Shining Force is a fucking weird game.
Originally a staple release for the Sega Genesis, my first exposure to Shining Force was actually through a special Sega Smash hits collection available on the Dreamcast and the PC. The best way to describe it is "prehistoric Fire Emblem gameplay set in a ridiculous world." It was a strategy RPG, but only "strategic" in the fact that you moved 8 idiots around on a map to hit other weirdos. It's the same kind of setup as Fire Emblem, but with simplified mechanics; sure, you could promote and equip characters, and use a variety of magic spells, but there were no permadeaths or advanced skillsets. The game's real hook was in saying "look at all these weirdos on my team." This is a game wherein your primary strike force will comprise of dwarves, elves, androids, birdmen, armadillo cyborgs, flying squids, werewolves, ninjas, and centaurs. You'll be fighting gargoyles, laser weapons, robotic skeletons from Doom, Darth Vader, and Slappy from the hit Goosebumps novel "Night of the Living Dummy." Absolutely none of this continent makes sense; one second you're in a medieval setting, the next minute you're in some weird underground robot factory, and then you're fighting ventriloquist dummies in a circus tent. Did I mention there are fucking lightsabers in this game?
Ok, you get the picture: Shining Force gets weird and makes no apology for it. Apparently, it was enough of a favorite for Sega to not only put it on many of their Greatest Hits CDs, but also completely remake the game from the ground up for the Gameboy Advance. This newer update, besides being an obvious visual and auditory rehaul, provides a much more enjoyable translation, balance tweaks, an expanded story, 3 new characters in an additional sidestory, and a whole slew of other improvements. For the sake of this rundown, I'll be using this definitive version of the game--it is, after all, the correct translation of the game, as opposed to the error-laden original on the Genesis.
Part of what makes Shining Force so much fun is its rather dumbed-down fights. You choose 8 fighters from your eventually-mammoth roster, you run around a turn-based map, and kill everything/reach a goal/destroy a machine thing. The nice thing about battles is that death carries zero consequence (unless the main character, Max, is bumped off.) You'll have to pay a negligible amount of gold for resurrection, but it's not a big deal; you're encouraged to throw your band of idiots into combat on a regular basis with no regard for their safety.
Let's talk a bit about the characters themselves. As stated before, the variety and number of strange people you'll recruit is staggering; what's even more ridiculous is how some of them are hidden and can't be found through simply walking through the story. Some recruits, like the insanely awesome Hanzou or the death machine Domingo, need to be sought out via some stupid puzzle or sequence of events. As you level up your dumb swordmens, you gain boosts to certain stats and sometimes gain a spell (if you're a magicmans, that is.) The odd thing about SF is that the stats are somewhat iffy; certain characters can be hit-or-miss, depending on the RNG on your current playthrough. Fighters like Zylo the werewolf or Hanzou the ninja will always be a cut above most of the crop, regardless of the random stat boosts--however, a good chunk of the roster may or may not reach full potential due to this roll of the dice. I realize generation of stats happens this way in many other games, as well--but it just seems like it's taken to a greater effect in Shining Force for quite a bit of the characters.
Mages in Shining Force are not that great. For one thing, the game has a dubious honor in not giving you options to refill your MP gauge. Once you've used up your spell energy, that's it for the rest of the battle.
This sucks on every conceivable level, especially because spells are pretty much the only way to hit multiple enemies with a big attack. Your only hope is to build up your mages to a point where you have lots of MP. Once you get better characters (and Domingo), chances are you'll drop any magic users besides maybe a healer--and even the healers suffer from the same magic drain problem. By taking magic users with you, you're basically utilizing a 5 or 6 hit wonder that becomes useless soon after. All of them should be eventually replaced when you get more characters.
When your weird werewolves and centaur knight fellows reach at least level 10, you have the option to Promote them into a more powerful form. You can wait until unpromoted dudes reach up to a max of 20, or send them into overdrive as soon as level 10 hits--it's up to you. Characters who have been maxed to 20 twice will usually have better stats, though.
This game is absurd in the number of fucking characters you get and situations you find yourself embroiled within. Shit, I can barely remember each character's special dialogues and stories they tell you between missions, so instead of going needlessly in-depth, I'll just knock off the top Shining Force Things that stand out to me.
1) ZYLO FUCKING OWNS
It's true; regardless of playthrough, Zylo the werewolf will always be one of the best characters on your team. In the original Genesis version, Zylo's upgraded Wolf Baron promotion enabled him to use GHOST WOLF SPIRITS to fight. In the GBA version, his standard appearance gifted him with adamantium claw gauntlets and a revamped Wolf Baron form gave him Izuna Death Drops. Zylo always hits hard, always tanks hard; Zylo is fucking great and should never NOT be on your team.
2) CHOKEPOINTS ARE TERRIBLE
A majority of the maps in SF fall into two categories: 1) big fuckoff open plains that take forever to travel across, or 2) labyrinth with annoying as fuck chokepoints that line your team up like shitty bowling pins. There are so many chokepoints in the game, I wonder if it was the developer's way of saying "use flying characters, idiot." These corridors only serve to stall fights and bring the action to a crawl for both sides. This design for levels should be fucking outlawed in all strategy RPGs, and it's unfortunate that SF is a huge perpetrator in this hellish practice.
3) GOD'S SATELLITE IS WATCHING YOU
Your main character, Max, is for all intents and purposes a generic swordsman who happens to be a bit more powerful than your other soldiers. Max learns 2 spells during the game: Egress, a retreat spell that can be abused to garner experience from repeat fights, and Supernova, which is basically a giant laser beam that shoots down from outer space. Only available in the GBA version, there is zero explanation as to why Max is capable of entreating God to smite enemies for him. It's batshit insane, badass to watch, and I love it.
4) THE NEW GBA SIDESTORY IS WEIRD
The GBA version of SF gives you a new set of side missions that occur every time you complete a chapter. These missions involve Narsha, the daughter of the big bad King, and her mission to free her country from the influence of the horned hellghast, Darksol. She's accompanied by a ninja insect man named Zuika, and a strange...thing named Mawlock. Narsha is basically a schoolgirl in combat boots, wields a mace, and uses support magic that is summoned by a weird robot satellite. Eventually, you get to add all 3 of these fuckers to your main roster. Narsha is pretty much required recruitment, since her attack-boost magic overpowers your dudes into godlike territory; Zuika, though, is stranger and employs a strange metamorphosis gimmick later on that is difficult to utilize properly. Mawlock's entire shtick is being able to use colelctable cards to emulate traits from other characters, and the only way to collect those cards is through Social Link shit with your party or finding them in odd places. Mawlock is part of the New Game+ as well, since he starts out with you in your second runthrough.
5) There is a useless character in this game
Through convoluted means, you can unlock a hamster with a football helmet named Jogurt (or Yogurt, depending on your version of the game.) He is the weakest charactr in the game, unable to kill pretty much anything or take a single hit. If you do somehow land the finish blow on anything with Jogurt, you get a Jogurt Ring. Equip a Jogurt Ring to transform one of your characters into Jogurt. Amazing.
Should you play Shining Force? My answer to this is yes. As Strategy-RPG games go, this one is as simple and harmless as they come, offering a watered down Fire Emblem without much of the min-maxing bullshit or permadeath. It's easy to play, has a relatively fun story and whackjob characters, and doesn't really stress you with huge difficulty spikes. Just pick Zylo if you get stuck, honestly. If you're looking to get into other strategy RPGs like FF Tactics, Fire Emblem, or even Ogre Tactics, this is a nice starting point if Fire Emblem or FE: Sacred Stones for GBA aren't your style.