Shmup Essentials: Thunder Force II

We’re going retro this time around, with a classic from the early days of Sega’s 16-bit console, the Mega Drive.

The heyday of Techno Soft’s Thunder Force series was arguably around its visually spectacular third and fourth installments, both of which were often used by many proud Mega Drive owners as showcases of their system’s audio-visual capabilities, but the second installment — a launch title for the Genesis in the States — is an interesting game in its own right, mostly because it’s quite different from its better-known successors.

We may not have seen a new Thunder Force game since 2008’s PlayStation 2 release of Thunder Force VI, but the series as a whole remains extremely solid to this day, and one well worth checking out if you’re a dedicated shmup fan.

Thunder Force

Although today many people associate Thunder Force with the Mega Drive, it actually began life on Japanese home computers — specifically, the Sharp X1 and MZ-1500 and the NEC PC-6001 and PC-8801. Its first installment was subsequently updated for the more powerful Fujitsu FM-7 and NEC PC-9801 computers with improved visuals, additional content and a level editor.

Thunder Force I was not a side-scrolling Gradius-style shoot ’em up like its most well-known later installments. Rather, it was a top-down free-roaming shoot ’em up in which you had to explore levels in order to destroy shield generators and ultimately defeat a powerful weapon known as the Dyradeizer. It was certainly very different from what most gamers now remember as “Thunder Force“.

It’s relevant to Thunder Force II, however, because this game, originally released on the Sharp X68000 computer in 1988 and subsequently ported to the Mega Drive, acts as a bridge between the first installment and what the series primarily became known for in its latter years. In other words, it incorporates both the top-down free-roaming segments from the original game and the side-scrolling Gradius-style stages that formed the entirety of later Thunder Forces. As such, playing it today is a rather refreshing experience that challenges quite different skill sets to many modern shmups.

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Thunder Force II alternates between its top-down and side-scrolling stages. In the former, players must explore a free-roaming level and use ground attacks to destroy a series of enemy bases. There’s no radar or map system to refer to, so it’s necessary to explore and make use of landmarks to orient yourself; the levels do, however, loop both horizontally and vertically so are quite a bit smaller than they might initially appear to be, and they are also often split into discrete sections divided by walls. Finding the correct “path” through the level in these cases involves finding weak, thin sections of wall and destroying them to proceed further.

Since free-roaming movement makes it more difficult to have the sort of scripted, choreographed encounters modern shoot ’em ups are known for today, Thunder Force II has a semi-randomised approach to the enemies that attack you in the top-down stages. As you fly around, different groups of enemies will spawn in various formations, often supported by ground-based installations you haven’t yet destroyed. These formations are preset, recognisable and learnable, but the exact point in the stage at which they appear isn’t predefined, so dealing with them is a matter of learning the individual patterns and how to respond to them as they occur, rather than learning the”choreography” of the level as a whole.

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The side-scrolling levels are much more traditional, however, proceeding in a linear fashion from left to right, throwing a number of learnable enemy encounters and minibosses at you, and culminating in a boss battle against a particularly tough enemy. Level design in these sections is solid, often offering a choice of different routes to proceed along and usually requiring you to make a choice between a safe but low-scoring route or a risky but rewarding route.

In both types of level, certain types of enemies drop powerups. Weapon powerups add different fire modes to your “inventory”, which you can switch back and forth between at will rather than simply replacing your current weapon. Different weapons have different pros and cons: some cover a wider area but prevent you from attacking ground targets, for example, while others are weaker but fire more quickly. You do, however, lose all but your basic forward-firing “dual” shot and bi-directional “back” shot every time you lose a life. Which will be frequently, because Thunder Force II is hard.

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Alongside weapon powerups, you can also pick up shields, extra lives and “CRAWs”, floating pods which spin around your ship firing normal shots and blocking any bullets they come into contact with. There’s a wide variety of different powerups, and managing to hold on to them for more than about twenty seconds always feels like a significant achievement.

Thunder Force II may look quite dated even compared to its immediate successors — this was a launch title for the Genesis in America, remember, though the considerably more impressive Thunder Force III came out only a year later — but it’s still worth playing today simply to see a shoot ’em up that does something a bit different from the norm. The free-roaming top-down segments are something we don’t see a lot of in the genre these days — and we certainly pretty much never see them combined in a single game with side-scrolling stages.

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The game is certainly a stiff challenge — the seeming glee with which the game will bombard you with exciting power-ups right as you’re having to deal with an incoming hail of bullets is almost amusingly sadistic — but it’s a rewarding, enjoyable game. It’s a lot of fun, even from a modern perspective, and it’s the kind of game that will take a while to master rather than being something you can easily burn through in an afternoon.

Ah, the good old days, eh?


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