Thunder Force III (Genesis) review
"Technosoft's shooter series Thunder Force is something of an oddball. If you've ever played the original Thunder Force, give yourself a pat on the back. Being released only on several obscure Japanese computer systems, the game is difficult to get one's hands on even via emulation. Thunder Force II, luckily, was given a North American release as a Genesis launch title. However, the game didn't fare well with critics or sales, due to its strange emphasis on lousy overhead stages that just aren't ..."
Technosoft's shooter series Thunder Force is something of an oddball. If you've ever played the original Thunder Force, give yourself a pat on the back. Being released only on several obscure Japanese computer systems, the game is difficult to get one's hands on even via emulation. Thunder Force II, luckily, was given a North American release as a Genesis launch title. However, the game didn't fare well with critics or sales, due to its strange emphasis on lousy overhead stages that just aren't fun.
Someone at Technosoft must have gotten the memo, because the most notable change in Thunder Force III from its predecessor is the complete removal of all overhead levels. The result is a fairly standard, though well-executed side-scrolling space shooter, as well as Technosoft's biggest success in North America ever--though, admittedly, that isn't saying a whole lot, since it only released about six games in the US before going under.
Thunder Force III's plot is an epic tale of aliens attacking, and...uhh...look, no one cares. This is a space shooter. That didn't stop Technosoft from throwing in a pretentious and hilariously mistranslated text crawl about the futility of mankind at the end of the game, but the point still stands: the plot in a shooter doesn't matter. You're playing the game so you can hone your gaming twitch skills and listen to some catchy music along the way, and that's about it. Thunder Force III excels in both of these areas, and as a result, it's an all-around enjoyable game.
For the most part, Thunder Force III is afflicted with a classic case of Generic Shooter Syndrome: every shooter cliche you can think of is present here. Water level, ice level, fire level, "battleship" level, alien-infested-space station level...all are present here in full, ahem, force.
Your weapons, as well, certainly can't be called innovative. Machine gun, rear gun, homing gun, overpowered spread gun...and the list goes on. The whole game has a rather conservative feel to it, as if the developers were taking as few risks as possible to avoid making another stinker like Thunder Force II.
The key to Thunder Force III's success isn't reinventing the wheel; it's about fine-tuning that wheel for the purpose of running as smoothly as possible. While the game won't win any originality awards, it does make a key few design choices that put it above the average space shooter.
Immediately noticeable is your ability to alter your ship's speed at will. While the Gradius and R-Type series both force you to grab numerous powerups to get your ship moving faster than a crawl, Thunder Force III lets you switch from four speed levels anywhere, at any time, just by pressing the A button. While most players will probably just go to the fastest setting right away and be done with it, it's always nice to have a choice.
Another convenience is Thunder Force III's thankfully forgiving approach to its weapon system. In most shooters, you lose all of the weapons and powerups you've worked so hard to collect whenever you die. In Thunder Force III, only the weapon you had equipped at the time of your death is lost; the rest (up to five held at once) are retained in your inventory. This means that Thunder Force III is quite short on "holy crap I'm screwed" moments, since you'll almost always have at least a decently powerful weapon at your disposal.
Thunder Force III also attempts to add in a Mega Man-style stage selection system, so you can choose which the order in which to tackle the game's first five levels, but since there's no advantage to choosing any stage order over another, this feature feels rather unnecessary.
And speaking of stages, Thunder Force III's are wholly unspectacular. The aforementioned cliches are present all over the place in the game's levels, which makes for a rather predictable experience. The best stage is easily the fiery inferno planet Gorgon, which seems to have had much more effort put into it than any other part of the game. Not only does it feature the game's best music (a non-stop synth-metal rock-out), and the game's coolest graphical effect (a towering wavy background of flames), but it also harbors almost all of Thunder Force III's most memorable moments. See: narrowly dodging shooting geysers of lava, a sudden shift into overdrive as you fight the stage's gigantic, projectile-spewing miniboss, the stage's tense final battle against twin spider robots, etc. It's rare that one finds a shooter level that's so head-and-shoulders above everything else in the game.
That said, though, there are a few neat parts sprinkled here and there throughout the remainder of Thunder Force III, though it's all pretty low-key. For me, one of the coolest moments is also a very simple one: during your romp through the rocky planet Haides (nice translation), your ship is forced through several cramped corridors. At the end of one of these passages, there's nothing but a wall blocking your path. It looks like an unavoidable obstacle and that you took the wrong passageway, but almost as soon as that thought crosses your mind, your ship comes to a screeching halt and the level begins to scroll the other way. More moments like these would have elevated Thunder Force III to greatness, but as it is, it's "merely" good.
Thunder Force III is slightly easier than is standard for space shooters, due in large part to its user-friendly game design. Levels come to a close just as you begin to tire of them, and none of the bosses are especially challenging. Only the encounters at the end of the aforementioned Gorgon and the second-to-last level require you to have your brain present during the fight; the rest can be easily put down by flying up next to them and wailing away with your most powerful weapon. When you're killed, switch to your next most powerful gun and finish the boss off while your invincibility blinking is still on. End of level. This isn't a huge issue, but it would have been nice to see your foes put up more of a fight.
Graphically, Thunder Force III is typical early Genesis, meaning that it doesn't look amazing, but it's at least competent and easy on the eyes. Animation is decent, background detail is adequate, and enemy sprites are often quite large. Only Gorgon's dancing flame effect (as mentioned earlier) impresses, though nothing here is an eyesore.
A catchy soundtrack rounds out the Thunder Force III experience. Here, it's classic Genesis synth-rock all the way, and though some tunes are more hummable than others--the best being the serene beats of ice planet Ellis (another mistranslation) and the sheer rockage of (surprise, surprise) Gorgon--the game's music will never get on your nerves. One particularly interesting feature of the game is how each boss has its own unique song; for 1990, having such variety in a game soundtrack is definitely ahead of the times.
If you're a shooter fan, you can't really go wrong with Thunder Force III. Though it does have a rather "been there, done that" feel to it, and it's outclassed in almost every way by its successor, Lightening Force (sic), the game is still a solid shmup that easily comes recommended to anyone into the genre. If shooters aren't your thing, though, I won't make you play it by force.
...Sorry. Couldn't resist.
Community review by phediuk (March 22, 2006)
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