Saturday, May 24, 2014

Thunder Force III (Mega Drive)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1990


Even though the Mega Drive was already out since at least 1988 in Japan, it would still take the right games to finally cement its aura as one of the definitive video game machines in the console market. As a launch title Thunder Force II was decent enough to hold the attention of shooter fans, but it didn't quite represent the leap forward most people expected. On the grand scheme of things for Sega Thunder Force III might not be in the same league of a title like Sonic the Hedgehog, but I am pretty sure those who appreciated shmups back then were nothing less than blown away when they laid eyes on the game for the first time. To keep it simple, it was the first shooter to really showcase the true potential of the 16-bit generation.

Part of this success is certainly related to the changes made by Technosoft for the continuation of the series. Gone are the forced multidirectional stages of Thunder Force II, for example. Now it’s all about horizontal shooting, with a complete weapons overhaul and a very welcome speed selection feature. Crowned by polished presentation, sleek visuals and an outstanding soundtrack, the experience comes out as nearly flawless (voices are still scratchy but that's obviously irrelevant). Most impressive is the absolute lack of slowdown, no matter how busy the screen gets with multiple parallax and background layers. If you think that’s an overstatement, perhaps you might want to consider the fact that Thunder Force III is also one of the very rare instances of a console shooter giving birth to an arcade title.

A credit starts by choosing one of five planets to tackle first: Hydra, Gorgon, Seiren, Haides and Ellis. Once all of them are pacified you move onto Cerberus, the evil spaceship that guards the heart of the Orn empire. Every planet has its own particular setting and is preceded by a panel showing basic information on the boss to be defeated, such as its name and weak point. The way the music overflows from the panels into the levels themselves is a stroke of genius in establishing atmosphere, and I’m pretty sure many people regard levels Hydra and Gorgon as iconic staples of the series (not to mention the genre). I know there might be some inherent nostalgia when I say this, but in my eyes Hydra is synonym with the Thunder Force brand. Also note how the music volume is pumped up a notch whenever Gorgon starts against those awesome flaming backgrounds. It’s just so simple and yet so fulfilling.


The caves of Haides
(courtesy of YouTube user kamaji75)

Hydra and Gorgon being the highlights doesn’t mean the rest of the game is devoid of great moments. After all, variety is to be seen everywhere. The scrolling speed picks up every now and then, walls move up and down trying to crush the player in the Haides stage, water currents throw the ship upwards in planet Seiren and there’s a constant need to shoot ice blocks in order to clear the way in the diagonal scrolling parts of Ellis. I still remember the first time I saw the jaw-droppingly bright, beautiful waterfalls appearing in the final sections of Haides. The only negative thing I can say about the stage design in Thunder Force III is this: everything is so exquisitely put together in these five initial stages that the rest of the game fails to keep the same level of awesomeness. There’s nothing basically wrong with the final stages, but they somehow lack the punch of the planet levels. The huge spaceship approach looks too clean and is too easy, whereas the whole enemy base sounds a little repetitive. At least the bosses are sort of redeeming, which kinda compensates some of the pushovers from the starting levels.

Button A switches flying speed between four predefined settings, while button C switches the weapon type that’s fired by button B. In line with what makes shmups such a delight to play, these three simple inputs are more than enough to provide the gameplay with a high degree of flexibility and strategy. The bare ship is endowed with two basic weapons, the twin shot (forward vulcan) and the back fire (shoots backwards). All other weapons, including enhancements to the basic two, are acquired by hitting a small carrier and taking the released icons. The first and most important icon to get is the claw, which creates two permanent rotating options around the ship and strongly amplifies its firepower. Weapon items include sever (red S: upgrades twin shot with lasers), lancer (L: upgrades back fire), wave (W), fire (F: drops surface-crawling missiles above and below the ship) and hunter (H, weaker bubbles that target everything anywhere on the screen). This is also the order in which weapons are cycled by pressing C (twin shot → back fire → wave → fire → hunter).

Just as precious as the claw is the shield (blue S), an item that grants protection against three hits – when the protection level is down to the last hit the color of the shield shifts from blue to red. Sometimes you don’t need to count with shields to protect the ship because claws are also capable of absorbing regular enemy bullets. Lastly, icons for extra lives can be found in specific places, most of them requiring a swift or careful maneuver to be taken.

Dying causes the player to lose the weapon he/she is currently using (the only ones that will remain, although in their default conditions, is twin shot and back fire). However, when the game is played in higher difficulties all weapons are lost and you’re back to the default firepower. Choosing difficulties, remapping buttons and tweaking other aspects of the game is accomplished by pressing A, B or C + START during the start screen. Speaking of which, it feels natural for everybody to move to higher difficulties because Thunder Force III is a very easy game on the default setting (Normal). The reason for this is that besides the occasional 1UP items the game distributes score-based extends like lollipops on children's day, making it easy to amass over 20 lives by the end of it on a well-played credit. I didn’t even bother to check the exact extend rate to write this text.

After failing to qualify for Darius, King Fish decided to overtake Seiren

A lower challenge level at least makes this game a perfect fit for people who are new to the genre, but there are other factors that also make Thunder Force III a very good introductory shmup. Although seemingly straightforward, the scoring system comes with a shiny carrot at the end of the stick in the form of multiple bonuses when you beat the game. Each remaining life is rewarded with 10.000 points, each remaining credit is worth 50.000 points (so in a 1CC run you get an extra 350K) and each difficulty setting applies a different multiplier to the overall score. On Normal the multiplier is ×1, while on Mania (Very Hard) it’s ×5. And there you have it: if you want to score higher you need to face more hazards, more enemies, more (and faster) bullets and more aggressive bosses. Milking in Thunder Force III is possible, but only in certain areas and for a very short period. You’ll get nowhere by trying to milk minions thrown by bosses (they’re not worth anything), so the bulk of higher scores really comes from final bonuses + choice of difficulty.

Good games age like good wine and this one is no exception. I know of many people who consider it even superior to Thunder Force IV, which is often listed as the best Mega Drive shooter, and I can’t really argue with that because this game is really that impressive. In a sense it was decidedly more influential than the direct sequel, as seen by the release of Thunder Force AC in the arcades and the secondary port for the SNES called Thunder Spirits. How do they compare to the original? I hope to check them out soon for the first time, as I never touched either one before. :)

My efforts were successful and resulted in the following final score. I played on Mania and 1-lifed the game starting on Hydra, achieving an improvement of 26% over my previous best mark.

2 comments:

  1. When I was younger, I played Thunder Force III, but my first impressions not was so good. The game was harder that things that I usually played, things like Atari shoot 'em ups. But just played more a little to understand how the game is good, graphically, the precision controls and the awesome soundtrack. Not is good so good than Thunder Force IV, that I consider the best game in Thunder Force series, although I never had played the first game.

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    1. Who even cares about the first game anyway?
      However, I would totally dig an HD reworking with plenty of new features and the return of the crazy voice for THUNDER FOOOOOORCE !!!!!

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