Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar (Genesis) review
"From the awe-inspiring title screen, with gigantic scrolling lettering (THUNDER FORCE) and raging guitar, to the eerily grandiose organs of the penultimate stage, the music tracks — nay, the entire game — keep injecting excitement directly into your jugular."
Let's get one thing straight. The name of this fantastic space shooter is Thunder Force 4. Yes, I know, the silly gits at Sega re-named it "Lightening Force" in the States. Yes, you read that right — lightening. By my mind, if the fools can't even bloody spell the word right, they've no business bollixing up the title.
If you've ever played a horizontal shooter, you already know the basics: fly left to right, valiantly disposing of wave after wave of airborne fiends. Oh yes, and collect screen-filling new weapons and powerups along the way. If you haven't played a shooter before, this is not a good starting piece, as Thunder Force 4 will grab you by the throat and squeeze the very life from you. Yes: this is a very hard game. Gate of Thunder on the Turbo, or the less intense Thunder Force 3, would be a more forgiving title by which to introduce yourself to the genre.
Even if you think yourself some sort of shooter god, this game will simply chuckle and smack you down. Perhaps it is a wee bit too difficult, as it's not really possible just to sit and play for a few ticks. You will die and die again, unless you take to the controls with a focused mind. Even after repeated play, the game cannot easily be memorized: the difficulty lies in avoiding swarms of bullets, not in knowing where the enemies will come from — in fact, you can often see mechanical warships gliding through the background before they scale into threatening proximity. With the volleys of ammunition strewn across the screen, this is never the same game twice.
And that's a major factor as to why Thunder Force 4 is so damn good... but by no means the only one.
Thunder Force 3 took what we were used to with shooters, and threw in some cool background effects (look at the swirling flames: oooh ahhhh) and speed to impress. In part four, having upped their own ante, Technosoft threw in every trump. Consider the planet Strite: mountains in the distance, clouds in the sky, water below. Nothing terribly fascinating, right? "HA!" proclaims Technosoft — turning the water into line-scrolling waves of blue, sending mountains passing by not only in the distance, but also in the foreground, and building layers upon layers of parallax clouds, the likes of which have not been equaled to this day. Later in the level, you dive into the river, replete with swirling background effect and aquatic foes, culminating in an assault upon a gargantuan, amphibious battlecruiser. Initially, the effect is nothing short of overwhelming — thankfully, the mind soon adjusts to the frenetic pace. The brain can only take in so much information before melting into complacent goo, after all.
The levels are also large and expansive, offering multiple paths to travel within each stage, something I've seen in few other shooters (Gaiares on the Genesis being one of the few others, although not taken quite to TF4's extreme). While some — namely, those who don't want to feel they are missing anything — might not care for the sprawling playing fields, fraught with hidden powerups... I love it. Being able to play through a stage twice and reach undiscovered nooks and crannies — being able to fly through the desert skies on one pass, or skim the sandy dunes on the next! — this is great stuff.
Thunder Force 4 suffers from the same disease as part three in that the most visually memorable backgrounds are in the early levels (which, by the way, you can tackle in any order you choose). However, this time around, the intricate gameplay involved in later stages, as you worm through biomechanical labyrinths of flesh and metal, dwarf the rather straightforward shooting action of the first few stages. They might not be quite as pretty as the early zones, but they're a hell of a lot more intense.
Taking a positive cue from the third installment, TF4 still lets you carry an entire bevy of weapons, selecting from Hunter Rifle or Rail Gun or several others on the fly. You can also gather CRAWs (that's an acronym, I've forgotten what it stands for), also known as 'options', for added firepower. Between your own massive barrage of artillery and the lasers of burrowing sand-droids, hovering mechasuits, and worm-like beasts... there is indeed a bit of slowdown. Despite this ailment that has killed lesser titles, Thunder Force 4 not only survives but thrives, as if to say: "yes, the action might slow down occasionally, but we are NOT going to stop throwing screen-spanning dreadnoughts and volleys of bullets at the player!"
While noticeable, this slowdown is much less intrusive than that in, say, Sol-Deace on the Genesis or Gradius 3 on the SNES. Far more noticeable is the music, which could easily be summed up as 'relentless'. From the awe-inspiring title screen, with gigantic scrolling lettering (THUNDER FORCE) and raging guitar, to the eerily grandiose organs of the penultimate stage, the tracks keep injecting excitement directly into your jugular. Very little of the music is hummable (in fact, "melodic" is NOT an appropriate description for this game), but Technosoft wanted to create a passionate soundtrack to match the non-stop action... and they succeeded.
Every so often, it's worth dipping into some salsa for a spicy change of pace. Playing Thunder Force 4 is like taking that bowl and pouring it all down your throat. It might be overwhelming for some, but it's still an exhilarating experience like none other. I cannot recommend the game enough, as it easily stands, even today, as a true shooter beast.
Staff review by Zigfried (September 24, 2004)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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