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Gate of Thunder (Turbografx-CD) artwork

Gate of Thunder (Turbografx-CD) review

"From the beginning assault upon a planet-hovering dreadnought to the final encounter in the depths of the beautiful Dark City, Gate of Thunder exhibits stylish intensity, intelligence of design, and a well-rounded sense of quality."

Sakura Taisen, Thousand Arms, and Galaxy Fraulein Yuna RED has created some of the more interesting digital comics and dating sims on the market.

They also developed Gate of Thunder, a sidescrolling space shooter with not a single quirky anime girl in sight. Most people got this game as a pack-in with their Turbo Duo during Turbo Technologies' marketing blitz in 1992. Way-late adopters like myself, who picked up a Duo a decade later, were not so fortunate.

Based on RED's pedigree and the Turbo's failure to conquer the US market, I was skeptical of the game's purported quality. Perhaps the heapings of praise were nothing but nostalgic memories fabricated by forlorn Turbophiles? Perhaps fans of the game simply refused to admit the technological superiority of the SNES? Such were the thoughts echoing in my head, questioning whether this title would be worth the 30 dollars I had spent.

Five minutes. That was enough to make me a believer.

From the beginning assault upon a planet-hovering dreadnought to the final encounter in the depths of the beautiful Dark City, Gate of Thunder exhibits stylish intensity, intelligence of design, and a well-rounded sense of quality.

It all begins when you, under the codename Hawk, are sent to take down the criminal forces of Don Jingi in your police craft, the Hunting Dog. Upon descending to the planet, the very first enemies you face are TWO LARGE CRUISERS. No "wave of weak enemies yielding a powerup", no "launch sequence" you descend to the planet, and you're almost immediately engaging a ten-screen-spanning dreadnought. Skimming the planet's surface would have been a typical beginning level; by setting a warship directly above you, RED turned that simple premise into a harrowingly narrow tunnel firefight. Taking something ordinary and turning it into something freaking-awesome: that is style.

Level after level, the intensity never dies down. Dozens of enemies constantly appear both in front and behind, rising up from electrical shafts in the ground, zooming in from the cityscape background, and descending from the setting-sun skies. And of course, they'll all be spewing giga beams, missiles, explosive bubbles, and the like. Fortunately, with all the bullets being flung about the screen, there are shields to protect you from violent, tragic death. Even if that's not enough and the Hunting Dog goes down in flames, you'll continue from the exact point where you died. No "R-Type checkpoints" here!

Taking a cue from the popular Thunder Force series, Gate lets you switch between three powerful weapons (lightning laser, sonic wave, and earthquake bombs) on the fly, powering each one up individually as you go, via drop-offs from your support ship "Wildcat" (a bewilderingly sleek name for a pudgy cargoliner). Like most shooters, weapon upgrades keep coming even after your cannon is maximized. While most games only give you bonus points for collecting surplus powerups, Gate of Thunder provides a far more gratifying bonus; pick up an excess upgrade, and a flaming Bar of Death shrieks across the screen, razing everything in its path! Even when dealing with a concept as simple as "smart bomb", RED drenched it in a healthy dose of adrenaline. All the while, you can adjust your ship speed at any time, accommodating both pedestrian pilots and the hyperactive-spaz crowd.

Accompanying the intensity is an intelligent sense of game design. The most immediately obvious example of this is the environmental interaction between your policecraft and the backgrounds. Inside a massive orbiting Base, gigantic pistons will scale into the foreground, attempting to crush you. Rocks will fall from the ceiling of the Mine, dislodged during a screen-shaking earthquake. You're roaring through a mine in a spaceship of course it's going to cave in! Other obstacles include gigantic metallic orbs, and ascending platforms (with gun-toting mecha riding atop them).

However, the stellar design goes much further than merely "interactive backgrounds". Most of the dastardly spacecraft take a few hits to kill, so the vast majority will have a chance to fire a shot off: in some cases a simple bullet, in others a bevy of missiles. You'll have to learn how to cope, either by focusing on the most dangerous foes, or by mastering the art of dodging. While very few of the enemies seem original in and of themselves, their trigger-happy rate-of-fire and durability creates a far more interesting experience than the "intricate chumps" found in many other shooters; maybe foes in other games have cool attack patterns, but they all tend to die so quickly that you'd never know one apart from another. Gate of Thunder is not like that.

Consider the desert planet level: dry and arid on the surface, watery caverns below. As you blaze across the sandy surface of this desert world, sandworms spear vertically through the sky, hornet-craft fire horizontal beams from behind, and wasp-like mechs launch spreading waves of death... all at the same time. Considered individually, each would be easily dispatched, hardly creating any lasting impression. Taken together, it is true poetry in motion: an intricate weaving of attack patterns that demands constant attention, due to profuse variation of enemies, rather than simply requiring reflexes and rapid-fire alone. Fortunately, although it sounds (and feels) difficult, Gate of Thunder is hardly unfair: even when two seemingly-unavoidable rows of kamikaze fighters streak towards you in formation, it's still possible to slip between their ranks. The game was clearly playtested to guarantee an escape from every scenario. Additionally, to help you out with the varied swarms of metallic fiends, RED has provided "options" (small support ships that follow you and launch added artillery) that can be flipped backwards, letting you hit enemies behind you, or forwards, for extra frontal firepower. Simply tap the fire-button twice to change their direction!

Of course, all of this stylish intensity and intelligent design would mean very little if the game didn't carry enough flash to please the eyes and ears. Gate of Thunder is truly the total package, with not just awesome gameplay, but also beautiful graphics and music. Weaponfire, be it bright green waves or twenty glowing bullets, fills the screen with nary a hint of flicker or slowdown. Bosses and even some "normal" enemies (such as the tentacled water-craft) are huge and detailed, and the bright colors are out in full force, showing off the Turbo's strongest graphical asset. The battle below the desert planet, with deep blues and rich purples, is quite beautiful... and the battle above is no slouch, with its lovely, gradational red horizon.

With its fast-paced progressive rock mentality, the music easily holds its own against the visuals. In addition to demonstrating the expected high CD quality, some parts of the soundtrack are actually scored to the level; in the Dark City, as a hulking, purple warship hovers out from a tunnel shaft, electric guitars kick in. Little details like that make even minor skirmishes feel significant. The only unfortunate bit is that the music is somewhat overwhelmed by the nonstop explosions you'll need to pump up the volume for this one.

Toss in a healthy dose of exploration (hidden one-ups and shield icons abound), melodramatic plot (just as you're the police hero, the criminals have their own champion who you will duel on multiple occasions), and amusing little quirks (the mechasuits in the asteroid field leap out from behind the floating rocks: the cowards!) when it comes to style, intensity, and overall quality, Gate of Thunder is the real thing. After playing it, I'm pining for RED to release some new shooters instead of more RPG-dating sims. If you own a Turbo, definitely worth buying at any price. If you don't, and you're a shooter fan... it's time to start hunting for a good deal on a Duo.


zigfried's avatar
Staff review by Zigfried (January 16, 2004)

Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.

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