines; a couple of elves to attack from a distance; several centaurs to launch your main attacks; and a couple of dwarves, to soak up damage and provide the muscle. You had to select and equip your weapons wisely—were you interested in range or strength? You also had to think long term. A new recruit started out weak, but if you took the time to level him/her up, it could pay off dividends by the end of the game.

The Genesis’ audio system is a sore topic, even for die hard Sega fans. Shining Force, however, is a great example of accomplishing a great deal with very little. Composed by Yasahiko Yoshimura, the music for Shining Force was varied and exciting, with medieval arrangements that suited the steampunk/fantasy setting. Just listen to these military drum rolls on the Castle Theme.

Or, listen to this song—one of the most exciting battle themes from the 16-bit era.

The success of Shining Force led to numerous sequels and spin-offs. There was Shining Force II on the Genesis (1993), Shining Force CD on the Sega CD (1994), and Part I of Shining Force III on the Sega Saturn (1997). Sega released the final two parts in Japan only, and so very few Americans have gotten the chance to play them. Die-hard fans tried to meet the demand—they emulated Parts II and III, and they did their best to translate the native Japanese into English. Still, however, there’s been no official release.

If you’re new to RPGs, or are intimidated by the involved mechanics in today’s strategy games, Shining Force is a great place to start—it’s available on both iOS and Steam. Give it a try—you’ll be surprised at how addictive it is, and at how much you care for these characters.

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