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Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar (Genesis) artwork

Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar (Genesis) review

"There's a story here somewhere, but it doesn't matter much--this is a side-scrolling shooter after all. And the story is especially irrelevant when the developers, Technosoft, changed things up when they released Thunder Force V packaged with a revised history of the series. Suffice it to say that you will be expected to kill everything in your path in the name of victory. Martyrdom has no place in space. "

Okay, it's a mistake. Much as I'd like to pass off the misspelled first word of Thunder Force IV's alternate title as a brilliant and underhanded scheme to make game reviewers award LighTENing Force a perfect score, it's really just carelessness at work. Which is an incredible thing, considering the rest of this pristine production is as far from the end product of carelessness as can be imagined.

There's a story here somewhere, but it doesn't matter much--this is a side-scrolling shooter after all. And the story is especially irrelevant when the developers, Technosoft, changed things up when they released Thunder Force V packaged with a revised history of the series. Suffice it to say that you will be expected to kill everything in your path in the name of victory, and emerge unscathed. Martyrdom has no place in space.

Your ship can change speeds in 25% increments on the fly. It can augment its defensive and offensive capabilities with CRAWS (better known as CLAWS--it's likely that the whole Japanese L and R thing is the culprit here). These helpers orbit your craft and serve to deal death and absorb bullets. Later in the proceedings, they are upgraded to a pair of metal spheres that do the same thing, but have an added feature: when you charge them up by not firing, your next touch of the fire button will unleash the LIGHTNING WEAPON, a phallic burst of potency.

Your default onboard weaponry consists of Twin and Back. These defaults are weak sauce, and so earning Blade, Railgun, Hunter, Snake and Three-way becomes vital. Blade gets the honours for best looking weapon, as your ship actually spits yellow shurikens of laser fire. The harassing, homing Hunter is most versatile; the Railgun watches your back. Snake is the sleeper--it is incredibly destructive to targets above and below you, as its smoky emissions swim along the ground engulfing foes like napalm.

We begin in Strite, the first of four opening stages whose order can be selected by the player. We know that the game feels this is level one because the point-totaling screen says so. Gorgeous blue and purple parallax crystalline cloud formations turn red, and then blue again before you submerge into the aquamarine of warping waters. You will do battle at the underside of a great ship housing some bio-mechanical monstrosity whose deadly, surging, swinging tail provides the only evidence of its presence. That is, until the ship flies off freeing you from the somewhat off-putting slowdown of the scenario, revealing the Gargoyle's full form. His tail will lash about as his offense, and it will also provide critical defense to its fireball bathed core. The battle between diminutive spacecraft and robotic sea monster is an intense one, the soundtrack concurring. You'll have a hard time understanding how this could be the first level.

Until you venture further into Lightening Force, and quickly realize that there is no want for sweetly dangerous sequences. A space outpost level right out of Gaiares introduces armed robots--one massive individual in particular--and enemies that clone themselves repeatedly as a manner of chasing you. When the two-armed boss enters the fray, you'll need to break him, one member at a time. And when his spread-shot firing claws are sufficiently ravaged, the stumps that remain will emit a deadly vapour as the ship tries resolutely to ram you. The resulting menace will be a fast-moving giant bearing dual javelins of stabbing steam, inviting you to be in his very midst--which is, of course, the only place where you can succeed in destroying him.

Air Raid presents a prototypical R-Type battleship level. You'll need to navigate through an armada of alien space craft, evading pesky enemies and the projectiles that the ships' armaments issue forth. Impressive scaling effects are used to great effect as enemy reticles seek to lock onto you and their laser fire targets your ship from the player's own perspective. An onslaught of hurtling space craft fly at you like the wind as prelude to the medium-sized boss ship, which will show you its front, back, and finally its top, before you can send it packing.

In a curious haze of elevator music and blowing sand, the fourth and final selectable level will present swooping gliders and burrowing tanks as opposition. The rat-headed boss, Fomalhaut, is particularly nasty. His floppy ears will endeavor to cover his face, while a ring of spheres will cover his body. On offense, darting fireballs will chase you and missiles will let fly like drill bits.

Finally, the relative safety of the opening four stages is behind you. The concept of safety is two-fold: things are harder from here on in, and envelope pushing is ramped up. Streaming stars light the black void around you as waves of ships and bullets break through space. This is level five. Soon you'll see the retreating backside of a familiar ship… Circle its massive bulk, R-Type style, before laser rain fills the eternal night with red death. The ship is gone, but something else has your attention now: the culprit. Repel the new evil with the help of your allied squadron, who out of nowhere, have rushed to your aid. The thing will slaughter them mercilessly and depart nonchalantly, knowing that you cannot bring it down. Two of your surviving buddies will appear to equip you with new CRAWS that boast the heavy metal augmentation (it's just fashion to us) you'll need to take this fight to the next level. Welcome to the real world.

Icy cold waters ebb and flow as the stark white ceiling looms heavy in the inky blueness of the cavern. All manner of sub-aquatic creature will confound you, creeping around the craggy cave walls and iceberg-like obstructions. No matter, the homing destructiveness of Hunter will seek them out and turn them colder than the frigid pool that bathes them as they perish. The three-pronged organic craft will wave massive circles of laser fire at you like searchlights of somber doom. Crush one arm, then the other, then pound the core alien sliver with resolute force before the thing finally shrivels, tears, curls like a dry leaf under a Zippo. And even then, it asks for no mercy, launching another attack before you can finally unravel it fully.

You'll get a chance to allow the incendiary force of the Snake weapon to shine given the hazardous aspect of the rocky caverns which host the wildly waving seas of lava in level seven. A dinosaur will show you its full metal shell as it sizzles in the seething magma. It will froth bubbles and bullets from the only crack in its armour. It will stand up for itself, revealing a screen-high body supported by a vertebrae of spiked balls. It will spit white hot worms of flame that juke and chase. It will snap and lunge with thunderous insistence. The music will be on his side, singing a raucous, impressive alien song, and thank heaven for that.

Inside an otherwordly stronghold, a sentient black ooze shows of decay and death. This boss is one of the best I've ever seen in a shooter. An abhorrent alien lifeform sleeps in a glass cocoon, while a pair of tarantula's legs defend the dreaming core. Tiny gnats flitter about, hitting the ground when shot, throwing up plumes of blue smoke in their death throes that violently coerce your ship toward the cave ceiling. And then all hell breaks loose. The thing in the cocoon awakens.

Up ahead are classic Thunder Force moments: zigzagging walls, 1-ups in hard-to-reach places, a feisty mid-boss - unfortunately, in level nine, it's all so horribly ugly. So it's not all good: a blocky mist effect hangs over a vomit-green background. It looks like the typical Thunder Force level played out on a glitchy emulator. It's not all good, but it's as close as it can be... thankfully, the giant crab boss will make amends.

Inarguably worthy of the slow build it took to get to here, the culmination does not disappoint. Remember that boss that took out all your pals at the end of level five? I won't spoil that for you... I'll only say that the penultimate and ultimate battles in Lightening Force are incredibly memorable. The game's growing brilliance up to this point should have adequately prepared you for the brilliance which manifests at the climax, and yet you won't be prepared.

Lightening Force is not perfect. The slowdown can be bothersome, level nine is unsightly, and the four early levels seem slow and unnecessary as a whole. Shooters tend to have around seven levels, because things can get repetitive and thumbs can get sore. A slow build is appreciated, but perhaps if only two of the four selectable stages were mandatory plays, the game would be a tiny bit less laborious. That being said, I wish I had a library of games with these 'concerns' as their only flaws.

Where does Lightening Force stand in the series? It's miles better than the limp Thunder Force II, miles more intense than the pretty but easy Thunder Force III, miles more epic than the irresistible Thunder Force V. This makes Lightening Force the 'best of class' without too much trouble.

Beyond that, the more ambitious claim can be made that this is the definitive Genesis horizontal shooter. Again, TFIII is good fun, and it certainly sold well, which was perhaps something new for a shooter in the North American market. Gaiares introduced eight megs to the Sega shooter along with monumental challenge and equally monumental hype. But neither one was as polished, fulfilling, complete as Lightening Force. Not even the distressingly elusive and somewhat legendary Gleylancer. Don't believe the hype. If you have Lightening Force, you have the best. Make no mistake.

Masters's avatar
Staff review by Marc Golding (March 19, 2011)

There was a bio here once. It's gone now.

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jerec posted March 19, 2011:

Haha, I remember this game. Only because Runinruder got me to write a review of it once, even though I'd never played it. All I had to go on was his description. I don't have it saved, that I can find, and even though I found the review link on the review itself wasn't saved.

But this one is probably a lot better than the one I did.
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Masters posted March 19, 2011:

Ha, I certainly hope so, given that I actually played the game! ^_^

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