3 Difficulty levels
Ship speed selectable
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Developed by Hudson Soft / RED
Published by Hudson Soft in 1992
Gate of Thunder is often subject of two types of conversation topics as far as shmup fans are concerned. The game is frequently mentioned as one of the best PC Engine CD shooters while at the same time being pinned as a Thunder Force III rip-off. Well, after playing it for a few days all I can say is that the first affirmation is purely relative to taste. As for the associations with Thunder Force III, they’re positively valid but not in a derogatory way. After all, the secret of a well-made video-game is presenting a whole new experience built with ideas that worked well in previously successful games, hence the reason to face the nod to Thunder Force III as a compliment. NEC and Hudson Soft must’ve held the game in high regard as well, seeing that it was included as a pack-in title for the TurboDuo release in North America.
I’m a sucker for good music in my shooters, so watching the introduction to Gate of Thunder quickly instilled that warm feeling of impending awesomeness. This intro does a pretty good job at granting you the mission to stop an invading army from taking over the planet. You’re Hawk, you’re in control of a spaceship named Hunting Dog and you’re escorted by a cargo ship named Wild Cat, whose pilot is a beautiful girl called Esty. She’s the one responsible for bringing power-ups and shields during the seven missions/stages of Gate of Thunder. The rocking arrangements and the crisp sound of the CD media instantly remind you why the soundtrack to this particular game is so praised, even though it gets engulfed by the sound effects during the actual gameplay – a characteristic that unfortunately plagues many PC Engine titles.
First stage of an awesome ride
(courtesy of YouTube user Demiath)
All items brought by Esty initially float from right to left before disappearing on the bottom of the screen. All shot types must be first activated with the correct item before you’re able to select them using button I. Firing is accomplished with button II, while SELECT enables the choice between three different flying speeds. The very first weapon item also generates two pods/options above and below the ship besides granting the respective capability: blue (straight lasers), green (wave shot) and red (side/exploding shot). It takes two of the same items to achieve maximum power for each of these weapons, and it’s possible to see their level below the color indication in the HUD. Other items brought by Esty include chasing guided missiles (three for maximum power) and shields (green = 3 hits left, blue = 2 hits left, orange = 1 hit left). With the exception of the shield, whenever you are fully powered in a specific weapon the next corresponding item will create a vertical bar that crosses the screen from left to right, damaging enemies and melting bullets.
If you die you can say goodbye to the weapon you were using. The ship is respawned with the basic pea shot, so you’d better get a new color power-up fast to get those options back. Options block regular bullets and retract vertically as you move left and right, closing in automatically when pressed against a wall. Now here’s what’s really cool about them: you can shift their shooting direction by performing a quick tap on the fire button! I didn’t know about this during the first couple of credits, and had to do a little research when I accidentally made it happen… I guess most of the game can be played without shooting backwards, but at certain spots it certainly helps to kill bosses or clear the screen faster. By the way, unless you’re trying to milk destructible bullets that’s what the gameplay in Gate of Thunder is mostly made of: fast scrolling, fast enemies and bulky bosses that should be dispatched as fast as possible.
In most shmups the huge battleship (R-Type, we love you) often appears from stage 3 onwards, but not in Gate of Thunder. Here it happens in the first level, as if the game wanted to dazzle the player as quickly as possible with fancy graphics and several layers of parallax. Later the art design leans towards the insides of bases with lots of walls and metallic enemies but the occasional organic motif is still around, unexpectedly showing a feeble bit of influence from Insector X. As for the alleged Thunder Force III inspiration, it’s there indeed – not only in the way a few weapons work, but also in the design of several enemies and stages.
For its emphasis on darker tones and a somewhat tamer diversity in the level design, in my opinion the game is good but doesn't surpass the astonishing work done by Technosoft on the Mega Drive. Stages feel kinda samey after a while, and some of them drag a little when compared to others.
I always thought green looks pretty cool for any type of wave shot
Due to the generous assortment of extends (at 50, 120, 250 and 500 thousand points) and hidden 1UPs, beating Gate of Thunder in the default difficulty is a rather easy endeavor. Some tricky sections can cause deaths during the learning process, as well as a few bosses where you need to shoot a weak point that's exposed for a limited amount of time in between patterns. When the game is completed each life in reserve is converted into 25.000 extra points. The ending animation and accompanying music are just as cool as the intro, and once the initials are entered they get properly saved in the console's internal memory. In higher difficulties enemies arrive in bigger numbers and bosses decide to get considerably more aggressive with their attacks, but unfortunately all difficulty levels share the same high score board.
Gate of Thunder is definitely a favorite among PC Engine fans for some of the reasons stated above, and rightfully so. It's exquisitely put together, with steady action from start to finish, a simple albeit tight scoring system, a killer soundtrack, clear voices for weapons and items and surprisingly short loading times for a PC Engine CD title. A few years after it came out RED and Hudson Soft released the equally acclaimed Lords of Thunder, but even though there's no relation whatsoever between these games you still see them referenced as being part of the same "series".
My final 1CC high score on Normal is below, having cleared the game on one life. Afterwards I had an extra go on Devil difficulty (Very Hard) and lost my pods before reaching the 4th boss, getting quickly raped by his attacks... For now I'll be leaving Devil for a future opportunity!