Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Shining In The Darkness

Of all the old-school grid-based dungeon crawlers I've ever played, Shining In The Darkness is definitely somewhere in the middle.

This is a 1991 Sega MegaDrive game (or Sega Genesis to all you Americans), available through the Wii Virtual Console. It's a Japanese-style RPG that sees you trekking through a multi-levelled dungeon, mapping the crap out of the place using grid paper while fighting off random monster encounters and looting all and sundry from the local treasure chests. The game displays from a first-person view, which is pretty much its most memorable feature.

If you can believe it, there used to be a ton of games like this. Shining In The Darkness is clearly modelled on the dungeon segments of Sega's 1987 Phantasy Star. That game came out on the vastly more primitive Master System, so it's an embarassment that Shining looks mostly the same.

Genre enthusiasts will also put Shining next to classics like Eye of the Beholder (1990) or Dungeon Master (1987). It compares poorly; those games featured real-time combat, complex inventory management, deep character customisation and some quite fiendish and varied dungeon puzzles. Shining has none of those things.

What Shining does have is a lot of enthusiasm and focus. The art style is full of life, particularly the town and castle segments. The game is reasonably concise and doesn't go for a minute longer than it needs to (total play with an FAQ is maybe 12 to 15 hours). The dungeon layouts are fair and understandable. The magic system is reasonably well balanced, although you'll want to read up on it in a walkthrough as there's no help text to be found in the game. And while there's a lot of level grinding, it's reasonably well-hidden behind mini-goals that call on you to retread the same dungeon corridors again and again.

The game's biggest failing is the random encounters. Encountering a potentially lethal group of monsters every few steps means you'll want to keep your travel routes short. This means a lot of frustration for hardcore mappers, and a large chunk of the game bypassed for those willing to consult an FAQ. Also, levelling up starts to feel a little pointless once the monsters cast spells, which bypass your armour and defence stats to inflict unvarying amounts of damage.

For a certain sort of gamer, all of the above is just more of an incentive to play. There's something really satisfying about sketching map layouts on grid paper while grinding obscene amounts of level-ups. In its crazy extinct little sub-genre, Shining is by no means the king, but it's also a long way from the bottom. It soars high above videogaming offal like Double Dungeons, and its simplicity, focus and charm make it a much more user-friendly experience than, say, the original Bard's Tale or Might and Magic.

If this sort of obsessive-compulsive trawling of 10 x 10 stone corridors is the sort of thing you've ever enjoyed, then Shining In The Darkness is probably a game you should be familiar with. But if you've so far managed to avoid this whole gaming menagerie, you're much better served downloading a copy of Eye of the Beholder.

Man, I've got to go play Eye of the Beholder again.

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