Friday, August 7, 2009

Sticking It To The Orn Empire

Continuing my tour through my so called retro-games, we come to the Thunder Force series.

Y’know, as an aside, I don’t really use the term ‘retro’ very often. It’s become popular to describe playing video games for outdated systems, but to me the term always stood for something MODERN that ‘looks back’ to a previous time. Akin to ‘old-fashioned’. People use this phrase frequently for cars or clothes. In my own usage, I’d only apply it to a modern version that was recalling something older, like the latest iterations of Mustangs and Camaros looking like 60’s muscle cars. They would be retro. As in retro-styling. An actual ’68 Camaro would not be retro. That’s just old.

For this post, I’m talking about Technosoft’s Thunder Force series of video games, but the only one I’d actually call a retro-game myself, is the most recent one released in 2008, because it is a modern game with elements summoned up from an ancient play system... by video game standards. Sorry about the digression, but a small niggling point. My definition is not official according to Webster, it is just a personal quirk/policy.

Anyway, Thunder Force. There is already a good, detailed history on Hardcore Gaming 101 about this franchise, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of that work, and focus on my own feelings and experiences. Screen shots are cribbed from that site… as most of my game screens are, since they seem to have the color and clarity down pat. I really need to work out a system for screen grabs and gameplay videos for myself…

Thunder Force (no numeral in its name, though it is now called TF1): I, like most Thunder Force fans have almost no familiarity with this game. It was released on Japanese personal computers, various models, in the early 80’s. From what screenshots and shit appear on the web it appears to resemble a top-down shooter like Xevious only it scrolls in all directions as opposed to that game’s strictly vertical movement. I’m enough of an old school gamer to appreciate even the very early pre-NES days, and I enjoy seeing and playing the roots of long-running franchises or seminal games in the development of the genres we know and love. I think you’d HAVE to be to want to play this game. I don’t know how it plays, actually, but it looks quite bland, almost generic. It was probably hot crap in its day, but I don’t see any STG fan, who didn’t live in that era, actually getting much of a kick out of this. I’m still poking around trying to find videos of the thing in action. Whatever it’s shortcomings from a modern view, it was obviously popular enough to be the inaugural chapter in a much-beloved shooter saga.

Thunder Force II: My game was the Genesis/Mega Drive version. I got the console fairly early in its career on store shelves, and TFII was one of my first games. I was impressed. Never mind that the Genesis itself was such a step up from the NES, I was already fairly into STGs when I got the thing, and I really wanted something that played closer to (or just like) the arcades. TFII was not a literal arcade game, but with the bright colors, fast scrolling (without the blinky sprite flicker), loud sounds, and seriously kickass music, I thought it I’d reached a peak. After I’d played the game a dozen times (and toweled off myself and the controller half that often), some of the little quirks became apparent. The scrolling is eight-directional, but really fast and forced. So it was really easy to run into walls, bullets or enemies… and not so easy to dodge them. Argh--when you lose all your powerups every time you die, one of the things that made Gradius so difficult and is now a standard trope named for that very game. In its favor though, apart from all the superficial eye and ear candy previously mentioned, the game had a boatload of different weapon types that you choose for any given situation. If you died you DIDN’T have to go back to a previous checkpoint (like R-Type, Gradius, and many of the other early shooters). So while still challenging, it had a lot less feelings of futility. I never felt like I just couldn’t get past any hurdle, even if that occasionally meant sacrificing a ship. Playing TFII again recently, it is really hard at times, mostly owing to the forced scrolling in the overhead stages. Your ship scrolls so fast that when it comes to parts of the game where you have to shoot a path through a layer of rocks or lattice-work you have to shoot some, flip and go back a few inches, flip again, shoot some more, then repeat because your ship flies faster than your bullets can destroy the obstacles. In essence you have to use a two steps forward, one step back approach. And if you go back too far, the obstacles scroll off screen and reform! However, with that complaint out of the way, I can still see why this game rocked so hard for me. The music is still really good, and this is coming from an early game on a 16-bit console. The side scrolling stages are still pretty dynamic. In those, the enemies come from all directions, so you have the ability to change the direction of your firepower on the fly. The speed of the scrolling and the intricacy of your piloting skill changed frequently. The enemies were of all sizes, (and could show up any time) not just popcorn, midboss and boss. These may not seem particularly revelatory now, but back then it was pretty exciting. Thunder Force was dynamic in a way few shooters were. I can remember Life Force perhaps being the only earlier shooter that came off quite as dynamic as the sidescroll stages in Thunder Force. The game didn’t do anything totally new, but it did so much of it WELL. I even like the overhead stages actually, at odds with most reviews I’ve read for the game. The game has a fair number of aspects that would drop from the series, the overhead stages (a legacy from the original Thunder Force), being the most obvious. However much I liked the whole game, the side scrolling parts WERE the best part.

Thunder Force III: Again on the Genesis. Wow. If TFII was impressive, the next one blew me away. A total re-think by Technosoft, and an attempt to distill and refine the best parts of TFII. A more solid graphic style, even more dynamic stage design (and scrolling speed changes), and some really really memorable enemies. And the weapons man, the weapons. The new backwards shot upgrade ‘Lancer’ was cool enough, but when you first got two CLAWs (TF’s options) circling your ship and then picked up the ‘Sever’ weapon, you thought there just could not be a more bitchin’ weapon combo. And it worked just how it looked too, cutting through most enemies (even bosses) like butter. In fact, if you could play well enough to hang onto Sever, it kinda made the game too easy. But for sheer orgasmic blasting if you are going to fuck up the game balance do it in favor of overpowering the weapons instead of under powering ‘em, eh? I like the way Technosoft had their priorities straight! The music was so good, it set a new standard for all Genesis games that followed… a standard only a few other games (including a subsequent TF game) would ever match. Trying this one out again, I can absolutely see why it was, and still is, held in such high esteem. Probably the only weakness is that the scenery looks a bit too tiled. It is very well drawn, and the multiplane scrolling and special effects are great… but the textures repeat too much. This was probably a space saving method typical of a cartridge-based game, but later games, including Thunder Force IV would get around this, or at least disguise it better. The game really kicks ass though, and its easier difficulty (than other Genesis versions anyway) make it a great intro to the franchise. I’d probably recommend a newbie play this chapter before any of the others assuming they had a Genesis or Mega Drive. I know this must be a game many people want to come out on the Wii Virtual Console. This is probably the first STG for which I got the 1CC (one credit clear).

Thunder Force IV: Another one on the Genesis. A lot of fans would label this chapter the pinnacle of the series. It has all the advantages of Thunder Force III, the music, dynamic stages and enemies, killer weapons… and all its weaknesses expunged. The graphics look less tiled, and the difficulty has been pumped up mostly owing to dropping the Sever weapon. There is an uber-weapon in the game, but TFIV is the game that starts the Thunder Force tradition of giving your ship add-on hardware (little animated bolt-on ship parts!), and therefore amped up weapons, for the last levels of the game. You get the awesome Thunder Sword but you don’t get to just zip through the whole game with it. This game, a latecomer in the console’s life, was about as pumped up as a Genesis cart was going to get. It suffers from slowdown in a number of places as the console’s processing power gets overtaxed, but these moments are almost welcome relief. I can’t really count it against the game. In Thunder Force’s day (and earlier) there seemed to be two types of STG. Reflex-based (UN Squadron) and memory-based (R-type). Some games had both, but Thunder Force is the first series I played where it was a pretty dead even combination of both. Some parts you will twitch-play, dodging the bullets and getting through on piloting skill. Other parts you have to learn the safe spot on the screen. No amount of dodging ability will win you through. Thunder Force IV seems to have this combination refined perfectly and is really, really fun. It didn’t knock me over upon my first booting it because I’d kind have already been conditioned in my expectations by TFIII.

Thunder Force V: I had this for the Saturn. When I first turned this on, I thought ‘man, Thunder Force has gotten fugly!’. With this episode TF went from sprites to polygons, and the transition was NOT pretty. The popcorn enemies were dully colored, drably designed, and generally uninspiring. This was not so much true of the mid-boss and boss characters, which actually were pretty cool and memorable. And the backgrounds are okay, too, though really inconsistent in style. Some of the stages look ‘realistic’, some look too ‘rendered’ and some look like they came out of the previous episode. It’s like most the effort went into the bosses, and what was left mostly went to the backgrounds with a tiny bit left over for the fodder enemies. However the stage designs manage to be just as dynamic as the previous entries. There’s all the diving underwater, soaring above the clouds, and showdowns in space—complete with hardware docking. The Saturn version doesn’t have any real slowdown either, so safe spots and memorization become more critical than ever. As I got used to the weird graphics, the gameplay won me over. Like TFIII this chapter is more about kicking ass than about a really serious challenge. You get a new game-breakingly powerful weapon with the Free Range… and you get to use it for the whole game. But it IS hella-fun anyway. The new CD-based music sets the soundtrack bar even higher. It is in the running (to me) for best video game soundtrack ever. I’ve probably logged more hours on this episode than any of the others, partially because the Saturn was a primary video game system for me for so long. It is also very easy to get into and just have a good time. The game is a bit on the short side, and the Free Range makes it lack challenge, but maybe that was the appeal… a game with all the intensity and pacing of the best shooters, but one you didn’t have to punish yourself with all the practice and concentration needed to see most shooters through to the end. Running through this again recently, I had to choke down the graphics at first (again), but the old reflex memory left from so many hours on this, after a few nights I almost got a 1-ALL (1 ship ALL stages cleared). I lost my only ship to the last form of the last boss! This is also the only TF game where the last boss is on a timer. If you take to long to defeat him he flies away and you get the crap ending. THAT might actually be the most difficult part of the game. Cakewalk to get to the last boss, but you are going to have to work to beat him in time.

Thunder Force VI: For the Playstation 2. This game has gotten a bad rap and it doesn’t deserve it. After Technosoft slipped quietly off the radar, years went by and rumors flew about the possibility (or lack thereof) of a new Thunder Force game. To keep the story simple, a real fan at one of Sega’s development arms pursued the rights to make a new game and eventually released it in October of last year. He is hoping it will help usher in a new time of visibility and viability for STGs. I think all the whining comes from all the waiting players have done causing each individual to build up a fantasy about what the game would/should be like… with these fantasies assuming almost mythic proportions given all the false leads, rumors, and fan material about this on the ‘net. The actual new TF game is basically one guy’s idea of what it should’ve been like, a guy with Sega backing him, but not unlimited time and resources. So his vision cannot be everyone’s vision. And anyone’s vision about some TF to end all TFs was just not realistic or practical. At heart, it is what it is, a Thunder Force game. It plays recognizably. And if it has any real faults they owe more to the game trying to be all things to all people than its restrictions on budget, talent, or time. I myself am willing to overlook this in large part because the guy (and his team) obviously loved the old games. He put in a lot of reminiscent stuff updated on a PS2. It also appears he figured this would be a lot of younger players first exposure to the franchise, so he probably felt a ‘greatest hits’ approach would be best. So the plot/storyline (which I haven’t really mentioned in this post but is quite cool and involved for an STG) was steered to allow, inclusion of both the modern speed and gameplay of TFV with many of the enemies and weapons from all the previous TF entries. This approach makes sense, and is in fact what Technosoft might have done if they’d released TFVI themselves so long after the last chapter.

***Brief Plot Interlude***
I’m going to insert some story basics about Thunder Force because it helps justify my apologetics for TFVI. The first four chapters are all about the ongoing struggle between the Galaxy Federation (the good guys—you) and Orn Empire. With the remnant seemingly defeated or suppressed in TFIV, the action moves light years away to Earth for chapter five. We discover a mechanism of superior technology floating on the rim of our solar system, the wreckage of a Rynex ship from the previous TF game. Not knowing anything about the Galaxy Federation and their war, Earth scientists call the unknown creators Vastians and their craft/technology ‘Vasteel’ (Vastian Steel). Using this technology and additional insights gained from it, the Earth governments build a super-computer named The Guardian to help usher in a utopian age, but in true dystopian science fiction tradition, the machine declares war on the human race. Fighting computer-led forces with superior Vastian technology proves impossible, so a small fleet is built by the resistance using what Vastian-tech they still have access to. Finishing TFV, and destroying all Vastian-tech enemies you find that The Guardian’s war was actually its attempt to force the blinkered earthlings to destroy what they’d discovered and propagated without thinking through the consequences or earning the right to the power. The computer was charged with safeguarding the human race, but deduced the human race could not be safe or trusted with any of the Vastian tech. At the end of TFV (if you get the good ending) the human pilot is encouraged in a last message from The Guardian to destroy her own ship and therefore eliminate the last piece of alien technology. Thunder Force VI opens with a chilling event: our messing with the Galaxy Federation’s technology has been noticed, the Orn Empire has arrived in our solar system. The Earth has no military force capable of withstanding the invaders, so they must turn once again to the power of the Galaxy Federation’s (Vastian) science. ***End plot interlude***

If you played TFV, then this new chapter is very similar to it. The polygonal graphics in both versions allow similar camera work, though the PS2 graphics are much more refined. It has more fast-scrolling sections, so even if the levels are technically the same length ‘geographically’ they sure go by faster. There are also overpowered weapons, always a TF tradition, but they operate similarly to the TFV version. Now you collect ‘energy’ from slain enemies and this energy can be used to force any weapon you have into a supercharged state (for a limited time). The game is so generous with this energy that you will pretty much have the ability to crush right through difficult enemies in no time. The challenge in this game leans more towards skill in piloting through fast or tight sections or bullet patterns. There’s been some internet-hating for the simplicity of the graphics and some slowdown. The graphics are very bright and designed well. The enemies are not bland like TFV’s, maybe owing to them being updates and reimaginings of the Orn forces from the earlier games. I thought it was pretty cool to see updated versions of enemies and bosses from the earlier games. It didn’t feel like a re-tread, especially given that the old guys were sprites and the new versions are polygons, and had some new weaponry… kinda like the Orn Empire had upgraded in the intervening time. You yourself even get a selection of ships so you can sort of see what it would be like to play the pace of TFV with the weapons of earlier games. I even spotted one of the weapons from the overhead sections of TFII! Also, in its favor, TFVI has an absolutely creepy final boss. A lot of people didn’t like it because they thought it was a design uncharacteristic of the series. Bollocks. I loved it, especially since my kids said, ‘that thing is really disturbing, Dad’. And if the game is too easy, just up the difficulty level and/or play with the Rynex ship.

Thunder Force has always occupied a special place in my video game nerd’s heart. It’s a great shooter series with (old) arcade-style gameplay, yet never was not an actual arcade franchise (apart from a variant on TFIII—very brief-lived). It was not the first STG I ever played, but it certainly cemented it as one of my favorite and probably most-often-played genre. It really set a standard for what a lot of players hope for in shooting games. Again, no single part of it is innovative or unique to the series, but it just puts everything together in a really cool package. Its almost like the ‘coolness’ is the most important part of these games, and everything else just works to support that.

A lot of games (maybe ALL games) try to do that… but Thunder Force is one of the few that actually succeeds… and it does it across all five volumes that I’ve played.
(images from HG101)

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