Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar (Genesis)

Sucks to be you, humanbeings!

I may have spoiled myself when it comes to shooters on the Genesis. I’ve only played two so far: Compile’s excellent M.U.S.H.A. last July and now Technosoft’s Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar, better known as Thunder Force IV. Based on how many discussions online seem to revolve around which of these two is the all-time best for the system, I’m clearly on a roll. Of course, that could just mean that it’s all downhill from here….

Though now most closely associated with the Sega’s 16-bit console, the Thunder Force series got its start on Japanese home computers in 1983. The original Thunder Force was a relatively slow free-roaming overhead shooter. It wasn’t until 1988’s Thunder Force II that gamers would be introduced to the fast-paced side-scrolling action that would define the series from that point forward. It’s this entry from 1992, however, that’s generally considered to be the high point of the saga as well as one of the greatest horizontal shooters of all time.

Set in the 22nd century, the Thunder Force games chronicle the ongoing war between the Galaxy Federation and a tenacious armada of evil cyborgs called the ORN Empire. The ORN are led by a rogue bio-computer called Khaos that wants nothing more than to eliminate all us inferior humans and only the crew of your lone Fire LEO-04 “Rynex” space fighter can save the day. Insert my standard “nobody plays shooters for their stories” spiel here. That bring said, you may still be wondering what this “Quest for the Darkstar” business is all about. Well, it’s simple: Damned if I know! I played this game from start to finish, read the instruction manual from cover to cover, and I still couldn’t tell you what this subtitle is supposed to mean. Considering that the marketing genius who retitled the game for release in North America wasn’t even aware that there’s no E in “lightning,” are you really that surprised? In fact, I think I’m just going to call this one Thunder Force IV from here on out.

Much like its off-the-rack story, a simple summary of Thunder Force IV’s gameplay features reads a tad dry if you have any experience at all with similar games. As a title comprised of roughly 1% novelty and 99% peerless execution, my greatest challenge by far in formulating this review has been to somehow convey a fraction of the excitement in store here for perspective players without being able to physically shove controllers into their hands and point them at the tv. I’ll do my best, of course, but do bear this in mind.

There are ten total stages separating you from the end credits and you actually have the option of playing the first four in any order you choose. Each has a climactic multi-phase boss fight waiting at the end and there’s invariably at least one mini-boss to dispatch along the way, too. While the action in Thunder Force IV primarily scrolls from left to right, most stages also have a few screens worth of vertical space to them. In practice, this means that there’s a high route and a low route open to you, each with its own hazards and power-ups. Knowing where the worst baddies and best goodies are in each stage can make your mission considerably easier, so be sure to explore when you can. You might even find yourself fighting different mini-bosses on occasion, depending on the route you take.

Your ship has two weapons by default: A forward-facing Twin Shot and a rear-facing Back Shot. You can upgrade these to more powerful versions (called the Blade and Rail Gun) by collecting power-up icons, as well as acquire three additional special weapons with their own unique properties: Snake launches missiles above and below you that are great for taking out targets on the walls and ceilings, Free Way shoots a wide spread of missiles in the opposite of whichever direction your ship is currently moving, and the coveted Hunter fires off a stream of homing energy shots that negate the need to aim completely. You can cycle through your full arsenal of weapons at will. Just be aware that losing a life while you have a special weapon equipped will remove it from your inventory, so sometimes it’s better to keep certain items (like the overpowered Hunter) in reserve as you make your way through a stage if you know there’s a really tough boss waiting for you at the end.

Other helpful items you’ll encounter are 1-ups, a shield that allows your ship to absorb three extra hits before being destroyed (effectively equal to three extra lives and therefore the most desirable pickup in the whole game), and the Claw. The Claw is Thunder Force’s equivalent of the Option satellites from Gradius and takes the form of two spheres that orbit your ship and provide some extra firepower while also blocking enemy bullets. Once you reach the game’s halfway point, the Claw gets upgraded and from that point on also grants you access to the ultimate weapon: The Thunder Sword. Each use of the Sword requires several seconds of charging time, during which you’ll have to refrain from firing your other weapons. Once unleashed, however, it deals insane damage to anything in front of you, even taking out bosses in just a few shots. Mind that recoil, though! Few things are more embarrassing than getting shoved back into a wall and exploded by the force of your own super attack.

True to the series’ reputation, the action in Thunder Force IV is fast and furious. So much so, in fact, that if you’re used to more restrained horizontal shooters like Gradius and R-Type, it’ll probably take some getting used to. I personally had to re-train myself to not hang back so much, since the enemy placement here takes into account the fact that you can shoot behind you as well as straight ahead. My first play session consisted largely of cursing as I was repeatedly annihilated by fast-moving foes entering the screen from the left. When in doubt, keep toward the center.

Fortunately, your ship handles like a dream, so I was able to do much better once I finally got used to the fact that I could be attacked from any direction at any time. Instead of relying on power-ups to regulate your speed, you have a manual throttle that cycles between 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% of maximum with the press of a button. You can even hold down the button to adjust speed in increments of 1% at a time. This latter feature is equal parts cool and silly. I highly doubt that there’s some elite pro strategy out there that only works at precisely 47% speed or whatever, but it never hurts to have options, right?

That’s Thunder Force IV. On paper, anyway. Like I said, you’ve probably encountered a lot of these same mechanics before. The X factor here is the positively blinding degree of polish. The difficulty is the epitome of tough-but-fair and the gameplay is so fast, so fluid, and so well-balanced that I could scarcely tear myself away. Normally when I finish a game, I’ll switch it off and begin gathering my thoughts so that I can eventually commit them to writing as I am now. The first thing I did when I reached the end of Thunder Force IV was go right back to the title screen and do it all over again. The painstaking care and attention lavished on every aspect of the experience is awesome to behold and the game as a whole is anything but generic.

It also looks flat-out majestic. The graphics make such deft use of the system’s limited color capabilities that you could easily believe that you’re looking at a Super Nintendo game the majority of the time. Many of the stage backgrounds utilize multiple layers of parallax and line scrolling to create the impression of considerable depth and blazing speed. The oceans of the water planet Strite in particular have to be seen in motion to be believed, as do the undulating river of lava in the caverns of Desvio and the massive sandstorms raging across the surface of Daser. The game’s bosses are as colossal and pants-crappingly imposing as you could hope for, but even the smallest sprite is rendered with tremendous attention to detail and smoothly animated. These would be considered best-in-class visuals for the Genesis in 1995, never mind 1992. The only downside to all this eye candy is the slowdown. Not even that famous Motorola 68000 “blast processing” can hope to keep pace with everyone going on at once in Thunder Force IV, at least not all of the time. Thankfully, these instances of slowdown are only sporadic and don’t hurt the overall experience. If anything, they can save your bacon during some of the more hectic encounters. Think of it as “bullet time.”

In terms of quality, Thunder Force IV’s soundtrack is easily in the same league as Genesis titans like Streets of Rage 2 and the Shinobi and Sonic titles. I praised M.U.S.H.A. for its take on aggressive FM synth heavy metal and much of what Thunder Force IV brings to the table is in that same vein. There are clear echoes of acts like Megadeth, Dokken, and Judas Priest here. This is especially evident in the game’s most famous number, the thrilling stage eight theme “Metal Squad,” which has to be one of the single most impressive pieces to come out of the 16-bit era as a whole. Thunder Force IV’s music does have more to offer than just breakneck shredding, however, as evidenced by the airy, jazzy vibe of tunes like “Space Walk” and “Great Sea Power.” Beyond the undeniable brilliance of this score, it’s also a bona fide embarrassment of riches. The full soundtrack is well over an hour long, which is significantly longer than a full playthrough of the game. There’s not just a boss theme, there’s a theme for every individual boss. Each of the game’s four difficulty settings has its own ending music. The high score screen has a distinct track for when you register your initials for the top score as opposed to any of the lower slots. There’s even an entire ten bonus songs, something like 25 additional minutes of music, that don’t play over the game proper at all and are only accessible through the sound test in the options menu! What’s more, these omake (“extra”) songs are also better than 99% of what you’ll hear in other Genesis releases. The brilliance is literally overflowing, to the degree that the composers almost come off a bit cocky. Who cooks up an entire extra game’s worth of top tier material just to hide it in an options menu, you know? You can certainly argue that other music on the Genesis is as great at this, but I defy anyone to make a case that it gets better.

If case I somehow haven’t made this abundantly clear: Thunder Force IV is an unabashed masterpiece of a 16-bit shooter. Hell, it may even verge on being too good, considering all the unfavorable comparisons it has the potential to engender. If you have any affection at all for scrolling shooters, you’d be crazy not to give it a go. Other than some non-crippling slowdown, it has no noteworthy flaws whatsoever. I suppose I could make a case for the final boss, Khaos, being a bit too easy to take down, but that’s just so much grasping at straws, honestly.

Tragically, the series seems to have fizzled out for good in the wake of 2008’s Thunder Force VI for the PlayStation 2. Technosoft themselves are long defunct and Sega, who currently holds the copyrights for all their creations, has demonstrated no desire to deploy the Fire LEO on any new missions.

I never thought I’d find myself this sad over a lack of additional hardships.

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