Camelot: A Model of Modernity


I have been writing a lot recently about the many creative and technical successes that Sega had throughout the tenure of their last two home consoles, and this-coupled with the recent discussion of the Mass Effect series-brought me towards the interesting, yet only recently celebrated option, of importing a save file into a game in order to impart some level of influence upon the overall story arc. I cannot state for certain when this was first implemented, or by whom, but as far as I am concerned, the first instance of its successful implementation occurred way back in 1998 in a criminally underrated, yet seminal RPG for the Sega Saturn. This feature, that was the impetus for my train of thought, is one of the key components that initially made Mass Effect such a wonderful concept, and the recipient of substantial critical acclaim. Spurred on by this, I naturally wanted to revisit this landmark RPG title, so that I might see how well it stands up today.

Established in 1990 as a division within Sega Enterprises, Sonic! Software Planning (originally known as Sega CD4) were responsible for the creation and development of one of the company’s most beloved franchises, Shining Force. Initially co-developing the first two entries in the series with Climax Entertainment (creators of the classic RPG, Landstalker), before assuming complete control over every release to bear the Shining Force name between 1992 and 1998, which finally culminated in the team’s greatest achievement, the three part (four if you count the Premium Disc) magnum opus, Shining Force 3.

Shining Force 3 was an incredible game for so many reasons; it had a wonderful, strategic battle system, an epic story, a great soundtrack and beautiful graphics which played to the strengths of the Saturn hardware, featuring a wonderful mixture of 3D polygon constructed areas and detailed character sprites. The huge collection of optional team members that could be recruited to join the ranks of the player’s team was astounding and, unlike the majority of RPGs that get released today, it refuses to treat its fans as though they have the mental capacity of a corpse (yes, Square, I’m looking at you). By comparison to most modern efforts, the sheer depth of Shining Force 3’s narrative and setting, divulged across a story that ties together three separate acts, could very well be described as convoluted, but I prefer to use the term complex myself.

In the first scenario (each part of the trilogy is referred to as a scenario), this one is known as “God Warrior of the Kingdom”, players assume the role of Synbios, a young lord from the independent state of Aspinia-which had formerly been a part of the Destonian Empire-but, seeking to distance themselves from the totalitarian regime of Emperor Domaric, had left to establish their own state. These events take place prior to the start of the game, of course, but are discussed in depth in some of the early dialogue. Since their split, however, tensions between the two have been progressively rising, escalating into numerous skirmishes between their forces along the border, and it is here, that the player enters the fray, at a peace conference between the two nations, held in the neutral city of Saraband. Naturally, this meeting does not go well, as the conference is sabotaged by an evil cult, The Bulzome Sect, which sees the two nations plummeted into full scale war. In this first part of the story, Synbios and his party must battle away, against the backdrop of escalating violence, to identify the real forces at work, which at times involves working with the young Prince Medion of Destonia, who recognises that Aspinia is not his country’s real threat.

In the second scenario, or “Target: Child of God”, players assume control of Prince Medion and his forces as they also do battle with the forces of the Bulzome sect, along with various separatist factions that have helped to orchestrate the onset of war. The actions of this party run parallel with the goings on of the first game, even seeing Medion doing battle with the crooked forces of Aspinia so that Synbios and his own party need not fight their own countrymen. This episode climaxes in a showdown between the forces of both Synbios and Medion-only for the games true hero, Julian, to step into the fray and put an end to their in-fighting.

Scenario three, “Bulzome Rising”, is based around the character of Julian, who makes appearances in both of the previous instalments, but only this time does he find himself as the main protagonist rather than as a seemingly inconsequential team member. His own story is a personal one, he is hunting down the vandal, Galm, whom he believes to have murdered his father-this was actually first introduced in the previous game, Shining: The Holy Ark. Here, players could encounter him as a young boy, desperate and alone, seeking assistance to find his missing parent. In scenario two, Julian is found washed ashore (after being thrown from a cliff in his first confrontation with Galm), and agrees to help Medion do battle with the Bulzome sect, as he is keenly aware of their ties to the resurrection of the vandals. The particular story arc of this concluding episode, starts somewhere over half way through the events of scenario two and culminates in Julian leading all three parties into battle against the evil vandal, Bulzome-the real mastermind behind everything that has transpired.

Thankfully, players have the option of changing the names of the protagonists at the very beginning of the game, these choices are carried across when the player moves from one scenario to the next, importing their save file as they do so. Also, during this process; players import the additional characters that they have managed to recruit, choices made at the various points throughout the games where the intertwining storylines meet, as well as the stats of each and every character. It is surely impossible to not be impressed by the fact that Camelot managed to pull this off almost ten years prior to the release of the original Mass Effect, it is surely a glorious achievement in gaming, and one that should have garnered them universal acclaim, but sadly, this was not the case.

It is deeply saddening that only the first scenario of the saga was released outside of Japan, limiting the game’s exposure, and rendering the majority of Western gamers unable to properly complete the story. Typically, it has left both the game, and its talented creators, as relatively unknown quantities in the West, which has been something that Sega have thus far failed to remedy. There was some discussion two years ago about a possible re-release of the three games, but sadly, this too failed to materialise, despite the growing market for traditional RPG titles such as this. The Shining series took something of a down turn following the completion of these three entries, and the departure of developer, Camelot, who severed ties with Sega and promptly set to work for Nintendo, creating not only a plethora of Mario sports titles, but also the highly lauded, Golden Sun. Personally, I feel that a re-release of Shining Force 3 might very well be exactly what Sega needs to re-establish its famous RPG series, and in doing so, finally earn it the attention that it so desperately deserves.

In summation then, Shining Force 3 is a wonderful and complex moment in gaming history, and one that has thus far mostly passed under the radar of gamers, as well as the professional journalistic profession, who have since heaped so much praise upon BioWare for a mechanic that they didn’t even pioneer. Of course, I’m not going to claim that Camelot used this concept first, I don’t know who did, but regardless, if we are still so impressed by its usage today, try to imagine how it felt in 1998? Or perhaps, you should simply discover for yourself.

– James Paton @theblackpage81

3 comments on “Camelot: A Model of Modernity

  1. Nice retrospective.  While other games had utilised communicative saves, to the best of my knowledge this was the first time that a game’s narrative was significantly influenced by them.  It should be pointed out that thanks to the hard work of the fan community there’re translation patches available for these games.  Parts 2 and 3 are pretty cheap (especially by Saturn game standards) so anyone who has wanted to experience the trilogy but was put off by the language barrier can now do so.  English versions of the first part still command a premium price point though.  

    The Camelot era Shining games have grown to become my favourite series of games over the years.  l wouldn’t necessarily say 3 is under-rated, more under-appreciated through being lost to history.  It was critically well-received and is regarded by the majority of the community as the best game in the series, however, due to many people not playing it at the time and the eBay price now acting as a formidable barrier to entry, it’s not a classic that gets “discovered” by newer gamers.  The quality of subsequent games has been all over the place as well which isn’t winning the series many new fans who may be inclined to seek the game out.  This is no doubt compounded by its traditional rival Fire Emblem continuing to thrive, the emergence of the Disgaea and Valkyria Chronicles series plus the availability of Yasumi Matsuno’s seminal titles Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together on PSP/Vita.  Anyone who’s only played a post-Camelot Force game and those couldn’t be blamed for dismissing Sega’s TRPG series as an also-ran in a genre populated by many exceptional games.  

    l fear a re-release may never happen though as the source code could be lost forever lIke other Saturn games including Panzer Dragoon Saga.  Even with it, ports of Saturn games wouldn’t be a trivial task and Sega aren’t taking many financial risks at the moment.  Their recent track record of Japan-only releases ( Valkyria Chronicles 3, Yakuza 5 & lshin, Phantasy Star Nova to name a few) indicates there ‘s a good chance the West wouldn ‘t see it anyway.  l think a more realistic expectation/ hope is a full-blooded Shining Force 4 handled by the Valkyria team.  

    And you know what?  I’d welcome that.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for this series of posts on Sega. Do you have any more planned? Growing up I wasn’t exposed to much from Sega other than the inevitable Sonic, but experiencing Sega’s glory days now in retrospect has been way more rewarding and filled with unique experiences than I expected. I haven’t gotten round to Shining Force 3 or Burning Rangers yet, but your posts are telling me I really ought to! What I really admire about Sega’s output overall at the time is the originality and ambition. Even a game like Shining Force 3, which belongs to a pretty formulaic genre, has those original features that you talked about, like the way saves carry over and affect the other titles in the series. And of course the sheer ambition of turning what you’d expect to be a single entry in a series into a trilogy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have a further two entries in my Creative Years series coming in the near future, these will look at the legendary Shenmue and Phantasy Star Online, but who knows, I may yet do even more! Thanks for reading my retrospectives, I’m glad that you have enjoyed them so far!

      – James

      Liked by 1 person

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