The Bottom Line: I can't believe I'm really the first person to review a game this beloved!
It may be very hard to imagine, but there was a time a long time ago when Sega didn't have Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic and Sega are of course synonymous because Sega uses him as their mascot. But back in the earliest days of 16-bit gaming, before the Super NES ran neck and neck with Sega, the only machines in existence were NEC's TurboGrafx-16 and the Sega Genesis. Sega, wanting badly to snatch up some of Nintendo's impossibly huge market share, could do little more than advertise, sign famous names to license their products, and make great games in attempts to slowly chip away at the towering colossus known as Nintendo.
Sega's games were capable of holding their own while lifting the Genesis to higher ground. There are in fact quite a few classics which appeared on the Genesis before Sonic burst through the video game speed barrier. Altered Beast was a popular arcade game which came packed with the Genesis. Sega's invincible arcade library - which included Golden Axe - helped move units. Wonderful original exclusives like Revenge of Shinobi, Phantasy Star II, and the brilliant Toejam and Earl found large followings. Big name stars like Joe Montana, Tommy Lasorda, and Michael Jackson all lent a hand, eager to sign their names to the promising technology wielded by the Genesis.
Among the standouts from that early time was a dungeon-crawling RPG known as Shining in the Darkness. While Shining in the Darkness never got the star treatment its peers received, it did build up one of the more massive and devoted cult followings in video games. Shining in the Darkness developed such a following that Sega has created an underground series which are very loose offshoots of it. It was the original game in what Sega fans affectionately refer to as the Shining series, which continues to this day and includes such titles as Shining Force, Shining the Holy Ark, and Shining Soul. And yet, one of the most universally agreed upon ideas in gaming is that throughout the games and gameplay differences and risks and originality shown, Sega has never managed to reach a higher summit with the Shining series. Shining in the Darkness was the first and it is still the pinnacle.
This may be because Shining in the Darkness is still the most unique game in the series. It is the only Shining game which gives the player a first-person viewpoint. It is still the only one which used a single dungeon, a single castle, and a single village. It may be because it has a rather traditional battle system. But whatever the reason, Sega loyalists still revere Shining in the Darkness as one of the truly great games of the entire Silver Era, and a classic which has withstood the ravages of time even after nearly 20 years.
One dungeon, one castle, and one village certainly doesn't sound like a lot of gameplay time. But Sega is amazing in their resourcefulness. They managed to create many happy hours of dungeon wandering simply by turning that single dungeon into a nightmare of many different layouts, creating an entry dungeon, a handful of tests, and a multi-layered labyrinth to hack and slash your way through, fighting to reach the final chamber where Dark Sol awaits. Giving the labyrinth a first-person view was a smart move because it keeps the game from being too short and unfulfilling. It may seem like Sega was merely trying to pad the game by doing this, but Shining in the Darkness is laid out in a way which challenges your ability to use resources sparingly and keeps you on your toes. It never ceases to be a challenge, and the sudden battles make sure you never get bored.
The battles are pretty standard by the bar of regular RPGs. As you wander around the dungeon, you'll see silhouettes suddenly pop up and the monsters appear. The transition from dungeon crawling to fighting a battle is done quickly and beautifully and so it doesn't disrupt the game at all. You get options to attack, use items, use magic, and run away. Once you select what you're going to do, you then have to select who or what you're going to do it to. Like any normal RPG, there will be strategy involved if you're not leveled up quite enough. And like in way too many RPGs, the run away option might as well be broken because in situations in which you're trying to spare hit points and magic points in order to escape, the game very rarely lets you take off.
The game takes place in the Kingdom of Thornwood. It begins, of course, with your average princess performing the only role she has in the video game hierarchy, which is to get kidnapped by an evil villain. In this case, the villain takes her into the labyrinth. It's up to you to wander into the labyrinth are rescue her. You start out alone but early on in the game you meet up with your two buddies, Pyra and Milo, who flank you in the dungeons as you try not to get too lost. Pyra and Milo provide assistance of great importance; you, as the main character, cannot use magic, but they both can. Pyra is the witch of offensive magic. Milo, being an apprentice or something at the local church, is the healer.
The progression of the game is a unique thing even today and it is very well done. You find hints at what to do next and what's going to happen next by chatting up the royal family at the castle or by visiting the townies drinking themselves silly at the village pub. They leave little hints, and since the game doesn't involve traversing dozens of villages across four continents, they are mostly pretty easy to figure out. All of the characters in the bar and castle have different personalities and are delightful to talk to. Even the father over at the church - where you save your game - has things to say sometimes. Some people have qualms with the fact that everything is done by scrolling, but the scrolling layout actually makes things move a little bit faster. And you are spared the tedium of having to talk to everyone in the whole village before activating some kind of event.
The labyrinth isn't quite the most confusing layout in the world, but there aren't a whole lot of landmarks. Usually the landmarks come in the form of more open spaces and the occasional torch. Graph paper is a definite help but I can actually say it isn't the greatest necessity you'll have to bring with you to Thornwood. Your greatest necessities will be your strategic approach and weapons because the enemies in the labyrinth are no pushovers. And there are a lot of them. Worse is the fact the game only gives you a small amount of gold to start out with - 300, I think, which isn't enough to get a lot. I spent it all on a longsword and decided kamikaze was the way to go until I had enough to buy more.
The graphics are bright and colorful. They don't really move a whole lot, and there's no animation except for the occasional wiggling of an enemy and repetitive motions of the royal family and bar patrons. But the character designs are fantastic, and the dungeons are brightly lit and colored and laid out well. The scrolling effect used in the dungeons is excellent, and I don't recall another Genesis game ever scrolling that effectively. Not so good for the forgettable sounds.
The gameplay is menu-driven when you're not in the labyrinth. When you're in the labyrinth, you move slow and turn slow. Turning into a new corridor can be tricky at first - you have to be pretty much right on top, almost to the point where you can't see the corridor you're trying to turn into until you actually turn into it.
Shining in the Darkness is an early gem for the Genesis. If you're lucky enough to own it, treasure it.