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Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar (Genesis) artwork

Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar (Genesis) review

"The Genesis has a lot of shooters. Not just any type of shooter, mind you, but the variety that encompasses Gradius, R-Type, Darius, etc... You know, the subgenre of shooters that no one can quite settle on a name for. The term "space shooter" doesn't include games with non-space settings, like 1942 or Legendary Wings; "scrolling shooter" doesn't include 3D shooters like Star Fox or stationary shooters like Galaga; "shoot-'em-up" also brings to mind run 'n' guns like Contra and Gunstar Heroes; a..."

The Genesis has a lot of shooters. Not just any type of shooter, mind you, but the variety that encompasses Gradius, R-Type, Darius, etc... You know, the subgenre of shooters that no one can quite settle on a name for. The term "space shooter" doesn't include games with non-space settings, like 1942 or Legendary Wings; "scrolling shooter" doesn't include 3D shooters like Star Fox or stationary shooters like Galaga; "shoot-'em-up" also brings to mind run 'n' guns like Contra and Gunstar Heroes; and "shmup" makes you sound like a dork. So, to avoid any conflict, I'm just going to stick with the more broad term "shooter" for the duration of this review.

Getting back to the point, the Genesis has a lot of shooters. Some are crap, like Insector X or Divine Sealing; some have been forgotten because they're so forgettable, like Truxton or that game with the blimp; some are solid, like Gaiares or Eliminate Down; however, truly great Genesis shooters are few and far between. MUSHA and Gleylancer are certainly fine efforts, but without a doubt, the most highly-praised and respected Genesis shooter is Lightening Force, aka Thunder Force IV.

It doesn't take long for one to realize that Lightening Force is a gem among shooters; from the moment you hear the ass-kicking synth guitar during the game's pretentious intro, you know this game is going to at least have a great soundtrack.

And it does. Lightening Force's music is fantastic, and does an excellent job of keeping your adrenaline pumping throughout the whole 45 minutes or so the game takes to complete. While the tunes tend not to be as melodic as Thunder Force III's, the quality of its instrument samples make its predecessor sound positively 8-bit. If there is a better-sounding electric guitar on the Genesis, I have yet to hear it. Persevere through Lightening Force and eventually you'll get to the aural masterpieces that are its eighth level and credit roll themes--both of them rock your proverbial socks off, and both are without a doubt among the best tunes ever put into a shooter, on any system.

Lightening Force the soundtrack is, thankfully, backed up by an equally great Lightening Force game. Like Thunder Force III, this fourth installment is a completely horizontally-scrolling shooter--none of those wussy overhead stages from the first two games make a reappearance (thank God.) At the beginning of the game, you're able to choose the order in which you want to tackle the first four stages, much like in Thunder Force III. Also like that game, this feature feels a bit unnecessary, considering there's no advantage to choosing one order over another. Upon starting the default first level, the first thing you'll notice is that stages span more than one screen on the vertical axis, meaning you can scroll up and down while you're perpetually jetting to the right. Immediately scrolling down from the clouds in which you start will reveal an absolutely insane scrolling effect on the serene waters in front of you.

You may say that you're not impressed by the at least ten layers of parallax used to realistically scroll the ocean in the first level. You'd be lying through your teeth, but you could say it. You could also say the same about the rest of the game, which has some of the most extensive use of parallax on the Genesis, all of which looks terrific--not to mention detailed. The bosses' sprites are huge, and there's nary a moment when the screen isn't filled with projectiles and enemies--there is, of course, some slowdown, but it isn't nearly as bad as you'd expect from such a graphically-intensive game. Lightening Force is, hands-down, the best-looking shooter on the Genesis.

And where there's lots of sprites onscreen at once, there's intensity. The word "intense" essentially means "good shooter", since intensity is what makes shooters enjoyable to begin with. And Lightening Force is no slouch in that department. The game scarcely gives you a moment to breathe; there is almost always something going on in the game, whether it be bullets flying at you or the dramatic appearance of a boss. Even after completing a level, the music for the next area immediately begins playing and you're thrown into the fray in less than five seconds.

Unlike many other shooters, where the different stages are just background swaps of each other, each area of Lightening Force feels like a truly unique entity. While not all of the game's areas are the most innovative things on earth (yes, there's yet another alien base level here), Lightening Force never, ever feels like a pedestrian shooter. For instance, one level looks to be your typical "battleship" stage, ala R-Type, but before you've even taken out half of the vessel, another enemy ship comes out of nowhere and blows it up for you. In another stage, you'll be cruising through an alien base and seem to having a pretty easy time...but then a claw-like alien latches onto the ceiling and pulls down the entire top half of the screen, crushing you.

For me, one of the most memorable moments was in the last level, when you finally reach the heart of the alien menace (a giant space station that's the spitting image of the Death Star.) You're fighting a giant mech that just refuses to die, despite the sea of artillery you've pumped into it. The fight continues on for a bit, when all of the sudden, the mech darts off the screen. It looks like it's ran away, and you continue on...but then an absolutely humongous screen-filling fireball careens out of nowhere and kills you. The mech returns, and the fight continues. In a shooter, little things like this can make a huge difference, and Lightening Force is packed with them.

And of course, what would good level design be without some clever bosses to go along with it? Lightening Force's fights are remarkably tense; just try to tell me your blood isn't pumping during the battle against the alien brain-thingy in the eighth stage, when steam geysers threaten to push your ship into the level's rocky ceiling on top of the usual projectile-dodging to worry about. The bosses of Lightening Force are consistently inventive, and always challenging.

And speaking of challenge, let's not beat around the bush: Lightening Force is hard. Way harder than Thunder Force III. You will die in this game. A lot. Some obstacles, like the aforementioned giant fireball, are almost impossible to avoid without prior knowledge of them, lending Lightening Force an occasionally R-Type-esque vibe. As it requires quite a bit of trial-and-error, this is a shooter not recommended to anyone who doesn't like a difficult video game.

At the same time, though, Lightening Force doesn't feel nearly as unfair as most shooters. You can adjust your ship's speed at the press of a button, much like in Thunder Force III, meaning you'll never lose all of your speed upgrades upon death and have to put up with a molasses-slow ship. Additionally, you can hold up to five different weapons at any given time and switch between them at will. When you die, only the weapon that was equipped upon death is lost; all of the others are kept in your inventory. In other words, if you die against a boss, you won't be forced to use a tiny peashooter from then on for the brief period before your inevitable game over, unlike most shooters.

It's difficult to lobby any complaints against Lightening Force without bringing up issues about the shooter genre as a whole. Shooters by nature are repetitive, consisting of holding down the fire button for the entire duration of the game. As well, their gameplay is highly linear, since by definition you're on rails for the whole game. Lightening Force doesn't escape either of these flaws, and if you don't like shooters in general, you won't like this game.

Perhaps the only real gripe that one can hold against Lightening Force is its name. Lightening Force? What the ****? It's like Tagin' Dragon all over again. (Helpful tip: don't play Tagin' Dragon.) Sure, none of Technosoft's games have stellar translations, but at least they spelled the name of the go!@#$! game right. How in the hell did no one in the marketing department notice this mistake? Actually, forget that; why didn't they just keep it as Thunder Force IV? Wouldn't that have been more recognizable for the average game buyer?...Ahem. I digress. Don't judge a game by its box.

Does Lightening Force really bring anything new to the table? Nah. Even within its own series, not much has changed since Thunder Force III. You can scroll up and down, and halfway through the game, you can charge up a super-duper laser attack whenever you let up on the fire button for a few seconds. That's pretty much it. Rather than being groundbreaking, Lightening Force concentrates on delivering an incredibly polished shooter experience on your Genesis, which is exactly what the game is. If you're a shooter fan and you own a Genesis, you've already played this game. If not, put Lightening Force right at the top of your to-play list. It's a difficult game, but not just because of its steep challenge; this is a difficult game not to like.

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Community review by phediuk (April 08, 2006)

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