My best friend in my youth often rented games for months at a time (why his parents didn’t just outright buy the games I’ll never know). I think he rented Final Fantasy VI for 3 months before getting it for Christmas. We played the heck out of it the enter time. After eventually returning it, his next long term lease was Shining Force II for the Sega Genesis. When I saw the game, he was already half way through, but I didn’t care. This was my first tactical RPG, and I was enthralled.
I know everything I’m describing is old hat now, but it was new to me at the time. I’d only seen turn based battle systems at this point. My mind was blown watching the tactical battle system. Your army of twelve would take to the battlefield, ready to combat the scattered enemy forces. Characters took turns, moving in a grid like structure to progress and attack. Character abilities depended on their class. Sword types needed to be next to the opponent to strike. Lances and archers could be several spaces away, while mages could be farther away still.
The winning conditions were simple, annihilate the opposition. The hero (a silent protagonist), must not fall in battle, or the game is over. At first great stakes must be taken to protect him, though he quickly becomes one of the strongest members of your team. Thirty characters join your roster, though a few are clone types. My favorite mechanic though was the promotion system. At character level 20, they are eligible for a promotion (one was a phoenix!). Many characters have unique promotions (Priest to Monk was the best) only available if hidden items were found. These were some of the best upgrades in the game.
A handful of characters were completely useless at the start. They died easily and dealt little damage. The trick with this game, and any tactical game, was to whittle enemies health down and have the weaker characters deliver the finishing blow. Why do this? They typically promoted to powerhouses. Case in point, Kiwi, the weird little Pokemon looking helmet turtle thing (Pokemon didn’t exist yet), he promoted to a fire breathing monster. There were a few characters completely worth the time and effort.
What about the game’s plot? Two jewels were stolen from a seal on the temple. The seal broke, freeing demon king Zeon. Your young group of fighters try to stop him, but flee the continent instead. Your group travels, looking for a way back home and to defeat Zeon. The story wasn’t spectacular, but is completely serviceable. The battle system is deep enough for advanced players, yet simple enough for novices.
For many, Final Fantasy Tactics defines the genre. I could see why, but I think of it as perfecting it. Shining Force II made the genre for me. Yes, there is a II in the title, meaning a previous entry in the series. I played the first but found it clumsy and clunky. The sequel nailed the gameplay mechanics. If they made an annual sequel in the vein of II, I would devour it every time.
The series has had many titles in Japan, though sadly only a few made their way to North America. Sword of Hajya (Gaiden II in Japan) came to the Game Gear the same year (1994) II was released. I never owned a Game Gear but with the titles recent release on 3DS, I’m looking forward to diving in. A few years later, Shining Force III came to North America for the Sega Saturn, though it was never fully realized. Shining Force II is in my top 5 games of all time (FFVI, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Link to the Past). I still have my original cartridge. Can I borrow someone’s Genesis?
I really didn’t like the cardboard case.