The Game Gear didn’t have a lot of RPGs in its catalogue, but those that it did produce were some of the best hand held experiences at the time, especially in the field of Tactical RPGs. The best of these are, of course, extensions of Sega’s classic Shining Force series.
That ‘Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya’ saw release in English while it’s direct predecessor didn’t is something of a mystery. Both games were fantastic on the Game Gear and use the same engine to run. More confusing is that Hajya (called Gaiden II in Japan, where the word ‘Gaiden’ literally means ‘side story’) is a direct sequel to Gaiden, and although you don’t have to have played the first to enjoy the second, it’s more fun to play them in the correct order. Sadly this involves downloading a rom and emulating it for the average individual, and will require a look into the archives of Shining Force Central for a fan translation of the games plot. Personally I’ve always felt that ‘Shining Force CD’, which remakes both titles into one new game, makes up for this fact.
Visually, the Game Gear isn’t capable of supporting the kind of high-level graphics that 16-bit consoles like the Mega Drive were pushing at the time. It did however display games in colour, and whilst this sucked on battery life it did give it one small advantage for developers over the more successful Game Boy handheld in that regard. The screen size is dramatically reduced from a television set, but manages to display a 10 by 8 grid on which battles are fought and with sprite work that is distinct enough from one character to another, and panning environments, the scenarios play out over some quite large areas. Character portraits are included, as are battle animatics that show off bigger sprites in combat when attacking and defending. These features, which could easily have been cut to make life easier when programming the game and save on limited memory space, manage to bring a level of polish to the title that was almost unheard of at the time. One glance at the game is enough for any player to recognise that it’s a Shining Force title.
Musically, this game manages to push some interesting tunes out of the Game Gear, whilst many retain a high-pitch they show variety and are appropriate for most story sequences, matching the emotion of a scene. Sadly however they are a little shrill for prolonged listening. Sound effects actually fair very well, with most being similar if not the same as those seen on the console versions of the series. There’s a familiarity to these that makes the game feel like less of a stripped down version and more legitimate as an entry into the series canon.
Although this game is a direct sequel to ‘Gaiden’ it is possible for the narrative to be enjoyed as a standalone title. Taking place two months after the end of its predecessor, the story revolves around a young man named Deanna and his companions, all of whom are initially young and inexperienced soldiers in the Cypress army. The protagonist of the previous game (Nick) has left the castle in order to go to war against the followers of Iom, an aggressive foreign nation and leaves behind the powerful sword of Hajya because he is unable to wield it, his right arm having been turned to stone at the climax of the previous title (this is better outlined in the extended CD adaption). He leaves Deanna and those too green to fight to guard the castle and subsequently the sword, with close ally Mayfair in charge. An attack on the castle and the stealing of the blade leads the game on an extended chase to reclaim it.
Gameplay is essentially traditional Tactical RPG standards, with combat taking place on a grid that covers a variety of scenery including grassland, stone, water and forest. Different characters cope with these environmental hazards differently, with flying characters able to ignore it entirely, and the usually more manoeuvrable Centaurs getting hung-up in forest areas. Players command a unit at a time from their squad, moving and attacking available targets. Spells, items and physical attacks are all represented well here, and it feels like the bulk of the Shining Force experience has been preserved. Short conversations between battles help to forward the story and usually set up the next battle quickly. Unfortunately the one thing that did make the cut was free-exploration. This means that the game herds you between battles without areas to spend time exploring, towns to visit and NPCs to chat to. In their place is a camp screen that contains the games shop, for weapons, armour and items, a church to heal the party and barracks to select your units. Character promotion has been kept however, as has the ability to save your game. Unlike modern Tactical RPGs, you can approach monsters from any direction and deal the same damage and pass through friendly troops. Holding the start button down also helps to unclutter the screen and let you look around by removing the menus.
Overall, Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya is a fun tactical title that still holds up well today. Sadly the bother of reading the games prequel independently from the title itself due to the lack of an English translation makes the games story feel slightly diminished in scale, but what is incorporated into the game itself is a fun romp through a familiar fantasy world. I’d personally recommend tracking it down if you own a Game Gear, or purchasing the extended ‘Shining Force CD’ edition for the Mega CD if you can, however a recent release on the 3DS’ online store has made it infinitely easier to get a hold of and play this title at a cheaper price.