Saturday, November 07, 2009
Videogame Classics - Thunder Force III
October 28, 2004
Thunder Force 3
As soon as you plug in Thunder Force 3, you know you’re in for a crazy-fueled ride. That vibrant title screen pops up amid scorching rock chords, and that signature theme gets stuck forever in your head. There’s a certain confidence in many of the great videogames, a bold swagger that spills over from the artists and programmers and musicians onto the screen. We are witnessing one of the great game studios at the top of their game.
The side-scrolling shooter was already a well-worn genre by 1990, and goodness knows the Sega Genesis was getting pillared by them. For a time, it seemed as though everybody and his uncle had published a shooter. The inevitable result was that there was a crushing sameness to it all; we were all drowning in mediocrity. The list reads like a train wreck of forgettable titles: Air Diver, Arrow Flash, Bimini Run, Cross Fire, Curse, Heavy Unit, Insector X, Super Thunder Blade, Task Force Harrier, Whip Rush.
How could anyone even put out a competent shoot-em-up, much less a good one, when the store shelves were piling up with the likes of these? Even the better ones owed their very existence to classics like Gradius and R-Type. What the genre needed was some fresh blood.
That mantle fell to Technosoft. The studio had cut their teeth in Japan on the X68000, a popular home computer very similar to our Commodore Amiga. They brought an excellent shooter named Thunder Force 2 to America for the Genesis launch, and then followed up with the great Herzog Zwei. These people had imagination and zeal, and the necessary talent to pull it off. You can see that in Herzog, obviously, and TF2 had its moments as well, and you can see those qualities in almost every moment of TF3.
I’m trying to think of which scenes impressed me the most back in 1990, but it’s so tough to narrow everything down to a couple soundbites; there’s so much to enjoy, then and especially now. I think of the enormous animated bosses, like a giant fire-breathing lizard, a throbbing lobster, and various machines and spaceships. I remember creative enemies large and small, among these: a pack of killer sunflowers, insects carrying rockets, flocks of firebirds (the bird, not the car), a glass-shielded brain, an oversized golden crab, and gun-toting robots of all sizes.
Best of all, I remember the rolling flames from the lava planet. Alternately hypnotic and stunning, this was one of the greatest visual effects ever seen on the Genesis. This was also pretty much the first of its kind, setting the stage for al the crazy, inventive, and just tripped-out special effects that marked the 16-bit era. Those lava backgrounds are spectacular.
Thunder Force 3 takes the side-scrolling shooter and punches it up with speed and panache. What we see is a perfect example of brilliant game design. Most games of this type are content to merely offer target practice, with row after row of docile targets, marching in single-file lines with only minor variations. That can be passable, and maybe even fun in short bursts, but is it ever really good? What is the point, really? I think Technosoft was acutely aware of this, and structured their game appropriately.
Across the first five levels, with its thematic progression of forest, fire, water, earth, and ice worlds, we see a terrific variety of challenges and landscapes. Notice the rhythm of attacking enemies, large and small, navigating environmental hazards, quick speed bursts and momentary pauses. There’s more to do than simply shoot at everything. Your challenge lies in knowing when to shoot, and when to just get the hell out of the way. Sometimes, it’s all you can do, just to avoid a collapsing ceiling or rising lava flows.
I can’t tell you how much I love the variety. Each level carries its own unique style and rhythm, and often you will need to alter your strategies or rely on different weapons. It may be better to just dodge that hailstorm of rocks, or zoom past a row of missiles, let those bombs detonate; simply going in with guns blazing will get you killed.
TF3’s visual style set new standards in its day, with its vivid details and rich color tones, its tiny details and looming objects. Most everything that moves is animated, and it gives a real sense of immersion to the game, even if it’s something as minor as exhaust on a spaceship. The character designs are a unique mix of organic and machine, which thankfully avoids the H. R. Giger shtick that’s been played to death in countless other games.
And there’s the music, which is remembered in the same glossy-eyed way that moviegoers remember Lawrence of Arabia. Ah, the music! Thunder Force 3, that’s the one! Technosoft hit a high stride during the Genesis era, writing a perfect blend of rock and synth-pop, and this was their sharpest soundtrack of the bunch. Every song is loaded with hooks, hard beats, solid rhythms. Why the Genesis had a reputation for poor sound is a mystery I’ll probably never solve. The very idea is absurd.
Many consider Thunder Force 4 to be Technosoft's pinnacle of the series, and I’d be tempted to agree if that game’s first half wasn’t so inconsistent. TF3 burns on a solid high from start to finish, and that’s really the one we love the most. And, like good ‘ol Contra, the average person can actually finish the game in one stretch. The rest of us do have lives, ya know.