Genre: Shmup Developer: Technosoft Publisher: Sega Enterprises Players: 1 Released: 1992
Stateside, this was known as Lightening Force. Naturally you’d expect this to be the original Japanese title with some silly Engrish; however this time the tables were strangely turned. This was also a pretty illogical move by Sega of America since Thunder Force II and III were both released in the US. Simply keeping its original title would cut down on the confusion, and likely boost sales a bit due to name recognition. What in the world were they thinking?
Lightening Force is widely considered the best shooter on the Mega Drive/Genesis, and some even say it’s the best in shooter history. So, what is it that justifies these statements? Summed up, it’s fast-paced non-stop action, the tried-and-true Thunder Force gameplay, the gorgeous scenery & graphical effects, and amazing music which all contribute to a simply fantastic product which would make your jaw drop the first time you saw it in action.
Upon starting the actual game, we are presented with the option of choosing in which order we want to complete the stages. Of course, this only applies to the first 4 stages, as choosing the very final one first just wouldn’t work. It doesn’t matter much which ones you pick, as they barely differ in difficulty (Provided you know which enemies you are about to face and what kinds of strategies to employ). If you want to you can ignore this and simply press start, then the game will choose the recommended order for you. Let’s say we pick Strite, which is a common first choice.
We are immoderately thrown into the action. One cool thing you’ll notice is that the game actually lets you scroll up or down, which adds a sense of freedom not found in other shooters. Lightening Force starts with your 2 basic weapons: Twin Shot and Back Shot. Twin Shot is pretty self-explanitory, it fires 2 simultaneous streams forward. Back Shot fires 1 stream forward and 1 stream backwards. These are the weapons you’ll be using the most thanks to the fact that they can be upgraded to Blade and Rail Gun for added range and firepower. Power-ups are obtained from small carrier enemies which is a pretty standard shooter trait. The first two things you’ll get is CRAW and Blade. I don’t know what the hell CRAW means, but I know what it does at least. It’s 2 small helper ships circling around you which gives you 2 more cannons to fire from, and they can shield you from most enemy projectiles.
There are some additional power-ups you can get, such as Snake, Freeway and Hunter. Snake fires some kind of bomb upwards and downwards which can be ideal for taking out enemies you have a hard time reaching from these particular directions. Freeway fires batches of missiles in your preferred direction and Hunter is the essential homing weapon, I normally use this when I lack confidence in a boss fight and want to take it out from a safer position. Later in the game you will receive an upgrade which (Provided you have the CRAW) allows you to use a very wide and powerful charged beam. Thankfully, when your ship bites the dust you will only lose the weapon you were currently using, meaning you will not have to start over from scratch on your collection as opposed to other shooters. You’ll want to save some rare weapons like Hunter until you actually need them.
It is commonly said that Lightening Force is pretty tough, tougher than your average shooter. This is true in most cases, and the biggest factor is probably that it never lets up. There is barely a moment of respite, not even when you finish a stage! There’s almost no intermission to speak of- the music for the next stage immediately starts playing- and you are once again thrown back into the fray. Thankfully, there are plenty of 1ups to be found throughout the game, and you’re given a fair amount of continues, but if you don’t consider yourself the best pilot in the galaxy you might as well head to the options screen and make some changes.
In the options screen you have the essential difficulty settings where you can choose from Easy to Maniac (Yeouch!). All modes give you different endings, but that’s hardly the reason you’d play again after beating it. If easy’s not enough, you can also increase (Or decrease, if you’re a real maniac) your extra lives to a maximum of 4.
The final excellent achievement in Lightening Force is the music. Not only are we rewarded with trademark Japanese game melodies, but the sound quality itself is also fabulous. The sound impresses from both musical and technical standpoints. Anyone who claims the FM chip was sub-par needs to listen to what can be done when you actually put some effort into sound programming. Unlike your Tommy Tallarico-style heavily sample-based scores, this soundtrack is 100% synthesized. It doesn’t sound very “real” but that isn’t the point as all the instruments do exactly what they’re supposed to do. The power guitars are hard and in-your-face, the slap bass is deep and funky, the electric pianos are crisp, wide and airy, and the often-neglected PSG chip provides excellent backing melodies and chords. You can tell they really cared about the music, and when you beat the game you can go back to the options screen and find an additional batch of tunes in the sound test that were not found in-game!
The sound effects also do quite a good job, the deep-sounding synthesized explosions give you that appreciated sense of satisfaction after you finally take down that huge enemy. The only negative would be voice samples used when you pick up power-ups. Apparently their sound engine wouldn’t allow any FM sounds to be played during sample-playback. Not only that, but the voices themselves are of pretty low quality as it sounds so muffled you can barely make out what they are saying.
So, are there any negative points to the game, besides the voice samples? Well, as I said, it might be deemed a bit too tough for some, though I personally did not find this much of a problem thanks to the 1ups and different difficulty levels. The latter stages do feel a bit boring and unimaginative compared to the first ones, they’re pretty much your standard shooter fare. Some slowdown is also present during the more intense moments; however this can be relieving as it allows you to plan your movements better among the hundreds of projectiles.
These are but small nit-picks that bring Lightening Force down from absolute perfection, but overall it has all the traits needed for a timeless classic. Great gameplay, great graphics, and great sound. It’s Technosoft’s finest hour, and without question a must-have to your collection.
SCORE: 10 out of 10