If it’s not immediately apparent, I chose the header image above mostly because the row of phallus-shaped enemies summarized my feelings on Shining in the Darkness pretty succinctly. That’s not to say that the game is completely devoid of entertainment value, of course, because it has the same kind of inexplicable charm many games of the time possessed, but that’s not enough to make up for its painfully repetitive gameplay and poor communication about how things actually work. There are a large number of games from around the same time period that still hold up—including developer Climax Entertainment’s Landstalker, which tormented me when I was a child—but this can’t hold a candle to those timeless titles.
This is going to be a short review
Shining in the Darkness is an incredibly simple game despite its attempts to overcomplicate things by not giving you enough information to efficiently get through dungeon areas, so there’s really not that much to say about it. The basic story is that the kingdom’s princess is kidnapped, and the main character’s dad was protecting her at the time, so said main character is given a paltry amount of money and sent on his way to single-handedly rescue the princess from the labyrinth she’s probably in and reunite with his missing family in the process. There’s also a villain in the form of “Dark Sol,” who claims to have abducted her and wants the kingdom in return. None of this is ever explored in much detail, but it’s entertaining enough, and I was pleasantly surprised that the guy with the suspiciously evil-seeming eyebrows didn’t turn out to secretly be the villain. It’s also interesting how the things people at the castle say change as you progress, with it being possible to miss entire (non-crucial) events. For example, I went back to a previous save state—as with most Genesis/Mega Drive games I review for this site, I’m using the emulated versions from Steam—and found that returning to the castle at that point caused an appearance by Dark Sol where he taunts the main character. I don’t know how many things like that I missed, but I suppose this could be considered replay value.
This is one of those first-person dungeon crawlers where you move one square at a time, slowly working your way through a dungeon and dealing with random battles as you progress. This is something that’s actually done remarkably well here; I’ve mentioned before on this site that I have no sense of direction whatsoever and find it incredibly easy to become lost, and yet many of this game’s areas are designed in such a way that it’s easy to remember where everything is. The beginning area in particular uses puddles and wall torches to give you a sense of which way is forward and gently get you comfortable with the game’s movement system, and this is really well designed. The “trial” areas and (some) late-game areas, on the other hand, are a mess that appear deliberately designed to cause as much disorientation as possible. All trial dungeons—which are mandatory since they progress the story and eventually unlock these late-game areas—share the same “wooden walls” tile set, and some of them have really annoying gimmicks like hidden pits and mandatory items no one tells you about ahead of time that are maddening to find. It got so bad that I had to start following the right or left wall to slowly make my way around the perimeter toward the door (and all trials consist of you wander around looking for the door out). Overall, though? The area design is unexpectedly solid, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I still remembered my way around certain areas months from now.
The inventory is a mess
You know what the inventory in this game reminds me of? Juggling items between characters in Earthbound, trying to carry as many important-seeming items as possible because it’s never immediately obvious what will end up being important in the next area. Shining in the Darkness is even worse about this, as your characters can only carry 8 items (including 4 pieces of equipment, so they realistically only get 4 items each). As the game drags on, you become more and more weighed down by keys and orbs, and finding new equipment in a chest rapidly becomes a gamble. Do you throw away that valuable item you found to pick up a new weapon that might be worse than what you already have equipped? You can never tell how strong anything is until you actually pick it up and equip it, and certain characters in your group can’t equip certain equipment for random reasons, so the whole thing rapidly turns into a mess. Granted, this can be salvaged somewhat with liberal save state usage, but it’s a pretty slow process even if you do.
Everything is slow, actually
I played this game with Xpadder set up so that the L1 and R1 shoulder buttons on my Playstation 1 controller (which I use for all emulation—you could club someone to death with one of these things and it’d still function perfectly) activated and deactivated Cheat Engine’s speedhack. This is really the only way I got through the game without going crazy. From movement to combat and even the menus, everything feels like it’s constantly moving at half speed, and it was only when I sped things up to 2-3 times the normal speed that the game began to feel bearable. The combat, on the other hand, is so slow that I’d crank it up even faster. This is possible because holding down the confirm button accomplishes the same thing as tapping it, so you can crank up the speedhack while holding down the button to have everyone attack physically. This isn’t always smart, of course, but it made the frequent grinding sessions much more palatable than they’d have been otherwise.
[Hey, you. The video below has a lot of flashing in it from magical attacks, so if that’s the kind of thing that bothers you, it’s probably a good idea to not click on it.]
There’s way too much flashing
Graphically, I’d say the game is fairly strong. It’s certainly not mind-blowing pixel art, though some of it is definitely pretty great for the time, but you’re bound to be sick of the walls repeating by the time you get to the third trial. The character design is pretty solid, too, with an eclectic mix of people and animals that doesn’t really make a great deal of sense, but that’s kind of charming anyway. The big problem with the graphics would be the spells; Shining in the Darkness came out well before the infamous Pokemon episode with the flashing lights that caused medical issues (which is the point where developers in general started paying attention and designing their games’ effects more cautiously), and so the spell effects in this game consist of the screen flashing wildly. If you cast a freeze spell, the screen will flash blue. If a fire spell is used, the screen will flash red. It’s actually kind of painful to watch, and that’s speaking as someone not particularly affected by such things.
But hey, the music is strong
When I finally went back and beat Landstalker in 2015, I was surprised by how good the music was. Shining in the Darkness had a similar effect on me, and though I was admittedly listening to most of them sped up, I definitely enjoyed much of the soundtrack without reservations. Climax apparently had really competent musicians working on their games, and if I’m being honest, it kind of makes me want to go back and play more of their games to see how long that lasted.