While Shining Force continues to entertain players in some form or another with its own brand of deep tactical gameplay, it's worth remembering that the Shining line of games didn't begin life on a grid-based battlefield. The first instalment — Shining in the Darkness — was a first-person dungeon-crawler which owed a debt to the Atari ST classic Dungeon Master. It featured turn-based combat and established the iconic art style which was the trademark of the franchise until Camelot cooled its relationship with Sega and began working on Nintendo platforms, where it created the Golden Sun series of RPG titles.
Shining in the Darkness would spawn Shining Force, which proved to be even more successful. Despite this, Sega and Camelot decided to develop a direct sequel on the 32-bit Saturn console, and in 1996 Shining the Holy Ark was launched. The game takes the pre-rendered visual style seen in Shining Wisdom — Camelot's attempt to take the series into Zelda-style realms — and refine it. The use of CGI sprites — a common sight during the mid-90s — wasn't without its drawbacks and Holy Ark does occasionally look a little rough around the edges, but Camelot would stand by the approach right up until the release of Golden Sun: The Lost Age on the Game Boy Advance in 2002.
The sprites may be a little inconsistent, but the 3D backgrounds are a little more appealing. Holy Ark takes place in several varied environments, ranging from dark forests to gloomy underground caves. The different locations make the game feel fresh and exciting, and the already striking atmosphere is accentuated greatly by Motoi Sakuraba's (Shining Force III, Namco's Tales series) excellent soundtrack. The subtle tunes which accompany the exploratory sections build up the tension perfectly, making the quaint music which plays when you're in the relatively safety of a town all the more relaxing. Then there's the infectiously rousing battle theme, which has to rank as one of the best in any RPG.
Despite its reliance on tried-and-tested turn-based combat mechanics, Holy Ark is still as playable and enjoyable today as it has ever been. There's more interaction with non-player characters than there was in Shining in the Darkness, with several towns and villages to explore. Another unique feature is the use of "pixies" which can be deployed the moment a battle commences, dealing out instant damage to enemies. These are hidden throughout the game and can dramatically change your battle tactics if used effectively.
While Shining Force has survived Camelot's departure and continues to see new entries in its native Japan (the last was Shining Ark on the PSP, released early last year), Sega has all but forgotten about the first-person sub-series. The void left by Camelot has resulted in several different developers becoming involved, and as a result there has been little in the way of continuity or direction. Remastering Holy Ark would be the ideal way to get back to the roots of Shining and convince western players to care about the franchise again. The game's visuals would look fantastic on the 3DS; those 3D dungeons would translate perfectly to the console's auto-stereoscopic display and the touch screen could be used to assign commands and interact with your inventory.
Porting the game wouldn't be an easy task — the Saturn is a notoriously difficult system to emulate — so whoever took on the task may need to build it from the ground up. However, the effort would result in a solid addition to the 3DS library of RPGs and could even pave the way for other remastered Saturn releases. Like Nintendo, Sega has a back catalogue packed with classics and it's high time that it started to exploit some of the gems from its illustrious 32-bit period.
Do you have fond memories of Shining the Holy Ark? Or is this a game you'd previously not heard of? Share your thoughts on a possible re-release by posting a comment below.