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The shoot ‘em up genre is not for everybody. Shmups are normally associated with brutal difficulty which I would imagine turns many people off. I recently found myself enjoying the genre a lot more and I try to get my hands on as many shoot ‘em up games as I can. If you can get into shmups, they can stir up some interesting feelings. You may be just sitting in your living room playing a game but you’re also hurdling through space, through alien worlds, admiring your surroundings as you pilot your ship past floating obstacles and structures. It becomes quite apparent that you’re not welcome and the term “I come in peace” means nothing. Hostile ships are gunning straight for you so you jump into overdrive and quickly try to dodge an onslaught of incoming projectiles, lasers, and bullets. Blowing away enemy ships eventually becomes second nature and only your excellent piloting skills can ensure your survival. Mastering a shmup requires both skill and memorization and only through practice can you overcome the hordes of enemy forces. Fans of the genre will often recommend the Thunder Force series, specifically Thunder Force III. It’s often considered a great game for newcomers to the genre while still offering a challenge. Developed by Technosoft and published by Sega, Thunder Force III was released for the Sega Genesis in 1990. Known for it’s accessibility, excellent music, and action-packed gameplay, it’s easy to see why Thunder Force III is frequently on many lists of must-play Genesis games.
Normally arcade games are ported to consoles but in Thunder Force III’s case, the reverse happened. Thunder Force III was eventually ported to arcades, I think in 1990, re-named Thunder Force AC. This arcade release included some noticeable changes including stages and enemies borrowed from Thunder Force II. Interestingly enough, Thunder Force III was only released for Sega consoles but Thunder Force AC was ported to the Super Nintendo as Thunder Spirits in 1991. This was also the only Thunder Force game released for a Nintendo console. Thunder Force II and III were included in the Thunder Force: Gold Pack 1, released for Sega Saturn in 1996 and this was followed by the Thunder Force: Gold Pack 2, also released for the Saturn. Thunder Force: Gold Pack 2 includes Thunder Force AC and Thunder Force IV. Gold Pack 2 was the only way players could play Thunder Force AC at home, minus emulation, making this a somewhat unique release. Sadly, both Gold Packs were exclusive to Japan and you will require an Action Replay to play them on a North American Sega Saturn. Like many Saturn games, the Gold Packs are not easy to find and it took me years to acquire both in decent condition. Considering you can play all but one of these games, found in the Gold Packs, on the Genesis, I would consider these packs as novelties, especially since they’re not exactly cheap. For this review, I will be covering Thunder Force III for both the Genesis and Saturn, Thunder Force AC for Saturn, and Thunder Spirits for the Super Nintendo.
I’ve never played the first Thunder Force and never beat Thunder Force II but the story in III takes place directly after II. The Galaxy Federation has created the FIRE-LEO-03 Styx spacecraft. This is the ship you’ll be piloting and apparently it’s equipped with the firepower of a large Starfighter. From what I’ve read, the ORN Empire has installed cloaking devices on five planets in their territory to conceal their main base. It’s your job to navigate through each planet, destroy the cloaking devices, infiltrate the ORN Empire’s headquarters, and stop the Empire once and for all. Unless you read up, there’s no way to really know what the hell is going on but this is a shmup after all so the story isn’t really why you would play this. Basically you just need fly your ship through eight stages, destroy the bosses, and survive to win. Thunder Force AC and Thunder Spirits change up the ending a bit but it’s the same story in each game.
Just like in any other shmup, you start the game with a set amount of ships or lives. If you lose all of your lives, you can spend a credit or continue to keep playing. If you use up all of your continues, it’s game over. Thunder Force III actually consists of three difficulty modes – Normal, Hard, and Mania but there’s no obvious way to switch between them and I believe the game is automatically defaulted to Normal. However you wouldn’t know that unless you’re playing the Genesis game and enter the configuration menu accessed by a special button combination. From this menu you can also change your ships’ starting speed, change controls, and you even have access the various audio test options. I don’t know if the configuration menu is present in the Saturn version but if it is, I don’t know how to access it. That can be kind of a big deal for Saturn players who may have conquered the game on Normal and want to test their skills on a higher difficulty mode. I don’t believe the configuration menu is present in Thunder Force AC but you can access the diagnosis menu. From this menu, you have access to various test options, DIP switch assignments, and even bookkeeping data but I didn’t find a way to really change any of these options. I think the diagnosis menu is just an indication that the game was ripped straight from the arcade release. As soon as you start playing Thunder Force AC it’s immediately apparent that the game is much more challenging than Thunder Force III. I’ve read the difficulty in AC is equivalent to Mania in III but I really can’t confirm if that’s true. I can confirm that I suck and didn’t get nearly as far in AC as I did in any other version of the game. Thunder Spirits, on the other hand, is nowhere near as difficult as AC, and also nowhere near as good as any other version.
Thunder Force III lets you choose from any of the first five stages available. Once you choose, you will automatically progress through the rest in a pre-defined order. After beating these first five stages, you take the battle to the ORN Empire and will proceed to the final three stages. Shmups are all about repetition but the stage select is neat way of easing that repetitive feeling, allowing you to mix things up a bit. If you’re like me you’ll barely make it out of stage two unscathed before getting annihilated in stage three. Being able to select the starting stage is also a great way to practice and memorize the stage layouts and enemy placements. Thunder Force AC eliminates the stage select so you’re forced to progress through each stage in a defined order. If you manage to see that game over screen, you’ll need to start over from stage one. Because of it’s arcade origins, you have credits rather than continues but I found no way to emulate putting in more money for more credits so it’s not like you can even cheat the system and provide yourself with an endless supply of credits. If there is a way, I would love to know how to do it. The biggest downside is that you must play through each stage in the same order every time, so if you get bored or frustrated with shmups and repetition easily, Thunder Force AC may not be the version to start with. The stage select is also absent in Thunder Spirits.
Unlike its predecessors, Thunder Force III is purely a side scrolling shoot ‘em up with no overhead stages. The gameplay is pretty straightforward. You fly from left to right trying to destroy enemy aircraft and dodge incoming projectiles. Enemies not only come from the right but from the left, behind your ship, as well so you’ll always need to be alert. You can adjust your ship’s speed at any time during gameplay and by speed I mean how quickly you can move your ship around the screen, not how fast it actually flies. This is actually a really helpful mechanic. Some stages require you to navigate through small, tight corridors and if you’re set to maneuver at top speed you can easily crash. Thunder Force III and AC let you hold down the fire button to fire your weapons but in Thunder Spirits holding the fire button causes your ship to fire at a significantly slower rate and only by tapping the button quickly can you fire your weapons rapidly which is a huge problem. Not only did it tire my thumb out but it makes the combat a bit more challenging as well.
You’ll always have two basic attacks – a twin shot that fires straight ahead and a single shot that fires both forwards and backwards. You can acquire better firepower from weapon power-ups obtained from destroyed enemies or in specific locations within the stages. All of the actual weapons can be stored and you can switch between them at any time. When you die, you lose the weapon currently selected. The Sever weapon will replace your twin shot with big thick lasers. The Lancer upgrades the single shot and adds an additional stream of lasers to your rear shot. The Wave weapon is great for covering wide areas and does a lot of damage. The Fire weapon enables your ship to fire missiles straight up and down and the missiles will move along surfaces above and below you. The Hunter weapon is a homing set of spheres and can be quite useful if you don’t want to get too close to an enemy. The Claw is one of the best power-ups you can get. Once acquired, two claws will rotate around your ship, essentially doubling your firepower. And finally, you can acquire a shield that enables your ship to take more damage before blowing up.
The stages, or planets, vary in theme, and each include different enemy types and bosses and even environmental hazards. Each planet has it’s own name but because I don’t think I’m pronouncing at least two of them properly, I’ll just keep referring to them as stages. Enemies range from flying ships to giant snake-like things. Stage three always kicks my ass and is set on an underwater planet. In some areas of the stage, the water will push your ship upward and you’ll need to avoid some real annoying exploding enemies. Now unless you destroy them first, if they explode on their own, the explosions can destroy your ship which is usually what happens to me. In the second stage you’ll need to avoid the lava that spits out from the pits below. I think stage four is my least favorite in Thunder Force III. The platforms shift around and many times you need to be ahead of the platform before it shifts or you’ll crash. It’s one of those trial and error things where there’s no way for you to know it’s coming, making it real hard to avoid death on your first run. You absolutely must memorize this stage to be successful. Stage five is set on an ice planet and I think it’s actually easier than stage four. Much of the stage has you moving through smaller areas so lowering your ship’s speed is a good idea but the stage in general is relatively easy to navigate. The stages in Thunder Force AC and Thunder Spirits are a bit different. Stages four and five have been replaced with two stages from Thunder Force II and I honestly prefer these over the originals. All of the stages carried over from III have also been altered in some way but not too drastically. The stage layouts are a bit different and I noticed some different enemies but I think if you memorized the stages and enemy patterns in Thunder Force III, you won’t have a huge problem in AC. The bosses in all versions of the game are actually quite disappointing. Yeah, they’re big and mean but it doesn’t take long to bring them down and their attack patterns don’t consist of much.
Thunder Force III looked pretty amazing in 1990 and it runs without a hitch on both the Genesis and Saturn. The parallax scrolling looks great, the wavy and trippy background in stage two was jaw-dropping back in the day, and it’s hard not to notice the impressive amount of detail in the environments from the heavily wooded forest of the Hydra planet to the icy mountains of the planet Ellis. Although, I don’t think the game aged as gracefully as other 16-bit titles when it comes to the visuals. Some things just look very basic and simple like some of the enemy designs and explosions. As impressive as the detailed stages and backgrounds are, they can make it hard to see what’s happening during the action and because everything is so vibrant and colorful. The things that should be clearly visible like your ship and bullets don’t always stand out. When it comes to performance, Thunder Force III and AC run perfectly fine but Thunder Spirits is easily the worst offender. It feels slower paced and the frame rate dips constantly. The slower processor of the Super Nintendo just can’t seem to handle the speed and on-screen action and the game suffers because of it. Even with less enemies to deal with, whenever one or two enemies appear on-screen, the frame rate takes a serious shit.
When it comes to the presentation, there are differences in both the audio and visual departments between the versions. However, the audio differences are the most noticeable. Thunder Force III on the Genesis sounds great. The music is excellent and all the tunes are catchy and memorable. The sound effects are basic by today’s standards but they get the job done. The Saturn version has better quality audio in general but the music wasn’t emulated properly. It still sounds great and everything but from what I understand the music was just placed on the disk and it’s streamed during gameplay. Instead of continuously looping, the end of each song fades out before starting up again which threw me off at first. It’s not a huge deal or anything but considering the audio presentation was flawless by Genesis standards, it’s shame the same can’t be said about the Saturn version. The music in Thunder Force AC seems to be emulated properly but I’ve heard some say the sound effects are more “tinny” compared to III. I didn’t really notice that but even if it is, I don’t see it as a huge problem. Surprisingly, Thunder Spirits is the worst when it comes to audio. I say “surprisingly” because the Super Nintendo is known for producing better sound quality than the Genesis. Thunder Spirits includes modified or remixed music which just doesn’t sound as good as the other versions nor do the sound effects which just sound weaker and muted overall. It’s a shame that Thunder Spirits has no real redeeming qualities. Visually, each game is almost identical minus a few graphical differences. You may not even notice and the only differences I noticed were the explosion effects.
I would agree that Thunder Force III is a great game for newcomers to the genre but not so easy that it doesn’t require some mastery. Memorization is the hallmark of any great shmup and that’s no exception here. Even for an “easy” shmup like this, I still suck at it but I can see why Thunder Force III would be a perfect gateway to the genre. It welcomes you in the beginning and only attempts to destroy you towards the end. The challenges never feel impossible with a bit of practice and the bosses are just pushovers. For those who have mastered Thunder Force III, you may want to give Thunder Force AC a shot. The new stages and altered stage layouts should give you something to look forward to. However, buyer beware, you’re going to pay a hefty price for it. If you have never played Thunder Force III, I would recommend just getting the Genesis game which may even be the best out of them all. It may cost you a few bucks but nowhere near the amount you’ll spend for either of the Gold Packs for Saturn. The Genesis version lets you adjust the difficulty while the Saturn version has better sound quality but poorly emulated music. I think the two new stages in Thunder Force AC are better than those it replaced from III but the lack of a stage select is a real bummer. If anything, I would recommend acquiring the Genesis version of Thunder Force III and the Thunder Force: Gold Pack 2 for Saturn just because it provides a direct port of the Thunder Force AC arcade game. It also provides the best version of Thunder Force IV. Because of the cost of both Gold Packs, I would only recommend Thunder Force: Gold Pack 1 to serious collectors. It includes direct ports of both Genesis versions of Thunder Force II and III with minor audio issues so there’s no real reason to get it if you can acquire the Genesis games for much cheaper. As for Thunder Spirits, stay the fuck away from it. It sucks. If you really want to play a good shmup on the Super Nintendo, check out Space Megaforce or Axelay.